By Colin Tomes, O2X Injury Prevention Specialist
Stretching Facts vs. Fiction
An effective warmup and cool down are essential components of a complete SWEAT training program and have been well established not only in the research but also at O2X. However, while stretching has a role in both warming up and cooling down, it is often overlooked, misunderstood, or otherwise not maximized within tactical athlete training. With the abundance of both information and misinformation in circulation related to stretching, let’s cut through myth and fiction and provide a go-to resource to understand what stretching is, what it does and doesn’t do, and how it can best be applied to the tactical athlete’s EAT-SWEAT-THRIVE program.
Below are the generally accepted categories of stretching, their definitions, applications, and influence on training and performance. A brief note on where to incorporate each type of stretching into an EAT-SWEAT-THRIVE program is provided at the end of each section, and common myths related to each type of stretching are also included.
Types of Stretches
Static, Passive, and Active stretching
Definition: Static, passive, and active stretching are often confused, but each has a unique process and may be applied individually or in combination (6). Some resources will differentiate static and passive stretching, but these are often considered interchangeable (6, 7).
To perform a static or passive stretch, the joint of interest is brought to the end of its pain-free range of motion in one direction and held in place, either by the person stretching (for example holding your arm across your chest to stretch the deltoid muscle), another person, a device, or an object.
Active stretching is different from static and passive stretching in that only the muscles that create the motion (agonist) being stretched impart the stretch. An example would be reaching one’s arms up overhead while seated and holding that position without any other motion, assistance, or device.
Application: Static, passive, and active stretches are often involved in Yoga poses. They are also generally low in intensity and movement, so may best be incorporated into post-workout, post-shift, or recovery activities. Because static and passive stretches can briefly reduce muscular power (8), these types of stretching should not be applied immediately prior to activity where rapid bursts of exertion may be necessary.
Effects on Performance: Static, passive, and active stretching can improve range of motion over the short term, though some evidence suggests that 15 minutes or more of sustained stretching are needed to produce a lasting change in physical tissue length (9). This type of stretching is very safe and may be most suitable for those who are rehabilitating injuries, are new to physical training, or are otherwise uncomfortable or unaccustomed to testing the boundaries of their range of motion (6). As mentioned above, these types of stretches may reduce muscular power for brief periods of time, that is, the ability to generate as much force as possible over the shortest possible timeframe, (such as a vertical jump), and so ideally should not be performed prior to situations where rapid exertion may be necessary (8). Examples would include training plyometrics or Olympic lifting or starting duty. There is a role for passive, static, and active stretching during recovery, and the relatively low intensity of these stretches are therefore suitable for integration into a Yoga, mindfulness, meditative, or other mental well-being routine.
Definition: Dynamic stretching may be confused with active stretching. Dynamic stretching differs from active stretching in that dynamic stretching will gradually increase the attempted range of motion, speed of movement, or both, rather than holding the stretch position. Dynamic stretching differs from another type of movement-reliant stretching known as ballistic stretching in that momentum should not be applied to create additional range of motion; any speed generated during an effective dynamic stretch remains controlled. Examples include arm circles, leg swings, or head rotations. These stretches should begin slow and well within available range of motion, and then gradually increase over 8-12 repetitions or 10-15 seconds, without causing substantial fatigue of the muscles stretched. Attempting to stretch fatigued muscles can result in reduced range of motion and is therefore not recommended (6, 7).
Application: Because of its kinetic nature, dynamic stretching is suitable for warming up prior to starting a shift or a training session. Blood flow to the region can increase with dynamic stretching, and there is some evidence that it is more appropriate for activities that require balance, rapid change of running direction (agility), and movement of the upper extremities (10).
Effects on Performance: Dynamic stretching appears to have similar effects to static stretching, but without changes in muscle performance in the short term (6). When combined with low intensity aerobic activity and job or training-specific dynamic activities, high amplitude (meaning full range of motion) dynamic stretching can be included in a complete warm-up routine to maximize performance (11). In some instances, warm-ups that include dynamic stretching and neuromuscular activation may reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury (12, 13). Those who are unaccustomed to training or highly demanding physical work should be particularly diligent with including warm up activities that include the components mentioned above (13).
