Methods of Stretching and their Effectiveness

Sean Meehan

Sean Meehan

There are, generally speaking, two types of stretching methods: static and dynamic. Static meaning that the position held, either through external or internal mechanisms, and dynamic meaning stretching through movement or motion. Static stretching is the form with which people are most familiar, however there are two types of static stretching, static passive and static active. Static passive stretching is a method whereby the person stretching uses an external force in order to maintain a stretched position. This external force can be provided by the stretcher themselves, or by an external partner, or even an external object. Static active stretching is a method whereby the stretched position is held simply by muscular control only, for example, the leg is lifted and held in place stretching one side of the position and strengthening the other. Dynamic stretching, by it’s very name, involves movement to produce the stretch. This is achieved through controlled motion of the body or limb to the point just outside a person’s limit on mobility. Dynamic ballistic stretching is more of an uncontrolled motion and should only be utilized be an experienced practitioner and with a thoroughly warm body.

There is a third method of stretching, one which crosses over both the static and dynamic methods of stretching, which is PNF, or rather proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.  Any static stretch can utilize the PNF methodology by simply contracting the muscle that is being stretched. What this achieves is a short term inhibition of the stretch reflex allowing an immediate increase in the available range of motion on the limb being stretched. Also, in conjunction, this strengthens the muscle in the stretch position, eventually allowing the new range of motion to be more fully utilized without warming up. It should be noted however, that when performing PNF stretching, that both sides of the position be strengthened in the stretched position. For example, if the leg is lifted into a stretched position the leg should be contracted downward to inhibit the stretch reflex and strengthen the back of the leg, but also the leg should be lifted in a static active position in order to strengthen the front of the leg thus providing an equal level of strength and flexibility to the entire joint.

The position of the stretch should be progressed to the maximum allowable possible, without eliciting a pain response, and without the body compensating in order to move into the stretched position. For example, bending over to touch the floor is a common stretch, however most will round the back in an attempt to get their head closer to their knees, at which point the stretch will shift away from the intended targeted area simply to achieve and end results. Rather, the focus should be placed into the muscle being stretched to ensure that a proper position is maintained.

The simplest method of stretching to teach is static passive, as this will be somewhat familiar to the lay person as it is the most common form taught in any activity. Any position can become a static stretch position so long as the limit of that range of motion in that particular limb is brought to the point prior to pain and held for ~30 sec in order to allow the body to relax into the new position and eventually gain an increase in mobility. There are therefore, quite literally, hundreds of varying stretches that an individual can perform. However, below is a simple list that a karate-ka can implement that will help in stretching the entire body in preparation for class:

  1. Ceiling reaches
  2. Toe touches
  3. Hip lunge (both sides)
  4. Pigeon (both sides)
  5. Quad stretch (while in pigeon – both sides)
  6. Seated middle splits and reach forward, left, right

Perform this short stretching sequence after a brief warm up. Hold each stretch for approximately 20sec in order to release tension from the muscle and make them more mobile, but not too long for muscular fatigue to set-in.

The most effective process to gain increase range of motion is to combine several of these methodologies together. I would recommend combining static passive stretching with PNF stretching in a sequence on alternating days (which an individual becomes more experienced they can experiment with this schedule as their body will best react). Static stretching will increase the maximum available range of motion while the PNF stretching will increase the available range of useable motion. It should be noted that the difference between the maximum range and the useable range is known as one’s flexibility deficit, and it is within this deficit that injury can occur, since the body is capable of moving into the range, but has no ability to control it. Both need to be increased, since you cannot increase the useable range beyond the maximum range. At the same time the amount of deficit one has should be decreased in order to prevent injury.

How often one should stretch will depend on results being obtained. Any type of overly taxing methods of stretching, such as PNF, should all for rest days in between to allow the muscles to heal and repair, however static stretching can be done every day. If the bodies response is favorable and range of motion is increasing then the level of stretching is adequate. Increases or decreases to the amount of time spent stretching will depend on whether the body is recovering from the stretching sessions and whether progress is being made.

Ultimately, whatever method an individual uses will be the appropriate method as long is it illicit the desired outcome in mobility growth. The preceding outlined the most common methods of stretching, and those that have been shown to generate the best increase in flexibility. Whatever method is used in a karate class, it is up to the instructor to ensure that the correct technique for each stretch is taught, and that the participants stretch adequately enough, and not forced into a position beyond their capabilities.