Building a Better Stretch Program

If you’ve tried stretching every which way, but you’re still tight as a drum, you’re not alone. 
Increased flexibility afforded by a good stretch program is a primary component of fitness, along with strength and aerobic capacity.
We all know the basic benefits of stretching:

- Increased Range of Motion and Flexibility

- Better Posture

- Decreased Stress Levels

- Enhanced Coordination

- Greater Overall Performance (at work and play)


And a few lesser known benefits:

- Improved Organ  and Glandular Function (particularly Thyroid)

- Better Circulation

- Lower Toxicity Levels

- Improved Musculoskeletal Alignment

- Increased Lubrication of Your Joints

- Reduced Pain Levels

Yet with all its benefits, even the fittest among us put off stretching, opting instead to play an extra game, burn some extra calories on the treadmill or lift a few extra weights. Why is that?
If stretching hurts your self-esteem or your body in any way, you need to overhaul your program. The bottom line is this. Your stretch program must be:

- Safe

- Highly effective (if you don’t see results, you won’t do it)

- Easy to integrate into your routine

- Feel great (so you’ll want to do it at least three times a week.) 

This all sounds simple enough, but with multiple stretch styles, techniques, conflicting research and dueling fitness professionals, how do you design the program that suits all your needs? 

A Menu of Stretch Styles and Techniques

Thousands of books, articles and studies in recent years have focused on a variety of stretching techniques. Each style has its avid proponents and  critics.  Experts don’t even agree entirely on the names definitions of various styles.
One thing is certain, whether you’re looking to optimize your athletic performance, reduce pain or enhance your fitness level, you should have a basic understanding of these general styles so you can decide which type is most appropriate for your goals.

Stretching styles are either:

Assisted or Unassisted.

Assisted– (also called Passive Stretching)  You get into a position, then use assistance to help you stretch.  The assistance could come from any device, your body weight, a stair, a stretch strap, rope, or gravity – even the floor.

Example: Standing on a stair with your heel dropped down.  The stair is the outside force assisting your stretch.

Unassisted– (also called Active Stretching)  You stretch one muscle by contracting another.  This is usually the muscle that works in opposition.

Example: While sitting on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, then contract your muscles (without assistance of any kind) to point your toes to the ceiling, thereby stretching muscles in your calf.

Whether you choose Assisted (passive) vs. Unassisted (active) now you decide if the stretch is Static or Dynamic.

Static- You ease into a stretch position and hold it (typically for 30 to 60 seconds). There is no bouncing or rapid movement. You should feel a mild pulling sensation, but no pain in the belly of the muscle, not in the joints.

Example: Standing with your heel off a stair (assisted), then holding the position to stretch your calf and Achilles.
Dynamic– You keep the stretch in motion, moving your heel up and down, for example.  This should not be confused with ballistic stretching – or hard bouncing.
Example: Standing with your heel off a stair (assisted), then repeatedly moving your heel up and down in a slow, controlled manner.
Hence, you can have:
Assisted/Static or Assisted/Dynamic
Unassisted/Static or Unassisted/Dynamic


Ballistic– You force part of your body beyond its normal range of motion by bouncing into a stretched position. Most experts agree that ballistic stretching can lead to injury and should only be used.

Example: Bouncing toward the floor repeatedly to touch your toes.

Isometric- You ease a muscle into position, then resist the stretch isometrically. (The muscle doesn’t lengthen or shorten appreciably.)

Example: A partner holds your leg up while you press against the resistance, trying to force your leg back down.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)– Combines passive stretching and isometric stretching to achieve maximum improvements in flexibility.  You typically have a partner for PNF, although it can be done alone. 

In PNF, a muscle is passively stretched then contracted isometrically against resistance while in the stretched position.  You and your partner then passively stretch again at the new position resulting from the increased range of motion. PNF was originally developed by physical therapists for rehabilitation purposes.

Example: You lie on the floor, one knee bent, one leg straight and held up by a partner.  You press against your partner’s resistance, then relax.  You should have a slightly improved ROM.  You repeat from this new position of increased ROM.

Variations of this technique include Contract-Relax Stretching and Post Isometric Relaxation (PIR).

Active Isolated Stretching (AIS – or the Mattes Method)–  Developed over several decades by Aaron Mattes, MS, RKT, LMT. 