Definition: Ballistic stretching may be thought of as a high velocity evolution of classic dynamic stretching wherein momentum is used to force the stretch beyond its typical range of motion. Because momentum is used to exert the stretch, the involved tissues do not readily adapt to this type of stretching, and can actually upregulate muscle spindle fiber activity, reducing range of motion (4). Because this type of stretching may also lead to injury, it is generally not advised (6).
Definition: PNF stretching is a specific method of dynamic stretching that involves not only the local soft tissue, but also the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It has been identified as the most effective and most rapid process for increasing range of motion (6). PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It combines some of the strategies in passive stretching in combination with muscular contractions to achieve a change in joint range of motion. PNF techniques begin with the passive stretch of a muscle group followed by a contraction of the same muscle group against resistance (such as a coach or a stationary object) at the end of its range of motion, and then a passive stretch again through the newly increased range of motion. Usually, a partner or professional is involved to maximize the effectiveness of PNF stretching. Repeated passive stretching can then follow the PNF technique. Some PNF stretches also include contraction of the antagonist muscle group in addition to the agonist muscle group. Regardless of approach, the muscle group being stretched must be rested without any tension for approximately 20-30 seconds before another PNF stretch is initiated to minimize injury risk (6).
Application: PNF stretching is suitable for tactical athletes of all ability levels and can be modified to suit any individual need by incorporating additional or reduced dynamic elements, intensity, or complexity (14). The incorporation of voluntary muscular contraction during the stretch results in additional tension within the muscle, leading to additional golgi tendon organ activity above what other stretching techniques can produce (6). Remember that the GTO inhibits muscle tension and can therefore facilitate additional range of motion at a joint. PNF stretching can also take advantage of a phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition (15). This occurs naturally when any muscle group contracts; as it increases in tension, the muscles that perform the opposite motion (antagonists) must decrease in tension. By leveraging this process, PNF stretches can rapidly increase available range of motion safely (6).
Effects on Performance: While short lived, and with the potential to reduce muscular power over the short-term, PNF stretches may nonetheless be an ideal go-to for tactical professionals who are short on time, but who are determined to integrate stretching into an effective warm-up and cool-down routine. PNF stretches have been demonstrated in the research to be effective after only a single application, so need not be repeated multiple times to achieve additional range of motion (6). PNF stretches can also be effective for those who may normally receive little observed benefit from traditional static or dynamic stretches.
As you can see, there are many approaches to stretching that can be incorporated into an effective EAT-SWEAT-THRIVE program, and each has its own role and purpose. In general, static/passive stretches should be thought of as tools for recovery and can be effectively integrated into breathing and wellness efforts as well as following a workout, training, or job task. Dynamic stretches are most appropriate for warming up prior to work or training and can have positive effects on performance and injury prevention. PNF stretching, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, can be performed when time is at a premium, is a safe and effective technique either before or after training, and can be developed in accordance with the tactical athlete’s ability level. These stretches are the most effective for increasing range of motion over the short term, and effectively engage the central nervous system.
About the Specialist: Colin Tomes is an O2X Injury Prevention Specialist and also a Professor, PhD Candidate, Physical Therapist, Certified Athletic Trainer, and Strength and Conditioning Specialist. His interest in getting 1% better every day began when he enlisted in the US Air Force, with the objective of training to join a front-line combat team. Although he was medically discharged from service for chronic training injuries, during rehabilitation, he developed an interest in learning everything he could about health, wellness and human performance. This led to a bachelor’s degree in Athletic Training, during which he certified not only as an ATC, but as an NSCA TSAC-F and conducted research at Bond University with the Tactical Research Unit and New South Wales Police Force. From there, he attended Physical Therapy school to earn his DPT at Bond University, conducting additional clinical and research work with the New South Wales Police and Royal New Zealand Police Academy. Colin also certified as a CSCS after PT school and is now currently a PhD Candidate at Bond University.
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