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A Simple Guide to Stretching


We all know that flexibility is a critical component to our health, but do we know which stretches are the best or the most beneficial? Do we know the correct technique? Do we know how long to hold each stretch? Do we even know when to do what stretch? Do all these questions sound puzzling and make flexibility training sound confusing? This article will answer these questions while attempting to STRETCH your thought process. Please join us for a fun exploration of flexibility training.

FIRST AND FOREMOST…WHAT IS FLEXIBILITY?

Not to be confused with stretching, flexibility is defined as the normal extensibility of all soft tissues that allow full range of motion of a joint. In other words, when recruited your muscles have the extensibility to move in all directions under the control of your central nervous system. It is important not to forget that flexibility and function are interdependent components; therefore, to gain desired flexibility, the stretching program must progress to multi-planar soft tissue techniques with optimal levels of neuromuscular control throughout a full range of motion. As you can now see, flexibility is not stretching; various progressive stretching techniques make-up flexibility.

WHAT TYPE OF STRETCHING DO I NEED?

There are many stretching techniques, all of which are useful if applied correctly. Through progressive research and application, NASM has developed an Integrated Flexibility Training Systemä for health professionals to gain the appropriate flexibility and apply the right stretch, in the right region, at the right time.

Integrated Flexibility Training System
Corrective Flexibility Active Flexibility Functional Flexibility
  • Static Stretching
  • Self-Myofascial Release Stretching
  • Neurodynamic Stretching
  • Active Isolated Stretching
  • Neuromuscular Stretching
  • Dynamic Stretching

As shown in the IFT Systemä, there are three categories of flexibility:

  1. Corrective flexibility applies appropriate stretching techniques to improve muscle imbalances, postural distortions and altered neural tissue dynamics.
  2. Active flexibility applies two stretching techniques designed to improve soft tissue extensibility and neural muscular control by utilizing the principles of reciprocal inhibition and autogenic inhibition.
  3. Functional flexibility applies dynamic stretching techniques to improve soft tissue extensibility by using the body’s muscles to control the speed, direction and intensity of the stretch.

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY STRETCHING TECHNIQUES?

…because they all work! All stretching techniques are based on neurophysiological and mechanical principals. Once understood, the assessment and stretching program can become individualized.

WHAT PRINCIPLES ARE APPLIED & HOW DO I PERFORM THE DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES?

Static Stretching:

Passively taking a muscle(s) to the point of first resistance and holding the stretch for at least 20 seconds. Repeat three times.

Self-Myofascial Release Stretching:

Utilizing an individual’s body weight and bio-foam roll, deep pressure is created and applied to tender areas within the soft tissue complex. Deep prolonged pressure should be held until tenderness is reduced by 50-75%.

Neurodynamic Stretching:

Stretching techniques applied to neural structures, which improve neural extensibility. Any motion of the kinetic chain produces concomitant movement of the nervous system; therefore, optimal neural extensibility is required during functional activities to prevent abnormal movement patterns. Neurodynamic stretches are held for one to two seconds and applied six to 10 times.

*Note: Neurodynamic stretches are for qualified individuals only. Please see contraindications in the NASM Integrated Training for the New Millennium Textbook before attempting any neurodynamic stretches!

Neuromuscular Stretching:

Stretching techniques involving active assisted stretching. The professional passively moves the limb to the first resistance barrier without compensations. The client then applies an agonistic contraction of approximately 25% effort for seven to 10 seconds. After brief relaxation of this isometric contraction, the limb is moved into the newly acquired range of motion by the client’s antagonist contraction and the professional’s assistance (slight). The stretch is then held for 20 seconds and repeated three to five times.

Active Isolated Stretching:

The process of using agonists and synergists to dynamically move the joint(s) through a range of motion. This form of stretching establishes dynamic extensibility and neuromuscular control. Each stretch is performed under complete control and held for two to five seconds over 10 repetitions.

Dynamic Stretching:

Uses the force production of a muscle and the body’s momentum to take a joint through a full range of functional movement patterns. Dynamic stretching is the recommended form of stretching prior to exercise or performance as it improves motor unit recruitment, motor unit synchronization, rate of force production and overall neuromuscular efficiency. The client should perform each exercise for one set of 10 reps at a controlled speed.

WITH ALL THE DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES, HOW DO I PLAN A STRETCHING PROGRAM?

Any program - be it core training, balance training, plyometric training, speed training, agility training, strength training, flexibility training or all of the above - depends on an individualized assessment. An example of one the many “tools” to assess functional flexibility is the overhead squat total body profile. The objective of this exercise is to assess total kinetic-chain neuromuscular efficiency, integrated-functional strength and functional flexibility.

