How to Stretch

When learning how to stretch it is important to take into consideration the variables that exist when stretching:
  1. alignment and stabilization of the body
  2. magnitude of the stretch
  3. duration of the stretch
  4. speed of the stretch
  5. frequency of stretching
  6. the mode or method of stretching
  7. how to integrate functional activities or sport specific movements into stretching
There is plenty of evidence that shows that various stretching interventions will improve range of motion and flexibility, but "how to stretch" protocols vary. Most research has been done with healthy young individuals so it is difficult to generalize to populations outside of those limitations on a website of this nature. People with long standing contractures, connective tissue disorders or other pathologic restrictions are best to seek the advice of a physical therapist who will use their best clinical judgment to determine the appropriate parameters for how to stretch. The type, magnitude, duration, and frequency of stretching must be based on scientific evidence.
how to stretch stretching exercises

How to Stretch - Alignment and Stabilization of the body

Proper alignment and posture of the area being stretched is necessary for comfort and stability during stretching. The alignment of the joint will influence the amount of tension present in the soft tissues while stretching, but postural alignment must be considered as well. The position of adjacent joints should be considered so as not to strain other structures unintentionally. For example, when stretching your hamstrings sitting on the floor it is easy to inadvertently force the lumbar spine into a position that puts an excessive amount of strain on the lumbar intervertebral discs. By being aware of your pelvic positioning this can be minimized.

We can learn from yoga that through particular stretching postures we are lengthening one muscle group while stabilizing with other muscle groups.  This stability allows one to elongate a muscle being stretched. Breathing allows the limb being stretched to elongate slowly as you relax.

Stabilization can also involve the fixation of one segment while the other segment moves. A stationary object such as a door frame or a chair will usually stability the more distal segment while the more proximal segment moves. An example of this is stretching the pecs through a door frame. Forearms are stabilized through the door frame while the individual leans forward through the door.

How to stretch - Magnitude of the Stretch

The magnitude of a stretch is determined by the force applied to the limb.  Low magnitude stretching held for longer durations has been shown to be superior to high magnitude stretches held for shorter periods.  This type of stretcing also minimizes the risk of tissue damage. Remember that stretching is a gradual process. It may take several weeks of stretching before you see significant results.

How to Stretch - Duration of Stretch

Choosing the duration that is  effective, safe, and practical is an important consideration.  When learning how to stretch one must decide how long you should stretch which depends on your age, activity level, the presence of scar tissue, whether you smoke, etc. All of the above can affect the results of your stretching, and of course the goals of stretching should also be considered. If you are training for hurdles, your goals are different than if you are training for hockey or basketball.

Growing children: 10 seconds
Young adults:  30 seconds
Older individuals (>60):  60 seconds

See the following page for a discussion on how long to stretch.

How to Stretch - Speed of the Stretch

A slow stretch will affect the viscoelastic properties of soft tissues more than a fast stretch, creating more compliance. A slow stretch will also ensure that the muscle remains relaxed during the stretch and prevent injury. Muscle spindles are sensitive to the speed of stretching so a quick stretch is more likely to create tension in the muscle. A slower stretch is also easier to control so is less likely to do harm.

A high speed stretch with high magnitude is called a ballistic stretch. A ballistic stretch uses momentum to carry a limb through its range of motion. This type of stretching, although also effective in increasing mobility, is more likely to injure soft tissues and create muscle soreness.  Learning how to stretch this way is best done under the supervision of a professional. Stretching in this way is only safe for healthy young active people in a conditioning program and is not recommended for anyone older, otherwise sedentary, or anyone with musculoskeletal pathology..

How to Stretch - Frequency of Stretch

Stretching frequency refers to the number of times an individual stretches in a day or week. The frequency of stretching needed to gain flexibility depends on the following factors:
  • age
  • cause of stiffness
  • medications taken
There are few studies that exist giving guidelines as to frequency of stretching and the response to stretching may vary amongst individuals. Things to consider when thinking about frequency are:
  • rest time between sessions for tissue healing and to minimize post exercise soreness
  • if there is excessive loading of tissues, tissue breakdown can exceed its ability to repair leading to tissue failure
  • inflammation from repetitive stress can lead to the formation of hypertrophic scarring

Once a muscle is stretched, these changes are not permanent due to the elasticity of the muscle. Like a rubber band, the muscle will bound back to its original length. More permanent changes come with adaptive remodeling, or creep. Some studies show that stretching is most beneficial to achieve overall change in mobility when performed four times a day.

How to Stretch - Method of Stretching

Regardless of the method of stretching it is important to warm the tissues first. This can be done through low intensity active exercises or the application of heat.
The methods of stretching discussed on this website are
Static Stretching
Dynamic Stretching
Ballistic Stretching
Myofascial Stretching
Passive Stretching
PNF Stretching (hold-relax and contract-relax)

How to Stretch - Integrate Functional Movements

Results of stretching are only transient. Gains in range of motion will eventually be lost as soft tissues retract to their original length. Studies show that this takes about four weeks to occur after you have stopped stretching. The best way to maintain gains in range of motion is to incorporate the new range of motion into activities done on a daily basis. It is important that as you achieve more mobility in a joint or muscle that you gain strength in that new range in order to maintain a balance amongst the muscles around a joint throughout its range of motion.