AIS follows a simple, but profoundly effective physiological protocol in which you:

a)       identify the muscle to be stretched,

b)       isolate it to its most relaxed state,

c)        contract the antagonist (opposing muscle – as in hamstrings/quadriceps) to force the stretched muscle group to relax,

d)       bring the stretch to the end point of range of motion (using a strap or partner),

e)       hold for approximately two seconds (to avoid the myotatic reflex which is the muscle’s protection mechanism)

f)           inhale back to the starting position,

g)       and repeat up to ten times.

The Mattes Method is a highly effective treatment for increasing general flexibility and Range of Motion as well as treating deep and superficial fascial release to restore proper function throughout the body.  It has been used by professional athletes and weekend warriors alike to achieve optimal performance and has proven highly effective in the treatment of countless chronic health conditions.

One type of stretching might not meet all of your needs, so you should consider using multiple stretching techniques.

The Great Debate of Stretching: When and How

The science of stretching has been the subject of heavy debate among fitness professionals for decades. Not surprisingly, stretching has also been a hot topic among athletes, with much of the controversy swirling around whether or not to stretch prior to an event. 

Although stretching before a workout to prevent injury has long been the gold standard, there has been a great deal of inquiry surrounding this subject in recent years, particularly among runners. (Runners World, Nov. 2005)

Current research suggests that fit people who stretch before they work out might have a higher rate of injury than those who don’t. This is because stretching can stress your muscles and joints, causing microscopic damage to soft tissue.

While that damage ultimately repairs itself with increased mobility, the soft tissue immediately after stretching is under stress.  This stress, combined with the additional demands of a heavy workout or game, can theoretically make you more vulnerable to injury.

The second topic of heated debate focuses on what type of stretching athletes should do prior to an event.  Many experts now believe that static stretching (easing into a position and holding it for ten seconds or more) shouldn’t be done before a heavy workout or competition because it can decrease your speed, strength and overall performance.

It is known from Doppler Tests that blood flow becomes restricted when passing through tight and restricted tissues.  Some experts believe that by as few as five seconds of holding a stretch, the flow of blood and oxygen to the muscle you are targeting slows down, resulting in lactic acid build up that can lead to muscle fatigue on the sport field, hence slowing down the athletes.

While this news might be more important for competitive athletes than for weekend warriors and the rest of us, it seems that a healthy rule is to utilize dynamic stretches (actively engaging muscles while increasing Range of Motion – not to be confused with Ballistic) as part of your warm-up. 
Once your game or workout is over and your soft tissues are warmer and more pliable, you can engage more demanding static or partner stretches.  Possibly better yet, save your full stretch routine as a stand-alone workout.

Guidelines to Stretch By

The good news is that most fitness experts agree on some basic principals of stretching.  They say we should:

Warm up before you stretch and after major activity.  Most experts now agree that a dynamic stretch is best prior to your activity (particularly using moves that mimic those you’re about to do) and a full stretch is best done after major activity is over – or as a standalone workout.

Never bounce.Hard bouncing creates micro-tears in your muscles that leave scar tissue which leaves you even tighter.  Using momentum of your body to achieve greater range is a cheat that can injure you.

Relax and breathe.  If you’re stressed and holding your breath, you won’t achieve increased flexibility because oxygen isn’t flowing properly to your tissues.

Stretch both sides.  Admittedly, one side is often tighter than the other and might require a little more work, but both sides should be stretched.  And that means right to left as well as front to back, since muscles work in pairs.

Be aware of muscle imbalances and/or pain.  While most of us are not equally flexible from one side to the other, severe differences – or extreme issues with normal Range of Motion -- might indicate a skeletal misalignment or other issues.  

Take the simple toe touch, for example.  For some of us, it’s not so simple, while others of us can flat palm the floor with no trouble.  This might be a function of pure genetics, but if a tug or pain is felt in the low back or anywhere else, it could also be a function of a misaligned pelvis, tight adductors, calves, even the soles of the feet could be tight.  So most of all…

Strive for gains without pain.  That means you should push only to the point of tightness.  You must apply yourself to improve flexibility, but pain is not part of the equation.

Above all, stretching should feel good – not like a Medieval Torture.

NOTE:  Consult your health professional, coach, personal trainer or strength conditioning specialist before you take on a new fitness regimen.  This is particularly true if you have chronic pain, muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, or balance issues.
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