These days it seems like everyone is evangelizing their “One Right Way” to stretch. From trainers at the gym to yoga teachers—not to mention the flood of online gurus.
The problem, of course, is that everyone has a different One Right Way.
Chances are, you don’t believe there’s one magical way to stretch. And if you ask me, you’re right. In my 18 years as a physical therapist, including the six years since we started GMB, I’ve worked with thousands of patients and clients to address their flexibility needs. I’ve seen it all, and I’ve tried most of it.
What I’ve learned is that different methods of stretching work for different people and goals. In this article I’ll help you understand each of the top methods and what it’s good for. And I’ll also show you how I combined the strengths of the most effective methodologies to create the stretching curriculum we use here at GMB.
By the end of this article you’ll be ready to choose the method(s) that will work best for what you need.
What Stretching Method Makes Sense For You?
While there are many methods of stretching, as you’ll see at the end of this article, we have our preferred approach. That does not mean that all the other approaches we’ll describe are wrong – not at all!
All of the methods I’ll describe work for some people, otherwise they would not have gained the popularity they have.
What’s important for you to get from this list is that all of these approaches are appropriate for different people, and whatever you choose will depend on your goals and mindset.
Want to skip ahead to the approach you’re most interested in? Just click below to find out more:
- Static Stretching
- Dynamic Stretching
- Loaded Progressive Stretching
- Ballistic Stretching
- Wushu Stretching
- PNF Stretching Techniques
- The GMB Approach to Stretching
Naturally, some of these approaches will call for more explanation than others, but reading the descriptions below will give you a good understanding of these methods and which one(s) will help you build the flexibility you need for your life.
The classic style of “get into a stretched position and hold it for time” has fallen out of trendy fitness favor in the past few years.
Maligned as useless and ineffective, it’s gotten a bad rap, and unfairly so, in my opinion. There’s a reason why it’s been a staple of training for dancers, martial artists, and other athletes since the beginning of exercise training.
It really does work, and the proof is in its continued practice by countless practitioners.
The gripes against it may come from improper use and intentions. When done properly, the primary benefits of static stretching are relieving tension and learning to relax in stretched positions. These are severely underrated qualities in my opinion.
Stretching to relieve tension is apparent when done after long periods of sitting and standing in one place.
In this case, the physiological effect of holding a stretch to tight muscle isn’t a lengthening of the muscle but more of a dampening of tonicity – turning down the gain if you will.
Generally, for this purpose, shorter holds of 15-30 seconds for a couple of sets is all that’s needed. Interspersed throughout your work day, this can do a lot to lessen the strain of prolonged periods of inactivity. And obviously, this effect is also very good after exercise sessions as part of a cool down.
Learning to relax in stretched positions is an extension of the above.
Holding the position will cause that temporary decrease in muscle tone, but simply engaging in the practice is helpful. Removing the automatic reaction of anxiety and expectation of pain that we can have in certain positions can make a huge difference in improving our movement patterns.
The hesitations and subconscious apprehension in our movements turn into small but noticeable hitches and can hinder the smooth flow of our actions.
|Defining Characteristics||Get into a stretched position and hold for time.|
|Best Uses||Good for short holds after an exercise session or to offset inactivity.|
|Cautions||Longer hold times can be uncomfortable, so start with shorter hold times and then increase to longer holds as you learn to relax into it|
Dynamic simply means being in motion, taking your various body parts through their respective ranges. This broad term applies to any stretching techniques that involve motion, and you really can’t argue with this method at all.
Use it or lose it is the most appropriate cliché phrase here, and this should be a staple in every mobility and flexibility regimen.
|Defining Characteristics||Move in and out of a stretched position.|
|Best Uses||Good for anyone looking to improve flexibility.|
|Cautions||Be cautious of speed of movement when not “warmed up”|
Loaded Progressive Stretching
These techniques add an additional load into simple positions.
One of the reasons why this appeals to people is that it is dead simple.
- You can’t touch your head to your knee? Throw some weight on your back or have someone push on you. That’s the “loading” part.
- Add some more weight or have your training partner push on you harder, and that’s the “progressive” portion.
It makes sense, especially if you have experience in progressive resistance exercise. It’s science!
