Stretching is a technique used to improve range of movement and function, enhance performance and decrease risk of injury during exercise1.
When stretching a muscle you should find the position up to the point where you begin to feel tension and hold. You do not need to push a stretch through your ‘pain barrier’ (past the point of tension through to pain). If a muscle is painful during a stretch it is more likely contracting against the stretch. This is known as the ‘stretch reflex’ and is the body’s way of protecting the muscle from being over-stretched.
To improve the efficiency of your stretching you can try a technique called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Fascilitation (PNF).
PNF stretching improves range of motion and flexibility, by increasing the length of the muscle and neuromuscular efficiency. A PNF protocol can also help to improve muscular strength and power, increasing athletic performance.
However, do not perform prior to exercise as this can result in a decrease in strength, power output and muscle activation2.
There are 2 types of PNF stretching:
Begin by isometrically contracting the target muscle for 6 seconds, relax the muscle then stretch for 20 seconds.
An isometric contraction is when the muscle stays the same length during the contraction and the joint angle doesn’t change.
E.g. To isometrically contract the hamstring lie on your back with your hip and knee flexed and heel placed on a chair, push your heel down onto the chair. After 6 seconds relax and straighten the leg. To stretch the hamstrings lift the leg straight up, keeping the knee straight. You can hold the leg by the thigh or the calf, or hook a towel around the foot to pull the leg towards you until you feel a stretch. Hold this position for 20 seconds.
Contract-Relax, Antagonist-Contract Method
This method begins with technique 1. Contract the target muscle for 6 seconds and relax. Then contract the antagonist muscle (opposing muscle) whilst stretching the target muscle.
E.g contract the hamstrings as described above. Then as you relax the hamstrings contract your quadriceps by tensing the muscles in the front of the thigh. Continue to contract the quads as you lift the leg up and pull towards you until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
Perform 3-5 repetitions after exercise, at least twice a week to ensure lasting range of movement and sustained beneficial effects.
How does it work?
Within the muscle tendons are sensory receptors known as Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO) which detect changes in muscle tension.
During method 1 the GTO’s detect the contraction of the target muscle before the stretch, sending inhibitory signals to the spinal cord. This results in decreased neural activity to the muscle causing the muscle to relax and muscle fibers elongate3.
During method 2 when the opposing muscle contracts, in order to maximise its contraction force the target muscle has to relax. This relaxation is a result of decreased neural activity and increased inhibitory signals3.
Why not give this a try! Especially runners, it has been found to significantly increase both stride rate and stride length following a 5 week protocol4.
If you would like more examples of how to perform the stretches for different muscle groups then do get in touch.
- McCarthy PW, Olsen JP, Smeby IH. Effects of contract-relax stretching procedures on active range of motion of the cervical spine on the transverse plane. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1997;12(2):136–138.
- Marek SM, Cramer JT, Fincher AL, Massey LL, Dangelmaier SM, Purkayastha S, Fitz KA, Culbertson JY. Clinical Studies – Acute Effects of Static and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power Output. J Ath Training. 2005;40(2):94.
- Hindle KB, Whitcomb TJ, Briggs W, Hong J. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms and Effects on Range of Motion and Muscular Function. J Hum Kinet. 2012;31:105–113.
- Caplan N, Rogers R, Parr MK, Hayes PR. The effect of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and static stretch training on running mechanics. J Strength Cond Res / Natl Str Cond Assoc J. 2009;23(4):1175–1180.