It is always important to stretch around and after exercise. There are a variety of reasons that it is good for you: most importantly, it will improve your flexibility and aid in muscular recovery. However, many people overlook it, and either misjudge or don’t pay attention to either its importance or the style of stretching they should be doing.
There are many different types of stretching, each with their own special uses, each with their own methodology, merits and downsides. In this article, I’ll be running through two of the most common: static and dynamic stretching. Which is better is a subject of much debate in the fitness community, and I’ll be giving my take on the matter below.
Dynamic stretches are stretches in which you move the body part you’re stretching through a dynamic range of motion (RoM.) They are often quite demanding in terms of coordination and rhythm: you need to develop a ‘feel’ for them in order to maximise their utility. Once you know what you’re doing, however, they have some great benefits. Dynamic stretching has been proven to increase flexibility, top-end muscle strength, and power output.
For these reasons and others, dynamic stretching is fast becoming a favourite with athletes and trainers.
Dynamic stretches are best placed when you want to functionally prepare for something specific. You will use activity specific movements to stretch over wider RoM. Typically, dynamic stretches will run through full body, or at least compound, movements, and will be used to prime body parts for both explosive effort and great RoM.
Each movement is repeated, often for around 10-12 reps, usually with greater power and/or RoM with each rep.
On the other hand, static stretches will be the ones people generally think of when they think of ‘stretching,’ especially if they are relatively new to athletic pursuits. As with dynamic stretching, you work a body part or muscle group into an often increased RoM. However, with static stretching, you hold the posture still for typically anything from 15-60 seconds.
The jury is out on static stretching, to a certain degree. Once a staple of every warm-up, nowadays they are very rarely included in the front end of any serious athlete’s or gym-goer’s routine. Research has suggested that you both decrease potential muscle power, and increase risk of injury, if you perform static stretches before training.
However, research has also shown that static stretching can be used effectively to increase RoM, improve flexibility, decrease delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) and relax your body. This makes it perfect when done in isolation from other exercise- a fifteen minute stretch every day, separate from your main workout, can work wonders for your body- or during the end of session cool down post-training.
So… Which is Better?
I hesitate to answer this question for a very simple reason: I don’t think one is better than the other because I don’t find them particularly comparable. It’s hard to say which is better for any one person as their needs and requirements will be better. The research on both is also inconclusive to a degree, especially with regards the increased risk of injury from, and performance altering capabilities of, static stretching.
There are a few things I am happy to say so as to answer this question, however. Firstly, a lack of flexibility in any given athlete will greatly enhance their risk of injury. Gradual onset conditions, not least poor posture operating under load, are particularly exacerbated by such a lack of flexibility. These kinds of conditions respond well to regular static stretching, underlining the importance I mentioned above of setting aside regular chunks of time in which you make use of it. As well as this, increased flexibility during training has an acute effect on any athlete, safeguarding them against strains, pulls and tears, and improving athletic performance. This increased flexibility will be much better served by dynamic stretching during your warm up.
Many coaches have found the best results from a well-timed combination of the two types. Begin any session by gently raising your heart rate with low impact, low intensity cardio. Then commence a more active warm up, making use of a combination of explosive movements and plenty of dynamic stretches, preparing your joints, muscles and soft tissue for the strain they are about to be put through. At the end of your workout, switch it around to static stretches, holding poses that will help to lengthen the muscles you have just worked, relieving DOMS potential and keeping them from bunching up as they cool.
Of course, this is a long way from being set in stone. Many coaches disagree and use them differently. Many use one and not the other, whilst others combine them and use them all at the beginning of a work out. As I said, the jury is out.
My Take on the Issue
I use them as I laid it all out above, and have seen great benefits both to my own performance and to the performance of those I have coached and trained. I start every session with low impact, low intensity cardio (I walk to the gym, typically taking 10-15 minutes, for example.) Then I run through whatever explosive movements and dynamic stretches will aid the muscles I need that day: box jumps and leg swings on deadlift day, push up jumps and arm windmills and claps for bench day.
Finally, I go through my static stretches at the end of the session, spending 10 minutes or so getting into every kink and sore spot. This has greatly reduced the amount of DOMS I suffer. I also take 15-30 minutes out of my day three times each week to simply stretch, combining the two either in my own, site specific routine or in a decent yoga flow.
Using each correctly, targeting each to their own strengths, keeps me supple, energised and relatively injury free. It can do the same for you.