13 Health Benefits of Stretching – Static, Dynamic, Ballistic + More
Stretching is one of the oldest physical activities still used today and has existed in health and fitness since the early ancient Egyptian times, when people used to use stretching as a strength and recovery exercise (1). However, stretching and other flexibility exercises have been the subject of a lot of debate in the health and exercise science field over the last 20 years, with some claiming it can be very beneficial for improving mental health, flexibility and recovery from exercise and others debating if stretching has any value or it can be detrimental to exercise performance (2, 3, 4).
Along with this, there has also been a rise in different types of stretching protocols to help improve health and performance, with each having its own unique benefits and drawbacks.
Below are the different forms of stretching, along with the currently accepted benefits and drawbacks of each method for health, exercise performance and recovery.
Types of Stretching
As stated above, there are a few different ways of implementing stretching or flexibility training into a routine, each with a unique effect on the body. Because each of these can be useful in accomplishing different goals, these separate types of stretching warrant introduction.
This type of stretching is the oldest and most common form, where a muscle is moved into a stretched position and held in that position for a set amount of time, usually 10 – 30 seconds, to help increase flexibility in the stretched muscle.
Benefits of Static Stretching
1. Static Stretching Can Improve Flexibility
The most obvious advantage to stretching is the increase in range of motion it causes (5). The more surprising element to static stretching is that it can improve whole-body flexibility by only static stretching one area of the body, with one study showing that lower body static stretches also improved upper body flexibility (6).
This is thought to be due to the profound effect stretching has on the nervous system (7).
This allows for greater movement and offers an efficient means of improving flexibility with only one or two static stretches needed to improve overall flexibility.
2. Static Stretching Burns Calories and Can Act as an Exercise Substitute
Just like jogging can improve endurance and cardiovascular health and strength training can improve muscle mass and decrease body fat, so too can stretching help burn calories, with an hour of mild static stretching burning around 113 calories for an average 75 kilogram man (8).
It also increases flexibility and, by increasing physical activity, can help protect against disease and illness (9).
There is also evidence that it can increase the energy expended on a given exercise, like running, more than if the exercise was completed alone (10).
This makes static stretching exercises an ideal form of light exercise to use for inexperienced exercisers or elderly individuals who may not enjoy or be capable of carrying out more intense workouts.
3. Static Stretching Can Help Improve Performance in Some Sports
In sports that require maintaining a stretched position or a high level of flexibility throughout a slow movement, like in ballet, yoga or artistic gymnastics, the movements in most static stretches act as an ideal form of training for these sports and have been suggested to help the performance of these athletes (11).
While stretching may prove helpful for more frail exercisers, it can also be a useful addition to the training programs of athletes in need of more flexibility.
4. Static Stretching Can Improve Mood and Promote Relaxation
As well as improve physical health and performance, stretching can help improve mood and mental health by promoting relaxation (2).
This was shown in highly stressed individuals, where stretching was as beneficial for mood as aerobic exercise and stress education.
This offers another reason to incorporate static stretching into an exercise program to help manage stress and improve overall mental health.
Drawbacks of Static Stretching
1. Static Stretching Can Temporarily Reduce Strength and Power
Because of the effect static stretching has on the nervous system, it also has a detrimental effect on strength and power, with stretching before a workout being shown in multiple studies to reduce the ability of individuals to produce high levels of strength in weightlifting or reducing speed and power performance in movements like sprinting and jumping (12, 13).
2. Static Stretching Has No Effect on Muscle Soreness or Recovery
Contrary to popular belief, static stretching, either before or after a workout or done alone, has no effect on muscle soreness or recovery from strenuous exercise (14).
It also has no effect on injury occurrence, with research showing that stretching does not help protect against muscle strains or tendon injuries (15).
This form of stretching has emerged over the last ten years and has become is of the most popular stretching techniques recently, despite being around for a surprisingly long time.
In this type of stretching, an individual moves ‘dynamically’ through a range of motion in order to stretch and increase their range of motion with each repetition of the movement. A good example of dynamic stretches are arm circles or walking lunges.
Benefits of Dynamic Stretching
1. Dynamic Stretching Can Improve Flexibility Without Impairing Strength or Power
One of the biggest drawbacks of static stretching for athletes is its detrimental effect on strength and power. For this reason, dynamic stretching offers a great alternative, as it has been shown to help increase flexibility without impairing strength or speed performance afterwards (16).
This makes dynamic stretching an ideal option for strength and speed based athletes who need to improve flexibility or as an addition to a warm up routine.
2. Dynamic Stretching Raises Body Temperature Quicker Than Static Stretching
Because dynamic stretching is carried out with higher speed and intensity, and usually involves more complex movements, it can raise body temperature quicker than other variations such as static stretching (17).
This allows more time to be allocated to the main body of the training session for athletes, or allows a more efficient workout for those using dynamic stretching exercises for their main workout.
3. Dynamic Stretching Can Offer Greater Performance Benefits Than Other Stretching Techniques
As well as maintaining peer and strength levels while improving flexibility, there is evidence that dynamic stretching can also help improve strength and power over the long term compared to static stretching.
One study showed wrestlers who carried out dynamic stretching before every workout for 4 weeks improved their jump height, sprint speed, muscle endurance and muscle strength and flexibility compared to the static stretching group who only improved flexibility (18).
This along with a shorter time requirement makes dynamic stretching an ideal choice for athletes.
4. Dynamic Stretching Can Improve Motor Control
Another study on athletes showed that dynamic stretching can also improve muscle activation and control,which could explain the above benefits (19).
This could make dynamic stretching useful for not only athletes but also as a progression from static stretching, which was shown to have no effect on muscle activation, for elderly or rehabilitating individuals looking to help improve their balance and strength.
