I remember so clearly the stretching exercises that my teammates and I performed during our high school sports practice sessions.
I remember so clearly the stretching exercises that my teammates and I performed during our high school sports practice sessions. We called it "the 40 count," because every exercise was executed for 40 repetitions -- very fast repetitions. We did all of the wrong exercises (e.g., standing toe touches, hurdlers' stretches), and we did them all the wrong way (e.g., fast, ballistic). Several years later, as a graduate student in exercise physiology, I learned that stretches should always be performed in a gentle manner with an emphasis on holding the stretched position for 30 to 60 seconds before repeating the stretch. This technique for enhancing joint flexibility in a safe and effective manner is called static stretching, and it has been promoted by nearly all exercise physiologists for the the past three decades. Recent research on stretching has revealed interesting results. We now know that stretching prior to warming up may increase your risk of muscle injury, and that static stretching before an athletic event may actually decrease your performance. We are also discovering that moderate forms of dynamic (moving) stretches may be preferable to static stretches, especially for sports participants. Moderate dynamic stretches are not meant to involve bouncing or ballistic actions, but they are rather characterized by controlled movements that traverse the full range of joint motion. Unlike most static-stretching protocols, dynamic-stretching sequences typically begin with shorter movement ranges and progress to longer movement ranges repetition by repetition. Also, dynamic stretches generally address more than one joint action and multiple muscle groups. For example, a static stretch for your shoulder joint muscles requires you to place your hand on a doorpost at shoulder level, turn towards the opposite side until your deltoid muscles feel fully stretched and hold this position for about 30 seconds. An alternative dynamic stretch could be performed with a soccer ball, volleyball or basketball. Begin by holding the ball in front with both hands, arms extended at shoulder level. Then move the ball to your left a comfortable distance, followed by moving the ball to your right a comfortable distance. Continue this side-to-side swinging action for several repetitions, slightly extending the range of motion with each pendulum-like movement. As you enlarge the movement, turn your torso to the left and right, dynamically stretching the muscles of your chest, upper back, midsection and lower back concurrently and attaining more comprehensive muscle involvement than the static shoulder stretch. Most people find dynamic stretches to be more realistic, more effective and more enjoyable to perform than static stretches. There are many ways in which you can enhance dynamic stretches, such as working with a partner or using lightweight medicine balls. For example, if you and a partner stood back to back, you could hand off the ball (side to side) at the end of each slow swinging action so the ball travels in a complete circle (both clockwise and counter-clockwise) around both of you. To make the dynamic stretch more challenging, and add a small strength component to the exercise, substitute a lightweight medicine ball for the sports ball. Another example of dynamic stretching is handing a ball to a partner in up-down movements rather than in side-to-side movements. Again, stand back-to-back with a partner and reach upward as high as you comfortably can to exchange the ball overhead (stretching the midsection and chest muscles). Then bend downward (with legs straight) and exchange the ball between your legs (stretching the lower back, upper back and rear thigh muscles). As you have probably surmised, dynamic stretching can easily be combined with muscle strengthening movements for a dual-purpose exercise. For example, you and a partner may lay face-up on the floor with the soles of your shoes touching. Hold a ball with both hands, arms outstretched above your head. You and your partner concurrently perform a sit-up (strengthening your midsection muscles), then reach forward to exchange the ball (stretching your lower back, upper back and rear thigh muscles) before returning to the floor-lying position. Each repetition of this partner exercise provides both dynamic muscle stretching and muscle strengthening benefits. You can perform this exercise by yourself. Simply place the ball between your feet at the end of one sit up (a good dynamic stretch for most of us), and take the ball from between your feet at the end of the next sit-up. Using a lightweight medicine ball makes the exercise performance more challenging and interesting. Perhaps the most enjoyable application of dynamic stretching is the warm-up activity we did before playing neighborhood football games. We began by tossing the football to each other, then we would pass and catch while jogging, then while running at slow speeds, followed by running at fast speeds. We were progressively exercising and dynamically stretching the muscles we would be using at full speed during the football game. This type of warm-up activity is very effective; so much so that Kim Wood, legendary NFL strength and conditioning coach, used this form of dynamic stretching throughout his long career with the Cincinnati Bengals. As you learn more about dynamic stretching, you may consider adding some dynamic stretches to your flexibility program. In my opinion, dynamic stretching is more effective for warm-up activities, and static stretching is more appropriate during the cool-down period. Incorporating both types of stretching in each workout should be most beneficial to enhance flexibility. Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science at Quincy College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has written 24 books on physical fitness and strength training.