To Stretch, or not to Stretch; That is the Question
Yes, believe it or not, there is a lot of controversy over whether or not you should stretch before any physical activity. There’s the argument for, suggesting that it prevents injury; and the argument against, saying that it decreases strength and explosive movement capability.
Now personally, I cringe whenever I see people at the gym not stretching before a workout. “It kills gains…I lose strength….blah blah blah.” I also cringe a little when I see that dancers use a majority of static stretches before a class because…you WILL lose some strength and muscular endurance, and therefore won’t be able to work at your peak. Of course, on average no one will ever tell you when to stretch, why to stretch, what to stretch or how to stretch; unless you have undertaking personal or tertiary study in the matter. So that’s what we’ll look at today.
The Physiology of Stretching
The first thing we need to discuss, is what happens physically when you stretch. At its most basic, stretching pulls your muscle fibres into alignment along the direction of the stretch, to a point where they are fully elongated. After that, connective tissues take up the slack and are pulled into alignment in the same direction. This action gives you further mobility as the muscle fibres and connective tissues are all in alignment as apposed to overlapping each other and fighting for control. That’s about as deep as we’ll get with this, as it’s very in depth, and you’re probably just here for stretching tips…I know I am. However, if you would like to know more, head on over to Here to find out more.
The Types of Stretching, Their Benefits and Negative Effects
There are four main types of stretching that you will use every day without realising it, each with benefits and negative effects. These are:
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
Static stretching refers to any stretch that is held in position. Some examples include:
- Runner’s Stretch
- Downward Dog
- Pancake (Leaning forward in a seated second position with the aim of your chest on the floor)
- Child’s Pose
- Happy Baby
- Front Splits
The benefit of static stretching is that you can hold a stretch where it’s uncomfortable for longer and slowly relax the muscles, which in turn will help you sink further into the stretch. Stretches should be held between 30 seconds (beginner) to 60 seconds (Advanced), and include multiple angles. For example, when in a front splits stretch, break up the time into stretching forwards towards the front leg, backwards towards the back leg, and to the left and right. This will help engage multiple muscle fibres. You should do this like a routine, with 30-60 seconds each rep for 3 sets.
The negative effects of static stretching are:
- You WILL lose stability and strength because you are relaxing the muscle fibres.
- If performed before a class or any strenuous movement, you will increase the risk of injury as the muscles are weaker and not stretched in a contracted state.
Don’t let that scare you off though, Static stretching is beneficial after a class or as an at-home stretching method, as it will increase flexibility over time, and can also help facilitate recovery and prevent soreness.
Dynamic stretches are any stretch that uses movement. These include:
- Swinging (leg swings, arm swings)
- Rotations (Hip, knee, shoulder and ankles)
Before a class, after some light cardio, THESE are the stretches you want to do in order to prevent injury. The idea is that using motion will slowly stretch out your muscles in a contracted and controlled state, instead of a relaxed one, and get the blood flowing. When you’re whacking your leg into the biggest Grande Jete you can muster, your entire body will be in a controlled and contracted state, not a relaxed one. If you never stretch your muscles in a contracted way, you risk muscle tears.
The benefits of this method before a class mean that you reduce the risk of injury and it will also help to warm your body and become aware of muscles that might need a bit more attention. The negative of this method is that it cannot be used alone to create significant gains in flexibility.
Ballistic stretches, are any stretch that uses rapid movement and ‘bouncing’. An example of this would be bouncing in a long lunge to push yourself deeper into the stretch. This method tends to be popular among sports athletes, as it rapidly stretches your full range as well as warms up the body for ballistic/explosive type movements. Pretty much any stretch can be done ‘ballistically’, by adding short, rapid movements to push you further, but is it really safe?
Our muscles have sensors that tell them to pull back when they’ve gone beyond their normal range of motion. This is called the stretch reflex and is in inbuilt mechanism to prevent injury. Ballistic stretching bypasses these sensors but not giving them time to activate. This means that you will be able to push yourself further than normal, and it can be a good way to increase flexibility over time. However, if not done correctly, it can lead to muscle strains and increased pressure/strain on ligaments and tendons.
It’s important to understand that, while I wouldn’t recommend any type of stretching being done without being warmed up, I would highly recommend that ballistic stretching is only done when you are with a professional, and when your muscles have been thoroughly warmed up beforehand.
Propreoceptive (individual or ‘one’s own’) Neuromuscular (jointly using the nervous system and muscular system) Facilitation (a process to make something easier).
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, PNF for short, was designed for injury prevention and rehabilitation. It combines static stretching and adds muscular contraction to build strength within the stretch, as well as to increase flexibility in both a relaxed and contracted state.
An example of PNF stretching is sitting in second with your feet against a wall. When you’ve reached your maximum flexibility, you begin to contract the muscles you are stretching for 6-10 seconds, and then releasing them. Some of you may have done this in one of Justin’s Stretch and Flex, or ballet Body Conditioning classes.
A word of caution though, this type of stretching should only be done after some body conditioning and a proper warm up, as without it there is a risk of soft-tissue injury. This method is best done at the very end of a conditioning class.
Okay Cool…What Do I Do Now?
Sorry, I know this is a lot of information and you probably just came here to figure out whether you should stretch before a class. The answer is yes, but don’t fall into the trap of stretching the wrong way at the wrong time. Here is the best way to safely increase your flexibility, while also strengthening your muscles and preventing injuries.
- Before Class: Light cardio, followed by Dynamic stretches
- During Class: If you are feeling particularly tight somewhere, perform a Static stretch, followed by a Dynamic movement.
- After Class: Static Stretch away to your heart’s content, and at the end if you’re looking to improve your flexibility and get your leg higher, perform one or two PNF stretches.
Check out these great articles and resources to delve deeper into the world of stretching.
As always, listen to your body and don’t try to push it where it doesn’t want to go. Understand that being uncomfortable in a stretch is normal, but you should never feel pain. If you do slowly get out of the stretch.
Flexibility will take time, and unfortunately age can play a factor in how fast you achieve your goals. The best thing to remember though is, it is possible, and you will get there with perseverance and help from the experienced teachers we have working with us.
The Dance Workshop