How to stretch to improve mobility? Science explained.
Hello! How are you today? Hope you are having a good day. If you are here you are probably interested in stretching and want to improve your mobility. It's important right? I know that. As a personal trainer I put a strong emphasis on mobility as it is amongst other things very important for correct exercise technique. And that is very important for making progress and achieving a goal. So it's all connected. Today I want to share with you in a simple way what the science currently says regarding stretching. How to do it properly, when to do it and how often.
First, why do we need to stretch? Why is it good for our bodies? Well, there are many benefits to stretching. The most well-known are: improving range of motion (flexibility), relieving muscle pain, decreasing the risk of injury, improving blood flow through the muscles. Speaking of relieving muscle pain, one clinical trial included 122 female students with dysmenorrhea (painful periods). They were split in two groups. One group was assigned an anti-inflammatory drug (mefenamic acid) and the other - a 15 minute stretch routine for abdomen and pelvic floor. They were followed for two months and asked to assess the pain. Interestingly, the first month the pain was higher in the stretching group but the second month is was the other way around suggesting that stretching does have an anti-pain effect and apparently it increases over time. Here we go girls, let's get ready to stretch.
Types of stretching At different places I see a different number of types of stretching there are so here we'll just focus on the most common and the ones I think it's good to know. Passive
Passive stretching is where you position yourself in a certain way and allow an external force to push you deeper into the stretch. It could be a partner or a coach or something else but the main idea here is that it is not you who are pushing yourself into the stretch but an external force. Active
Active stretching is the exact opposite of passive stretching. It is where you do the stretch contracting the opposite muscles. Static
Static stretching is the type of stretching you see most commonly people do in the gym. You position yourself in the stretch and you just stay there for usually about 20 - 30 seconds.
Dynamic stretching is where you perform a controlled movement through your currently available range of motion.
Ballistic stretching involves explosive movements strongly pushing against your current range of motion. Basically you create a momentum and you use it to push your body out of its range of motion. As it is more explosive and often less controlled it is considered more dangerous and less recommended. Static stretching, strength and power Studies show that static stretching performed right before a strength or power event has an acute decreasing effect on performance. Meaning, if you do a short (<1 min per muscle group) static stretching session right before your 5 rep deadlifts or sprints you will perform worse. But on the other side your range of motion would be better and you will be less likely to sustain an injury since stretching improves blood flow to the muscles. This effect of decreasing strength and power right after static stretching is temporary. So don't fear it and don't skip your stretches at the end of a workout. With dynamic stretching which is stretching that involves movement things are different. When it's done right before training, muscle performance in force, power, sprint and jump improves potentially because of increased temperature and reduced stiffness due to the movements involved in dynamic stretching. This is why when I train with clients I make sure that we do dynamic stretches in the beginning of a workout and static stretches at the end.
When and How to stretch? Stretching before workout Like I said earlier I recommend dynamic stretching before a workout to help you warm up the joints, get the blood moving through the muscles and improve the range of motion. Static stretching before workout will improve range of motion and improve blood flow but as you already know it is linked to reduced strength and power output. Stretching after workout Here I recommend static stretching. Current evidence suggests that 15 - 30 seconds of static stretching per muscle group held for 2 - 4 sets at a time is sufficient for improving range of motion. Also, there is a plateau beyond that, meaning you won't see progressive improvements in your range of motion if you stretch for longer period of time. Which is good! No need to spend a lot of time on stretching! What to remember? For improving flexibility the American College of Sports Medicine recommends exactly that - 15 to 30 seconds of static stretches, performed for 2 to 4 sets, 2-3 times per week. The thing is, if you want to improve your flexibility, you have to be very patient and consistent. When I wanted to improve mobility I was stretching 5 times per week and was holding each stretch for two sets of 30 seconds. It worked for me and I saw a difference but it took time. Every person is different and please take this information just as information. Consult your physician before beginning any type of stretching routine. If you regularly do the needed stretches you will definitely see results but it will take time. Weeks and probably months. Also remember that stretching should not be painful. Only slightly uncomfortable. And you have to be dedicated. If you see a video or an advertisement which promises you that you can do the split in 1 week, know that this is highly unlikely. Good things take time. Thanks for reading! References: Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance: An Analysis of the Current Literature - PubMed (nih.gov) Frontiers | Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats (frontiersin.org) Comparison of the Effect of Stretching Exercises and Mefenamic Acid on the Reduction of Pain and Menstruation Characteristics in Primary Dysmenorrhea: A Randomized Clinical Trial - PMC (nih.gov) CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION - PMC (nih.gov)