To begin the exercise:

Left Side View Example

Next, we have provided you with a common movement abnormality chart. Listed are common compensations, probable muscles that need extensibility and beneficial stretches.

OVERHEAD SQUAT TOTAL BODY PROFILE

Gross Movement Abnormality Primary Muscles to Stretch Beneficial Stretching Types & Techniques
Feet flatten out
  • Peroneals
  • Lateral gastrocnemius
  • Self Myofascial Release on Foam Roll (SMFR): Peroneals, Lateral Gastrocnemius
  • Static: Standing Wall Stretch
  • Active: Standing Wall Stretch w/Hip Rotations
  • Dynamic: Mountain climbers, Multi-Planar Lunge, Prisioner Squats
Feet externally rotate
  • Soleus
  • Lateral gastrocnemius
  • Biceps femoris
  • Piriformis
  • SMFR: Soleus, Lateral Gastrocnemius, Lateral Hamstring, Piriformis, Peroneals, ITB
  • Static: Standing Wall Stretch w/Knee Bent
  • Active: Standing Wall Stretch w/hip rotations: Knee bent
  • Dynamic: Mountain Climbers, Multi-Planar Lunge, Prisioner Squats
Increased low back extension
  • Psoas
  • Tensor fascia latae (TFL)
  • Erector spinae (ES)
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • SMFR: Latissimus Dorsi, TFL, ITB, Thoracic Spine
  • Static: Psoas Standing-Stride Stretch
  • Variations: Lying, Kneeling
    • Static: TFL Wall Stretch
    • Static: ES Cross Leg Stretch
    • Static: Lat Ball Stretch
    • Active: Psoas Standing Stride
    • Active: Lat Ball Stretch
    • Active: Ball Russian Twist
    • Dynamic: Walking Lunge w/Twist, Med Ball Flexion-Extension-Rotation
Protruding abdomen Psoas
  • SMFR: TFL, ITB, Adductors, Quads, Calves, Lats
  • Static: Psoas Standing-Stride Stretch
  • Variations: Lying, Kneeling
    • Active: Psoas Standing Stride
    • Dynamic: Walking Lunge w/Twist
Arms migrate forward
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Pectorals
  • SMFR: Lats, Thoracic Spine
  • Static / Active: Pectoral Wall or Ball Stretch
  • Static / Active: Lat Ball Stretch
  • Dynamic: Arm Swings, Overhead Squat, Squat Thrusts
Elbows flex while moving Pectoralis major
  • Static / Active: Wall or Ball Stretch (multi-angles)
  • Dynamic: Arm Swings (various angles)
Heads juts forward Superficial neck muscles Static / Active: Sternocleidomastoid, Levator Scapulae, Scalenes

When to Use Each Stretch

The exact order will depend on the kinetic chain assessment. Use the order below as a guideline.

Please note: Due to the extensive hands-on knowledge require, not all stretching techniques are listed.

As described, there are many stretching techniques to improve flexibility. A glance at all the available techniques may be overwhelming when deciding which stretch to use and when to use it. The IFT™ System was designed to take the guesswork out of choosing a stretching technique. A look at basic neurophysiological and mechanical principles demonstrates Corrective Active Functional flexibility as an important progressive continuum. By applying a systematic flexibility approach, along with teaching your clients how to control their bodies, you will drastically increase function and improve their life. Good luck!

ARTICLE GLOSSARY

  1. Agonist: Muscles that act as prime movers.
  2. Antagonist: Muscles that act in direct opposition to prime movers.
  3. Autogenic Inhibition: Inhibition of a muscle spindle resulting from the Golgi tendon organ stimulation.
  4. Integrated Functional Strength: The ability of the neuromuscular system to perform dynamic eccentric, isometric and concentric contractions efficiently in a multi-planar environment.
  5. Inhibition: To stop something from developing - not to be confused with inactivity.
  6. Functional Flexibility: Integrated multi-planar soft tissue extensibility with optimum neuromuscular control through a full range of motion.
  7. Function: Integrated functional movement that requires deceleration, dynamic stabilization and acceleration.
  8. Neuromuscular Efficiency: The ability of the neuromuscular system to allow agonists, antagonists, stabilizers, and neutralizers to work synergistically to produce force, reduce force and dynamically stabilize the entire kinetic chain in all planes of motion
  9. Reciprocal Inhibition: The concept of muscle inhibition caused by a tight agonist, which inhibits its functional antagonist.