The secrets of stretching for sport

Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology

Stretching for any sport is a vital component for maintaining range of motion, reducing muscle tension, increasing flexibility, and warming up muscles.

Examples of active stretching are static, ballistic, and dynamic. Passive stretching or assisted stretching is called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching.

Stretching can be performed before, during, and post competition. A great deal has been learned in the last decade about stretching, but there still is some confusion about when to perform stretching and how to do it properly when it comes to the coach or athlete actually applying these principles in practices or games.


Ballistic stretching

Ballistic stretching and dynamic stretching are similar. However, in ballistic stretching the stretch reflex can be triggered due to the bouncing movement of this stretch and is not recommended for athletes as injury may occur if they go beyond their normal range of movement.


Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching should be performed before practice or competition as an 8-12 minute warm-up, which primes the nervous system for play. It can also be used during rest periods in practices or games to keep the working muscles warm, to maintain the optimal range of motion, and to keep the nervous system primed for action.  More about dynamic stretching as a method of warm-up in an upcoming article.


Static Stretching

Static stretching is the kind that most people think about when they want to stretch. In static stretching, the end point of a range of motion is held for 20 to 30 seconds.

Static stretching incorporates passive relaxation and elongation of the muscles being stretched. It is best performed post-competition to improve flexibility and is a great way to cool down. This is not an optimal stretch to use prior to activity as the nervous system gains no benefit from this stretch.

In addition, injury can occur if an athlete is too flexible and the joints are not well supported due to increased laxity or if an athlete’s muscles are cold and too tight and the range of movement is limited.

And, in fact, recent research has shown that doing static stretching before sports that involve explosive, powerful movements can hurt performance by reducing the amount of power you are capable of generating. The reason this is thought to occur is that you are relaxing the muscles rather than exciting the nervous system to prepare to fire. That is why dynamic stretching during warm-up is better to do before play and static stretching better done after play.


PNF stretching

To further improve stretching, PNF can be performed with the assistance of another person. Sometimes you’ll see professional football or soccer players doing this kind of stretching during practice on TV. The muscle is stretched to the end point and while the partner provides resistance, isometric force is applied by the athlete against the resistance. For example, in a hamstring stretch the athlete lies face up, the leg is raised straight up and held by the partner at the hamstring’s end point, a force is applied against the partner’s hand by the athlete for 10 seconds and then the athlete relaxes while the partner adds a little more stretch. There are many varieties of PNF, which involve differences in the duration of contraction or relaxation and which muscle is contracted (the target muscle, or its opposing muscle).

PNF stretching is superior to static stretching but should only be used when all the players have had the team therapist teach them the proper way to perform this technique.

Care must be taken in performing PNF stretching as there is a risk of injury if there isn’t good communication between the partners.  It is a method often performed by therapists and should be done by adult players if they have been properly trained.


Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology.