The Home Stretch

Stretching improves flexibility, a key element of fitness; it can enhance physical performance and relieve muscle tension and stiffness.

Stretching, one of the simplest fitness activities, is controversial. Will it prevent injuries? Some say yes, some say no. Is there a right and wrong way to do it? Different methods have their advocates. Here's a Q & A session about a type of exercise that has undeniable benefits--whichever side you take in the controversy--and also feels good.

Why Should You Stretch? When Should You Do It?

Stretching improves flexibility, which allows you to move your joints through their full range of motion. Flexibility is a key element of fitness; it can enhance physical performance and relieve muscle tension and stiffness. You should stretch after a warm-up and/or when cooling down after a workout, since it is easier and safer to stretch a warm muscle than a cold one. Warm-ups bring blood to the muscles and make injuries from stretching less likely.

What is Ballistic Stretching, and Is It Advisable?

Ballistic stretching means doing bouncing, repetitive movements while stretching. For example, bending forcefully to touch your toes with your knees straight and bouncing while you reach is ballistic stretching. This may do more harm than good, because the muscles may shorten reflexively. However, some professional athletes believe that controlled ballistic stretching can better prepare a muscle for sustained activity, especially one requiring a burst of speed. We advise against ballistic stretching for most people.

Can You Really Injure Yourself While Stretching?

Yes. Too-vigorous stretching, stretching until it hurts, or holding the stretch too long is not recommended. Stretching should feel good. You should stretch to the point of mild discomfort, at most, and then ease up.

What is Static Stretching?

It's probably the safest kind. You stretch through a muscle's full range of movement until you feel resistance, but not pain, then hold the maximum position for 10 to 30 seconds, relax and repeat several times. In static toe touches, for example, you slowly roll down, with knees bent, and hang in the down position without bouncing, then slowly roll up.

What About Stretching With a Trainer or Therapist?

You and a trainer, or any partner, may do what's called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, to push a muscle to a greater degree of flexibility. One type of PNF, called contract-relax stretching, involves contracting a muscle against resistance, usually provided by another person. You relax, then stretch while the partner or trainer pushes the muscle into a static stretch. You can also do PNF without a partner.

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