Have you ever looked at gymnasts, dancers, or people who practice yoga and think… how the heck are they so flexible?? Yah, me too! Obviously there are hours, days, and years of stretching and practice that go into creating a body that moves like gumby, but did you know there are different ways to stretch in order to reduce the amount of time needed to reach higher levels of flexibility?
It wasn’t until after I became a certified yoga teacher and personal trainer that I really began to connect the dots – with a combination of different types of stretching + knowledge of anatomy, it became easier to deepen my stretches. This exploration and knowledge has spilled over into my yoga classes and personal training clients, and can be done before, during, or after any workout – yoga, gym, workout class, etc!
So what’s the secret?
While you can’t become gumby overnight, there are many ways to work with your body and go deeper in every stretch you do. I’ve compiled a list of different tricks, tips, and techniques used by athletes, performers in Cirque de Soleil, and yoga superstars below – take a look, try a few of them, and watch how quickly your body changes with consistent stretching!
Take a tennis ball, foam roller, or stick, and roll out your muscles! By doing this, you activate trigger points in your muscles, increase blood flow & allow them to release before you begin stretching.
The 6 different types of Stretching:
After rolling out your muscles, they are ready to be stretched! Below are 6 different ways to stretch – all work efficiently, and all can be done before, during, and/or after workouts.
1. Passive Static Stretching
Static stretching is probably everyone’s least favorite way to stretch – it is basically just holding a stretch, no movement. Either you are stretching as far as you can go, or there is an outside force (like someone else) pushing you deeper into a stretch. Passive stretching is the most common way to stretch – holding for 15-30 seconds, 1-2 times, will be the most effective.
2. Active Static Stretching
Active static stretching is *almost* the same as passive, except it requires a little more knowledge on the anatomy of the body. The *Active* in static stretching refers to contracting an agonist muscle, which in turn allows your antagonist muscles to relax. So what the heck does this mean? Agonist? Antagonist? It’s pretty simple – for every muscle you engage, there is a corresponding muscle (or muscles) that automatically relax, and vice versa. For example:
Agonist muscle: Quad muscle (rectus femoris) (contract)
Antagonist muscle: Hamstring muscles (relax)
Example Pose: Forward fold. Contract quadriceps, and your hamstrings relax
If you aren’t a doctor or know the entire anatomy of the body and want to know how to relax & stretch a muscle deeper, just google like I do – “Antagonist muscle to_________” – and the resulting answer will show at the top of your search results!
3. Isometric Stretching
This type of stretching is a little more demanding on the joints & muscle tendons, so if using this method of stretching, limit it to once every day or 2. However, it provides a deep stretch & is not as uncomfortable as static stretching 🙂
To do an isometric stretch:
First, contract the muscle you want to stretch for 10-15 seconds. By doing this, it produces tension in your muscle and activates your golgi tendon (a nerve sensor). When your golgi tendon is activated, it sends a message to the brain. The brain then taps the nervous system, who is the mediator, which sends a relaxation response back to the contracted muscle. Release the contraction, then relax the muscle for 20 seconds. Repeat one more time.
In doing this, you stretch the muscle and create a new “set length”.
**When creating a new set length, you are actually creating muscle memory – which means it is easier to regain flexibility if you’ve taken time off from stretching!
Example: in Heros pose, contract your quads. Then, relax into the stretch. Repeat. That’s it!
4. Facilitated/PNF Stretching
PNF stretching – proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation – is a combination of Isometric and Passive Active Stretching (as explained in 1& 3). It is thought to be the most advanced and effective way to stretch, as it was originally developed as a form of rehabilitation.
First, passively stretch the muscle – stretch as far as you can, or have an outside force stretch you as much as possible for 3-8 seconds.
Second, contract the muscle you want to stretch, and push into the stretch a little deeper (without moving) for about 6-10 seconds.
Third, Relax for one breath, then push into the stretch a little deeper for 20-30 seconds.
Relax, then repeat 2-4 times
**Be sure to warm up the body & muscles before performing this type of stretch – there is an increased risk for injuring soft tissue due to the contract/relax technique.
Check out this article for a little more detail on PNF stretching.
5. Dynamic Stretching
Dynamic stretching is controlled, repetitive movements that increase flexibility. Meaning, Stretching with controlled movement. Example: Vinyasa Yoga!
It is best to do in the morning, as this type of movement resets your resting muscle length for the day.
6. Ballistic Stretching
Ballistic Stretching is the most dangerous out of all 6 stretches – since you are stretching while actively moving, it is not a controlled movement – it is the use of momentum of a body part to force the muscle to stretch beyond its normal range. So swinging your arms and legs forwards or backwards, or any type of bouncing movement. Think old-school workout videos 😉
Example: Swinging leg forwards and backwards with force
And that’s it! If you are starting from scratch and looking for ways to increase flexibility (like I was 3 years ago post-knee surgery!), this is a great place to start. Try out the different ways to stretch, and find one that is the most effective for you. I started out 3 years ago and committed to 5 minutes of passive static stretching a day. Consistency is key here, so make sure you are stretching at least 3-4 times a week in order to notice a difference in your flexibility. Practice patience, and before you know it, you will be well on your way to touch your toes… and possibly even a close cousin to gumby 😉
Thoughts? Comments? Did I miss any good ways to stretch? Comment below!