You Should Be Stretching: Why, How, and When to Do It Right
Stretching. A topic we have all heard varying advice on. There is so much information out there, it can be overwhelming and unclear. One cause of the ambiguity is the necessity of an individualized approach. We are going to look at some proven strategies to accomplish your specific goal within your stretching routine.
First off, why should I stretch? Some deliberate and focal stretching will help maintain (or increase) flexibility of a muscle. Your muscles will respond to whatever you do to them. If you stretch them, over time they will lengthen. Conversely, If you don't stretch them, over time they will shorten. This shortened state of our muscles results in decreased range of motion, poor power output, and predisposition to injury. Stretching and a well-rounded strength-training program is the one-two punch most athletes require to maintain their desired level of play.
The two main stretching approaches we will be analyzing will be static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching consists of holding a single position at the end range of the targeted muscle for a specific length of time. Dynamic stretching consists of controlled motion through a particular range, often mimicking sport-specific movements. Dynamic stretching may also include holding the muscle at end range for a brief period but is typically described as “in and out” of the full range of motion.
Secondly, HOW should I stretch? Static? Dynamic? Do I hold it for 30 seconds? Should I stretch before or after a workout? These are all questions we will be addressing. The short answer, it depends!
Stretching should be an individualized program. A soccer player will have different flexibility requirements than a gymnast and therefore should have a different stretching routine. Analyze your sport or daily activities to see what they require in terms of flexibility to help decide where to focus your stretching routine.
So, how should you stretch? If the goal is to optimize muscle function within a wide range, dynamic stretching will be the best option. In sports that include jumping, cutting, and hopping, dynamic stretching provides the best performance in regards to power and high-speed activities throughout the full range of motion. So prior to competition or activity, most of your stretching should be dynamic. Our muscles are meant to work within their full range of motion. Introducing your muscles to the entire range in a more controlled environment, with your dynamic stretching routine, will prepare them for any movement you may encounter during the upcoming event.
Does your sport require extreme ranges of motion like a gymnast holding the splits, a hockey goalie making a save in the butterfly position, or a wrestler eluding a pin? If the goal is increasing the overall flexibility of a muscle, static stretching has proven to be more effective than dynamic stretching. It should be noted that dynamic stretching is still effective at increasing muscle flexibility. However, if you are focused on increasing or maintaining end ranges of muscle flexibility, static stretching is your best option. While experts do not agree on a standard time, 3-4 sets of between 15-30 seconds of static stretching have demonstrated improvements in flexibility. 
With these goals in mind, now the question: WHEN should I stretch? Many of us grew up holding a hamstring stretch for 30 seconds before our soccer game. Unfortunately, this may not be the best approach prior to competition. While the muscle will respond to prolonged stretching over time, studies have shown static stretching prior to physical activity may actually impair performance. The best advice for stretching prior to agility competition would be comprised of a general warm-up (bike, jog), stretching to increase joint range of motion (dynamic stretching), as well as sport-specific activity. In short, your stretching and warm-up prior to competition should look similar to your sport!
So what about the timing of stretching with athletes prioritizing flexibility, like our gymnast and hockey goalie? While these athletes undoubtedly still need to maintain flexibility, it is better to do this during a separate training session or at the end of the workout so performance is unaffected.
While these tips are a starting point, a licensed PT at Rehab United will be able to assist in creating a specific program to balance your strength and flexibility needs. Schedule an appointment today to continue working towards your goals!
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Alex Harrington PT, DPT, CSCS is a physical therapist at Rehab United Kearny Mesa specializing in orthopedic injuries. He received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from San Diego State University in 2019. Alex is focused on helping patients reach their goals through an individualized and functional approach to rehab. He enjoys working with a wide spectrum of athletes and patients, supporting them to reach their full potential. Alex’s treatment philosophy emphasizes the mind-body connection and the role the mental state plays on physical recovery.