43 Improving Flexibility

Dawn Markell and Diane Peterson

Research has identified multiple stretching techniques that aid in improving ROM. Regardless of the specific technique or specific mode used, each technique can be performed using either active or passive mode. Active stretching, also called unassisted stretching, is done individually without an external stimulus. Passive stretching, or assisted stretching, is when a partner or trainer is used as the stimulus in the stretching exercise. Both modes are effective and can be applied to each of the techniques described below.

Static Stretching

The technique most commonly prescribed and used to improve flexibility is the static stretch. A static stretch involves slow, gradual, and controlled movements. The muscle group is stretched toward the end of the joint’s ROM until the point of mild discomfort is reached. Once that point is reached, the stretch is held in a “static” position for 30 to 90 seconds. After the prescribed time, the stretch can be repeated. Common ways in which static stretching is applied would be performing Yoga routines or stretching after a workout or an athletic event. Some of the major advantages of static stretching are as follows:

  1. It is generally considered safe (see “Stretches to Avoid” on the next page).
  2. It is simple to perform.
  3. It is effective at increasing ROM.

The only major disadvantage comes from doing it too much, which can reduce strength and may make joints unstable. Of course, this potential risk applies to all of the techniques.

Ballistic Stretching

Ballistic stretching involves forceful bouncing or ball-like movements that quickly exaggerate the joint’s ROM without holding the position for any particular duration. This type of stretching involves dynamic movements like those done by athletes during sports events. In that regard, ballistic stretching is seen as being very specific to and beneficial for athletes. However, one criticism of ballistic stretching is that because of the short duration of the stretch and the forceful nature of ballistic movements, the muscular contraction from the stretch reflex may cause muscle soreness or even injury. For that reason, many coaches regard ballistic stretching as unsafe. Also, many researchers contend that it is less effective at improving ROM. Nonetheless, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) still recommends ballistic stretching as one method to effectively increase flexibility.

Dynamic Stretching

Ballistic stretching is a form of dynamic stretching. However, when referring to dynamic stretching routines, most fitness professionals are referring to dynamic movements that do not involve forceful bouncing motions. Instead, dynamic stretching, in this context, suggests performing exaggerated sports movements in a slower, more controlled manner. For example, a sprinter may use several exaggerated stride lengths before a race to improve hip ROM.

An advantage of dynamic stretching is its ability to target and improve dynamic flexibility, which in turn may improve performance. A disadvantage comes from the movements involved, which often require good balance and coordination. Since mastering the correct form requires time and a certain level of athleticism, dynamic stretching may not be suitable for certain populations.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching

This type of exercise usually involves a partner. The partner will passively stretch the person’s muscle. This movement is immediately followed by an isometric muscle contraction against resistance. This contraction is then followed by another passive stretch. This type of stretch is also named contract-relax stretch because of the sequence of movements involved. Other types of PNF stretching involve contract-relax-antagonist contraction, also describing the sequence of movements involved but adding an additional step.

As the name of the technique implies, PNF stretching emphasizes the natural interaction of the proprioceptors with the muscles to increase the ROM during the stretch. Remember that during the stretch, the muscle spindles cause two responses: the stretch reflex and the reciprocal inhibition (the relaxing of the antagonist muscle). After 5 seconds, the GTOs then override the muscle spindle’s signals causing autogenic inhibition. Because the muscle is relaxed, it can be stretched more easily. To reiterate, the stretch either uses the activity of the antagonist muscle to get the target muscle to relax or the target muscle itself relaxes as a result of the contraction of the antagonist muscle.

While many experts assert that PNF stretching is the most effective technique, studies that compare static and PNF stretching are inconclusive. Regardless, it does appear to be very effective at increasing static flexibility. Some disadvantages to PNF are that it generally requires a knowledgeable partner, it is somewhat complicated, and it can cause soreness as a result of the contractions.

Dawn Markell & Diane Peterson, Health and Fitness for Life. MHCC Library Press. Sept 4, 2019. https://mhcc.pressbooks.pub/hpe295


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Introduction to Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals Copyright © 2021 by Dawn Markell and Diane Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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