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Stretching the Truth: Part II

Thomas L Teter Jr, DC
In part one of the series, we discussed the primary reasons why people suggest that they stretch. In part two, we will be discussing the different types of stretching that are most commonly performed as part of a fitness program. The most common types of stretching fitness enthusiasts use as part of their program include:
- Static Stretching
- Contract / Relax
- Active Stretching
- Dynamic Stretching
Static stretching is the most common method people use to attempt to increase the length of their muscle, and decrease muscle tension. Static stretching is the process of taking a muscle into its most lengthened position, and then holding it for an extended period of time. The time factor for static stretching is usually suggested to be anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. As previously discussed in part one of this series, the main issue with static stretching is that it is physiologically impossible to actually lengthen a muscle without a surgical intervention. When people stretch, they are basically taking their muscle’s sarcomeres (which are the structural components of the muscle that cause contraction) to lengthen. When the muscle is lengthened to its end range, the body has a choice, to continue lengthening the tissue which could cause structural damage to the muscle and/or tearing of the muscle fibers, or to neurologically down regulate tension to the muscle to allow the muscle to passively continue through its range of motion. This is why you can move further into the range of motion after you stretch. But beware, this is a short lived phenomenon, unless it is done chronically for long and extended periods of time. But with the use of chronic stretching comes the increased risk for injury due to increased ligamentous laxity and decreased joint stability.
Another popular method of stretching is the contract / relax method. This method is where the person takes the muscle to its end range of motion, and adds a contraction in the same direction as the stretch for about 5 to 10 seconds, and then continues going further into the aforementioned range of motion. This type of stretching is another neurological mechanism for increasing range of motion. By contracting the agonist muscle group, you are creating a phenomenon called post isometric relaxation. This agonist muscle contraction, causes temporary relaxation of the muscle that are opposing the stretch. This allows one to take the tissue further into the stretched range of motion. But again, this is a temporary phenomenon, and research has shown that is does not increase flexibility any more than static stretching. Several studies have shown that both static stretching and the contract / relax method both show a moderate increase in range of motion. In other words, it did not matter if the muscle was contracted or not, the end result was the same.

The next most common and the most effective form of stretching is active joint range of motion. This method should be utilized before any form of physical activity. Active joint range of motion, is the process of taking the target joint, actively through a specific range of motion, in a stationary body position, with slow muscle contraction. It is not designed to lengthen a muscle, but rather move the specific joint through its normal ranges of motion. As an example, one might perform 10 to 15 repetitions of active straight leg raise, before preparing for any motion that performs hip flexion. The process is basically preparing the muscles to move the joints before embarking on more forceful contractions with exercise. The goal with active range of motion is not to increase range of motion, but rather to prime the joints for the range of motion it already has. This form of stretching has shown to be the most effective in preventing injuries related with training, and should be included as part of an overall program. The final most common form a stretching is dynamic range of motion. Dynamic range of motion is where you take the joints and tissues through their active range of motion, and add increased challenge by adding changes in body position, and utilizing more forceful contractions with increased speed of muscle contraction. If active range of motion is similar to walking, dynamic range of motion would be closer to a run. Prior to exercise, you need to prime the range of motion that you have, then create more forceful contractions closer to the speed that you will be doing with your training. Dynamic range of motion is usually performed for multiple contractions over distance. A good example would be doing high knees forcefully down the length of the turf in the gym. There is minimal inherent risk with dynamic range of motion, however it is best to perform the more forceful contractions after you have primed the joints for activity with active ranges of motion with slower and more deliberate movements.

As you can see there are many forms of stretching that are used in fitness. I chose the most 4 most common, but there are many more that are commonly utilized that I did not mention. Having an understanding of the most common methods used in stretching will help you to determine if it is appropriate for use as part of your fitness program. In part three of this series, we will discuss the scientific rationale for what if anything stretching may be good for.