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What to Know About Flexibility

How to Do Stretching Exercises Safely and Effectively

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Updated April 10, 2013

Leg Stretch on Pilates Barrel

Stretch on the Pilates Barrel

Getty Images

When we talk about flexibility, we are talking about two related factors: How far a muscle group can stretch, and how much range of motion (ROM) we have at a joint.

Types of Stretching Exercises

Static Stretches
To increase flexibility in a safe way, hold a "static stretch" for about 30 seconds. This doesn't mean you have to freeze in place. As you stretch, you can use your breath to help you release into the stretch. As you feel a muscle lengthen, you can allow the stretch to deepen with it. Some research shows that long, static stretches over 60 seconds can impede muscle strength and elasticity when exercises are performed after this kind of stretching.

Dynamic Stretching
To prepare for physical activities that require power and speed, try dynamic stretching. Here, muscles and joints are loosened up with movements that are similar to those that will be repeated with more intensity later. Dynamic stretching may start with some light aerobic activity, like easy jogging, to get the blood and breath going, then move on to movements that take the joints through a larger range of motion like arm circles and leg swings. Dynamic stretching movements should be controlled and directed toward stretching all muscle groups that will be used in the activity one is preparing for.
Learn 5 Dynamic Stretching Exercises

PNF Stretching
Another kind of stretching that is gaining attention in the fitness world is called proprioceptive muscular facilitation (PNF). In PNF stretching, there is an alternation between stretching a muscle and then, while it is in the stretched position, contracting it against some resistance that inhibits movement in response to the contraction. PNF stretching is not as easy and safe as static stretching and is best learned with the aid of a fitness professional.

How to Do Stretching Exercises Safely

Warm Up Before Stretching
It used to be that people thought they should stretch before any other part of their workout. However, research has shown that it is better to stretch muscles once they are already warmed up. This is true for all kinds of stretching - static, dynamic, and PNF. Light stretching can happen after the initial warm-up phase of a workout and more intensive stretching can follow a workout. A good warm-up reflects the types of movements that are going to be performed later.

Increase Your Range of Motion
Your joints have certain directions in which they will allow more movement than others. Your leg will bend forward at the hip more readily than it will bend back, for example. Respect your body's limitations. That said, you do want to take advantage of the full range of motion that is naturally available. So, be sure to stretch all muscle groups, and make sure that you are stretching in all directions - gently exploring and testing the full range of a joint.

How developed your muscles are will play a part in how flexible you are. When muscles are over-developed there is almost always a reduction in flexibility. At the same time, some muscles may be weak from under-use. Certain sports and chronic injuries are known for creating this situation, which is also associated with instability at the joints, loss of range of motion, and uneven mobility.

Choose Stretching Exercises Wisely
Static stretching is safe and effective. It will help you be more flexible. Most forms of hatha yoga are dramatic examples of the benefits of static stretching. However, research shows that a lot of static stretching before working out (running in this case) may reduce muscular efficiency. Those who are preparing their muscles for intensive exertion -- a demanding sport, for example -- may want to try dynamic stretching, which some people believe is a better way to warm-up. Most importantly, don't bounce. Bouncing in a stretch is an old-fashioned, unsafe practice that can produce a shortening response in muscles.

Pilates and Stretching Exercises

Pilates exercises are typically more dynamic than static. They are performed with the six Pilates principles of movement - centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow - which keep them moving along in a safe way. Pilates is also an example of a method of exercise that is focused on uniform development of the muscles and avoiding any kind of over development that limits flexibility. There is, in Pilates, a considerable focus on joint stability and integrity, and you rarely see the floppy, rag doll kind of flexibility that some forms of exercise promote. The intensity and pace of Pilates exercises can be adjusted to the needs of the moment, generally increasing in intensity of stretch and range of motion as the workout proceeds and fitness levels increase.

Learn Pilates Stretching Exercises

Related interest: Why Pilates is a Popular Cross Training Method

Sources:
Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G.
Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Kay AD, Blazevich AJ.
Reasons Not to Stretch New York Times (blogs), Gretchen Reynolds
Sit-and-reach flexibility and running economy of men and women collegiate distance runners.

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