Does it work? Sure. There’s plenty of examples where people show how much progress they’ve made. Necessary? I wouldn’t say so.
Well truthfully, all good stretching is loaded and progressive. You don’t need weight to “load” your tissues. You can change the positioning and angles in a variety of ways to target where you like.
The “secret” is in your choice of body position and applying the correct force and stress to the areas that require it the most. Rather than using a weight or other external force, it just takes creativity and mindfulness. But yes if you don’t want to bother with that, you can load yourself up with weights and stretch.
It’s not that there is a significant problem with doing it this way, it’s just that there’s often an implication that it’s the only way to stretch. Of course it’s not – How could it be when other methods have resulted in very good benefit?
Jefferson Curls are an interesting example of loaded stretching.
The practice done with a barbell mimics what was done by early era (and perhaps current, depending on the coach) weightlifters to work on their backs before and after training sessions.
It seems to fly in the face of current conventional thinking that demonizes rounded spines in lifting or even in general, and maybe that’s part of why it’s so popular. It’s always kind of cool to be part of a group that bucks against common wisdom.
And in this case, I agree that the polemics against spinal flexion are too much of a strawman.
Of course, lifting a heavy weight with a rounded back isn’t good if you aren’t strong enough for it, but that doesn’t mean you should never practice spinal flexion positions.
It’s also interesting that it is recommended to use a lighter weight than a standard barbell, or perhaps even no weight at all.
Which begs the question: Is this really loaded progressive stretching if it’s just your body weight? Above I’ve stated that, yes it is, because all stretching is. What is the difference if it is a barbell that is producing the force or your specific body positioning? There is no difference.
Steven Low (author of Overcoming Gravity) wrote this about Jefferson Curls:
“My generalized opinion on Jefferson curls:
- Flexibility – If you do them, do them with a light weight (starting with say 5 lbs and no more than 20-25 lbs) and improve flexibility. Eventually work your way down to flexibility without them.
- Injury proofing – If the goal is to injury proof the spine it’s probably better to choose other exercises for that goal. Anti-rotation and anti-flexion resistance are probably better for that, as most injuries occur during flexion and/or rotation.
- Performance enhancing – Same as the injury proofing. Specific goals require a specific look at exercises which will help them the [most]. Probably not Jcurls [sic].”
|Defining Characteristics||Add load onto a stretched position.|
|Best Uses||Can be a good way to go deeper into a stretch, but only if you're well conditioned for that.|
|Cautions||If you can't get into a position without additional load, it can be too big of a strain on the body to add weight onto that position.|
Ballistic stretching involves using a fast motion to get into certain ranges of motion. The theory is that, using these rapid motions, you can take your muscles past the point that can be achieved through active control or lighter force passive stretching.
As I’m sure you’ve experienced, there is a stretch-reflex muscle contraction that occurs as a protective mechanism that prevents you from stretching beyond a certain point, and ostensibly, the fast speeds can overcome that resistance.
Just as in the descriptions of loaded progressive stretching and wushu stretching, ballistics definitely have their place in a stretching armamentarium.
This is especially applicable in sports and activities that require fast actions into and out of certain body positions, including ball sports where quick and sudden extensions of your body may be needed to keep the ball in play.
Though it’s not as harmful as some might say, especially when you have the requisite strength and familiarity with the movements, it is definitely more stressful than other stretching methods and you have to be conscientious about the volume, force, and amplitude you choose.
But again, it’s not necessarily a requisite for every person’s daily stretching regimen. You’ll have to take a look at your particular needs for your chosen sport or activity, and judge whether it’s worth it to you.
|Defining Characteristics||Dynamic stretching in rapid motion.|
|Best Uses||Good for sports that require quick extensions of the body.|
|Cautions||The fast motions can be stressful to the body (and mind) if done with too much force.|
I actually did quite a bit of wushu training in my mid- and late-20’s. The stretching and positional work was long, repetitive, and was quite painful at times.
This method is based on fundamental martial arts stance training, which requires specific body positioning for correct form. The ability to attain and hold these positions was prized and deemed essential for best performance of the various fighting techniques and sequences.
It is brutal and hard training, and though I feel I did benefit from them at the time, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to most people.
