• 16 Dec - 22 Dec, 2023
  • Mag The Weekly

Tired of feeling stiff, sore, or tight? Stretching – a type of exercise that improves flexibility and mobility by lengthening your muscles, via extension or movement – may help.

In fact, stretching is a must, not just for athletes but for anyone who wants to feel good (read: less pain) in life. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), everyone should stretch at least two to three times per week, and establishing a daily stretching habit is most effective.

But stretching isn’t just about bending over to touch your toes. There are several stretching methods, and each has slightly different effects and benefits. Moreover, certain stretching types are better performed before a workout than after and vice versa.

How Passive Stretching and Active Stretching Differ
The various stretching methods can be categorised in a number of ways. However, it may be easiest to break them into two main buckets: passive and active.

According to a research review, passive stretching is any technique in which the lengthened muscle doesn’t contract (tighten or shorten), while active stretching involves muscle contraction at some point during the stretch.

Types of Passive Stretching Static Stretching
This is the most common type of stretching, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “Static stretching involves holding the stretch at its end range for a period of time, usually 30 seconds to two minutes,” says Giordano. A classic example of a static stretch is the hamstring stretch.

Benefits: Static stretching can improve flexibility and decrease tension when performed as part of a post-exercise cooldown. It can also increase range of motion. In fact, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis published in January 2021 in Sports Medicine, static stretching not only increases range of motion in the stretched muscle or joint, but it also improves range of motion in muscles or joints that aren’t being stretched.

Passive Stretching
Passive stretching is similar to static stretching in that it calls for holding a stretch at its end range for 30 seconds to two minutes. The difference is that passive stretching involves applying an external force – like a resistance band, gravity, or another person – to improve flexibility and range of motion.

Benefits: Like static stretching, passive stretching is ideal for cooling down after a workout. Passive stretching increases blood flow to muscles, which helps clear waste products like lactic acid.

Types of Active Stretching Active Stretching
This method of stretching involves contracting one group of muscles while the opposite group of muscles are stretched. These types of stretches are typically held for 10 to 15 seconds and without using an external aid, notes Christynne Helfrich, an orthopedic clinical specialist. “An example would be using your back muscles to open your arms and chest really wide to feel a stretch on the front part of your pectoral and chest muscles,” Helfrich says.

Benefits: Active stretching helps elongate the target muscles, increase blood flow, and get your joints moving. “So it’s really warming up the muscles to prepare them for activity,” Soliman says. It also improves mobility and decreases pain or soreness, Dr. Helfrich notes.

Isometric Stretching
“This form of stretching occurs when the muscle that is being stretched is contracted in a static position,” Helfrich says. Essentially, you’ll take a static or active stretch and add an isometric muscle contraction – this is where the muscle doesn’t change length (visibly move).

Benefits: This type of stretching improves your range of motion and strengthens your muscles at their end range of motion, “which is typically where they are the weakest,” Helfrich says. This perk makes isometric stretching helpful for injury prevention, she adds.

Proprioceptive Neuro-muscular Facilitation (PNF)
PNF, which stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, is typically performed with the help of a practitioner, Giordano says. It alternates between contracting and relaxing a muscle to deepen range of motion, per ACE.

Benefits: PNF is used in therapeutic and athletic settings to rehabilitate injuries, improve performance, increase strength, and encourage full range of motion, according to a research paper. It’s thought that resisting force while stretching, and then relaxing into a passive stretch before repeating the contraction sends signals from the nervous system that tell the muscles it’s safe to stretch further, the paper explains.

Dynamic Stretching
Dynamic stretching involves actively tightening your muscles and moving your joints through their full range of motion, per the HSS. Whereas static stretches are meant to be held for a length of time, dynamic stretches aim to get the body moving. “It’s a way to warm-up the muscle and prepare it for exercise,” Soliman says.

Benefits: According to the HSS, dynamic stretches are functional and sport-specific movements that boost muscle temperature and reduce stiffness, which may improve speed, agility, and acceleration in your chosen activity.