Drawbacks of Dynamic Stretching
1. Dynamic Stretching May Be Too Intense For Less Experienced Exercisers
Because of the higher intensity of dynamic stretching, and the level of strength needed for some more complex dynamic stretches, this form of stretching may not be possible for some more inexperienced exercisers, more infirm elderly individuals or children.
This can also increase risk of injury if the progression from static to dynamic stretching is made in these populations.
2. Dynamic Stretching is Less Effective Than Static Stretching in Previously Injured People
For athletes or exercisers that have recently recovered from an injury, dynamic stretching can have no effect on flexibility compared to static stretching, which can still promote suppleness (20).
With the added risk of injury discussed above, individuals in rehabilitation or recently recovered from an injury would benefit more from using static stretching initially before progressing to the dynamic version.
This type of stretching is very similar to dynamic stretching with the exception that the movements are performed explosively and at high speed, such as in using high kicks to stretch the hamstrings.
As such, this protocol is usually only recommended for, and practiced by, experienced athletes and exercisers.
Benefits of Ballistic Stretching
1. Ballistic Stretching Can Help Improve Power and Speed
Because of the high speed of the movements in ballistic stretches, this form of stretching can also help develop speed and power in movements like jumping and running, as was shown in a study where ballistic stretching improved both as well as flexibility in basketballers (21).
For more advanced athletes focusing on developing power and speed ballistic stretching can be a useful addition to a program.
2. It is the Most Sport-Specific Type of Stretching
In most sports, the majority of movements are required to be carried out at high speed and with high intensity.
As such, the high speed stretching in this protocol is most useful for preparing athletes for competition or an intense training session, particularly if the athlete is experienced in dynamic stretching.
3. Ballistic Stretching Can Improve Tendon Flexibility
Unlike static stretching or slower forms of dynamic stretching, ballistic stretching has been shown to help reduce tendon stiffness, particularly in long tendons like in the ankle (22).
This can be useful in helping prevent tendon injury but could be detrimental to long term running speed ad jumping power and so should be implemented sparingly during specific phases of training.
Drawbacks of Ballistic Stretching
1. Ballistic Stretching Carries a High Risk of Injury
Because of the high speed and load placed on stretching the muscle during ballistic forms of stretching this variation of stretching has the highest injury risk for even highly trained athletes.
As such, this type of stretching should be avoided by inexperienced exercisers or those recently recovering from an injury.
Athletes attempting ballistic stretching should do so when well rested and for a specific training period, when looking to develop speed and power.
2. Ballistic Stretching May Cause Muscle Soreness
Because there is a high amount of eccentric, or muscle stretching, tension in the movements used, ballistic stretching can be a cause of muscle soreness (23). However, this usually only occurs after the first 1-3 sessions and will disappear thereafter.
This should be taken into consideration as muscle soreness can reduce strength and power levels and interfere with recovery (24), which can be a particularly big problem during competition periods.
This form of stretching acts as a hybrid between strength training and static stretching.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, or PNF, stretching is a method that involves stretching a muscle for a set time, usually around 10 seconds, before tensing, or contracting, the stretched muscle in the extended position for 6-10 seconds before returning the muscle to its initial position.
This form of stretching is often used by athletes and physiotherapists when looking to rehabilitate from exercise and improve flexibility but can be used by anyone.
Benefits of PNF Stretching
1. PNF Stretching Has a Lasting Effect On Flexibility
While static stretching and dynamic stretching usually last around 1-3 hours after the exercises are done, the muscle contraction at the end of each stretch that separates PNF from all other forms of flexibility training also causes a longer lasting effect on the nervous system, causing a more permanent change in flexibility (25).
This is what makes PNF such a popular choice for physiotherapists as it has the longest lasting effect.
This makes PNF ideal for those looking to apply greater flexibility in future tasks or performances or for those looking for an alternative to low intensity static stretching.
2. PNF Stretching Can Improve Strength and Motor Coordination
The multiple contractions after stretching in PNF also makes this form of stretching an effective means of strength training, particularly those who cannot use full ranges of motion due to muscle weakness or injury (26).
It is also effective in training movements in different directions as it can also effectively train new long term motor patterns due to the above mentioned effect on the nervous system (27).
This can make PNF stretching a great option for injured athletes or weaker individuals who are looking to improve their strength and movement quality.
Drawbacks of PNF Stretching
1. PNF Stretching Requires Some Knowledge and Training
Unlike the other stretching methods, which are relatively simple to learn and use, PNF stretching has multiple techniques and different progressions that can be used for different aims (28).
This can make it difficult for inexperienced individuals to implement this form of stretching into an exercise routine and decrease its effectiveness.
2. Some PNF Stretches will Require a Partner or Equipment
In exercises targeting the hamstrings, back shoulders or lower back, this will require maneuvering in awkward positions and contracting different muscles at different times.
This can be difficult, or impossible, without having equipment such as resistance bands or a cable machine or a partner to help in assisting with these movements.
Because of this, PNF stretching may be difficult to implement for solo exercisers or those who are exercising at home.
Conclusion and Recommendations
As mentioned, each different type of stretching has different benefits and drawbacks. As such people with different goals should apply different stretching protocols.
Beginner exercisers, elderly individuals or those looking to stretch for health benefits would benefit most from utilizing static stretching.
However, if looking to improve sports performance or looking to progress from static stretching dynamic stretching offers the best option.
For highly experienced athletes looking to develop power and speed, ballistic stretching offers a good choice.
Whereas for injured or elderly individuals looking to improve movement quality, strength and flexibility PNF stretching offers the greatest benefit.
Along with this, each different type of stretching can be alternated depending on changing goals and progress, allowing for a diverse and effective stretching routine that can be used by anyone.