If you’re participating in martial arts, it might make sense for you, but it depends on the particular art you are practicing. My hesitation to recommend this approach is mainly because it’s very specific to the needs of the wushu athlete, but less so to the person more interested in improving their flexibility in a manner that is meaningful to them.
We don’t all have to move like a wushu performer, so why train exactly like one?
There are more applicable methods for those of us not practicing that art, and our time is better spent on those than on mimicking the training of those specialized athletes.
|Defining Characteristics||Specific stances held for long hold times (several minutes)|
|Best Uses||Designed for Wushu practitioners, and best for those people.|
|Cautions||Intense stretching that is likely not applicable to you unless you practice martial arts.|
PNF Stretching Techniques
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) was developed as a treatment system for neurologically impaired patients (i.e., stroke, brain injury) and then also applied to orthopedic conditions.
In other words, it’s not just a stretching technique!
When you speak with rehabilitation professionals they are more likely to think of the functional diagonal patterns as a treatment method rather than of the stretching techniques that are popular in the fitness world.
The commonly used PNF “Contract-Relax” method performed by people in fitness training is actually more of an umbrella term for three different techniques:
- Hold Relax is probably the most familiar technique, consisting of an isometric (non-moving) contraction at the stretched position, followed by a period of relaxation. So there is an unyielding force applied against the muscle providing force for a period of time, then a relaxation, followed by an attempt to move further in the range of motion.
- Contract Relax is distinguished from hold relax in that the muscle contraction is concentric (moving). So it is against a yielding force that starts from the stretched position into a shortened position. Here, the repetitions in and out of the stretched position make this more similar to a dynamic stretch as described above.
- Eccentric Relax usually begins a bit before the uncomfortable stretch position and then there is an eccentric muscle contraction. So the stretched muscle is contracting against an overcoming force that moves it into an even further stretched position. This is a very good method but has the potential to be overdone if the force is excessive.
|Defining Characteristics||Contraction followed by period of stretching in a relaxed position|
|Best Uses||Good way to improve flexibility and range of motion|
|Cautions||Some PNF methods can be overdone if the force is excessive|
Our Preferred Stretching Method for Getting Results That Stick
If you want to get more flexible and you put in the appropriate effort, any of the methods above can work. But, as you’ve seen, some methods are going to work better than others for most people.
When I developed our Focused Flexibility program, I wanted to pull the best pieces from different methods to create a system that would yield safe and relatively quick results for non-athletes.
So, FF is a combination of PNF Contract Relax (dynamic contraction), followed by a static hold, as one of our clients from Quebec shares:
“Focused Flexibility changed the way I stretched.
Previously I was either doing dynamic stretches and static/PNF stretches separately. Now in my static/PNF stretching I always use the pattern of dynamic stretching followed by PNF as described in FF. I find the dynamic movements make the PNF less uncomfortable so it’s easier to spend more time stretching. I also think that it reduces injury because the movements make me stronger near the current limits of my flexibility.
The increased strength is difficult to measure but my kicking (tae kwon do) is much improved. The pancake stretch described in the program is one that I do nearly every day now.” – Matthew Suderman
This approach gives you the benefits of both active and passive static stretching work, and encourages body awareness.
As Matthew describes about his experience, it also allows you to progressively increase your time in the stretched positions using different types of muscle contractions. These longer hold times lead to improved gains through both neurological and structural tissue stimulus.
Get the Best of the Most Effective Stretching Methods
FF combines the best parts of stretching methods that work to give you a gentle and effective approach that you’ll actually enjoy!
Here’s a quick recap of the different stretching methods covered in this article:
|Different Stretching Methods Explained|
|Static Stretching||Get into a stretched position and hold for time.|
|Dynamic Stretching||Move in and out of a stretched position.|
|Loaded Progressive Stretching||Add load onto a stretched position.|
|Ballistic Stretching||Dynamic stretching in rapid motion.|
|Wushu Stretching||Specific stances held for long hold times (several minutes)|
|PNF Stretching Techniques||Contraction followed by period of stretching in a relaxed position|
|GMB Approach||Combination of PNF Contract Relax (dynamic contraction), followed by a static hold|