Whether you want to do the gymnastic splits with ease or simply want to loosen up after a long day sitting at your computer, stretching is a must. There is, however, more than one way to stretch your muscles. The method that is right for you depends on numerous factors including the time you have available and whether you're are warming up or cooling down. Stretching makes your muscles feel good and function better, and may even decrease your risk of injury, so make time to use one of these stretching methods to keep your muscles in tip-top shape.
Dynamic stretches involve smooth, rhythmical movements and are ideally suited to warming up before exercise. Good examples of dynamic stretches include leg swings, shallow progression to deeper lunges and squats, waist twists and side bends. The yoga Sun Salutation sequence can also be considered dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretches gently take your muscles to full extension and also stretch multiple muscles at the same time. Working groups of muscles simultaneously keeps your heart rate up and ensures you don't cool off -- not something you want happening in your warm-up.
Where dynamic stretches involve movement, static stretches, as the name suggests, do not. Static stretches normally form part of a cool-down. Held for 10 seconds or so, static stretching will maintain your current level of flexibility, whereas holding stretches for 30 seconds or longer will increase it. To statically stretch a muscle, extend your joint until you feel the muscle reaching the end of it's comfortable range of movement -- called the point of bind. Hold this position until you feel the muscle relax slightly and then stretch a little deeper. Adjust the duration of your stretch according to your flexibility goal.
Assisted stretches are common in physical therapy and involve using an external force to take your muscles into a stretched position. External forces include a therapist, training partner or simply a loop of rope. Assisted stretches are especially useful if you want to improve your flexibility by holding a stretch for an extended period of time. If you use a partner to help you stretch, make sure you tell her exactly how your muscles are feeling and don't allow her to force you to stretch further than is comfortable. Overstretching may lead to injury.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF for short, combines muscle contractions with stretching to increase your flexibility quickly and often dramatically. In a stretched position, you contract your muscles isometrically -- your limb does not move -- and then you relax into a deeper stretch. Two to four cycles of contractions and stretches can result in a noticeable, if short-lived, increase in flexibility. Some PNF stretches can be performed alone but for best results, use a training partner.
Patrick Dale is an experienced writer who has written for a plethora of international publications. A lecturer and trainer of trainers, he is a contributor to "Ultra-FIT" magazine and has been involved in fitness for more than 22 years. He authored the books "Military Fitness", "Live Long, Live Strong" and "No Gym? No Problem!" and served in the Royal Marines for five years.