By Gavin Buehler
As always, this article is for educational purposes only. Please consult a health professional before attempting new exercises or protocols, as the following suggestions may or may not be appropriate for you. Enjoy!
For the lazy reader, feel free to skip down to the Summary.
For most, stretching is the afterthought of their exercise routines. You hear it all the time, “I just don’t stretch enough.” “I just need to stretch more.” Your health practitioners will also tell you, “Stretching will help you.” You often ask, “What’s a good stretch for (insert body part).”
What’s the deal? You obviously know it will help you right? The few times you’ve actually done it, you felt pretty darn good after too. So why not just do it?
I believe there’s a couple of big players that prevent the follow through.
You don’t have a plan - You plan your workouts or follow a systematic routine that’s been laid out for you. But, when it comes to stretching, meh, maybe you throw a few random movements in post workout if your brain isn’t too tired to string something together. But probably not.
Your stretching should be planned the same as your workout. What movements will you do? For how long? How many sets? Etc.
Stretching is another aspect of your health plan. It is NOT part of the workout. You need to treat it as its own element.
You think you don’t have time - Do you have time to be injured?
Most people that make time for their workouts would fare better by spending a little less time with the workout and adding an effective stretching plan. I get it. You feel that the heavy breathing and sweating is where the gains and magic is happening, so you put more effort and attention towards a great workout. Here’s a big secret… The magic occurs during your recovery. While a great workout is necessary to promote some healthy adaptations, proper recovery is what makes those changes real. Stretching promotes optimal recovery and having better recovery, circulation and mobility will reduce the risk of injury. A slight shift in perspective can help adjust your health routine priorities to generate a more balanced, efficient, and effective plan. Also, if you have time to watch your favorite streaming networks, you have time to stretch. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to combine the two.
What does an effective plan look like?
Much like with a workout, there is an endless number of movements that you can choose from. While movement selection does play a role, much like with exercises, the method of how it is performed and the choice of variables applied (frequency, sets, reps, tempos, rests) are what make the more dramatic differences in the outcomes.
To give you a base to start with, I’m going leave out the type of stretch, as you can plug that in for your own needs and focus on the variables of method, time, sets, frequency, intensity, and rests to give you results. Meta analyses of numerous published studies on stretching have provided these general recommendations.
There are 4 main methods of stretching:
Dynamic – moving through the stretch
Ballistic – fast, bouncy end range movement through the stretch
Static – holding the stretch position for a specific time
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) – a 3 phase execution that involves a passive pre-stretch, muscular activation followed by another passive stretch.
There are different techniques that can be applied to the execution of each method, but these are the big general ones. Each method has its purpose but regarding the best one for improving range of motion (getting more flexible), the research shows that old school static stretching and PNF are the most effective with relatively similar outcomes.
The studies show that the sweet spot for time spent in a stretch is between 30-60 seconds. What seems to be the most important though, is the cumulative time over the course of a week. That recommendation is about 10 minutes. More than that did not yield greater flexibility improvements.
Sets & Frequency
Now that we know the optimal cumulative time, we can create a routine that includes how many sets and how often it should be performed. The most practical layout for most would be 3 sets of 60 seconds, 3 sessions per week. This amounts to 9 minutes per week. However, you can play with these numbers to find a frequency that fits your life.
Back when I learned how to stretch a coach sat on your back forcing you beyond your natural range of motion and often there were tears. Some believe that pushing a stretch is still the best. If you believe this, it is likely because you don’t stretch frequently enough, and feel the need to maximize when you do stretch. Stop it! Science now shows us that low intensity stretching, which stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (recovery, safety), provides the best gains.
Intensity is subjective and varies greatly from person to person. My personal interpretation of “low intensity” for stretching means that while in the stretch you can breathe regularly and relax your body so that you are not guarding. If you start breathing quickly or must hold your breath, that’s too intense and your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) will kick in. This means your body will start guarding as it doesn’t feel safe, so your muscles will not let go and allow you to explore and get comfortable with a new range.
The amount of rest between stretching has not been studied to a degree where optimal recommendations can be given. Most professionals will stick with 1-2 minutes before repeating. My thoughts are that you want to give enough time for your nervous system to register and adapt to what you are doing so that you can sink deeper with each successive set. If you are sticking with “low intensity” then 1-2 minutes should be appropriate. I would recommend stretching another body part during that time to maximize the efficiency of your time.
So, if you are looking to improve your flexibility an effective baseline protocol could look something like this:
Be sure that muscle tissues are warm. Light full body activity, light foam rolling or post exercise will work.
3 sets of 60 seconds in the appropriate stretch of choice for the muscles you are trying to improve
Applied with static or PNF methods using a “low intensity.”
Attending appropriate style yoga classes are also a very easy and effective approach.
Make the time to get the appropriate duration and frequency, at the right intensity to romance your muscles into hitting that home run!