Tired of feeling stiff, sore, or tight? Stretching — a type of exercise that improves flexibility and mobility by lengthening your muscles, via extension or movement — may help.
In fact, stretching is a must, not just for athletes but for anyone who wants to feel good (read: less pain) in life. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), everyone should stretch at least two to three times per week, and establishing a daily stretching habit is most effective.
“The goal of stretching is to decrease tension and improve flexibility in your muscles to improve the range of motion of our joints,” says Daniel Giordano, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. Making stretching a staple in your health and fitness routine then, in turn, promotes longevity, helps prevent injury, improves the experience of aging, and more.
But stretching isn’t just about bending over to touch your toes. There are several stretching methods, and each has slightly different effects and benefits. Moreover, certain stretching types are better performed before a workout than after — and vice versa.
How Passive Stretching and Active Stretching Differ
The various stretching methods can be categorized in a number of ways. However, it may be easiest to break them into two main buckets: passive and active.
According to a research review, passive stretching is any technique in which the lengthened muscle doesn’t contract (tighten or shorten), while active stretching involves muscle contraction at some point during the stretch.
Generally speaking, active stretching methods are ideal for preparing your muscles for exercise, whereas passive stretching methods are best saved for after your workout, says Frederick E. Soliman, DO, a primary care sports medicine physician and researcher at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Orlando, Florida, and head primary care sports physician for the University of Central Florida.
Now, let’s dig into the different stretching types and their benefits.
Types of Passive Stretching
What It Is: This is the most common type of stretching, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “Static stretching involves holding the stretch at its end range for a period of time, usually 30 seconds to two minutes,” says Giordano. A classic example of a static stretch is the hamstring stretch.
Try It: Place one leg on a low stool with your hips and feet facing forward. Then, lean forward from your hips until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Make sure to keep your back flat and knee straight throughout the stretch, per the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS).
Benefits: Static stretching can improve flexibility and decrease tension when performed as part of a post-exercise cooldown, Giordano notes. It can also increase range of motion. In fact, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis published in January 2021 in Sports Medicine, static stretching not only increases range of motion in the stretched muscle or joint, but it also improves range of motion in muscles or joints that aren’t being stretched.
What It Is: Passive stretching is similar to static stretching in that it calls for holding a stretch at its end range for 30 seconds to two minutes. The difference is that passive stretching involves applying an external force — like a towel, resistance band, gravity, or another person — to improve flexibility and range of motion, Giordano says. The external force supports you during the stretch, whereas with static stretching, you have to support yourself in the position of the stretch.
Try It: Take the static hamstring stretch above: To make it passive, you’d lie on your back, lift one leg until you felt a stretch in your hamstrings, and recruit a partner to hold your lifted leg in place.
Benefits: Like static stretching, passive stretching is ideal for cooling down after a workout. Passive stretching increases blood flow to muscles, which helps clear waste products like lactic acid, says Dr. Soliman. ”That can help with muscle recovery,” he adds.
Types of Active Stretching
What It Is: This method of stretching involves contracting one group of muscles while the opposite group of muscles are stretched. These types of stretches are typically held for 10 to 15 seconds and without using an external aid, notes Christynne Helfrich, PT, DPT, an orthopedic clinical specialist with Hinge Health, a digital joint and muscle care clinic. “An example would be using your back muscles to open your arms and chest really wide to feel a stretch on the front part of your pectoral and chest muscles,” Helfrich says.
Try It: Stand straight with both feet flat on the floor. Spread your arms wide, parallel to the floor, and gently lean back until you feel a stretch across the front of your chest.
Benefits: Active stretching helps elongate the target muscles, increase blood flow, and get your joints moving. “So it’s really warming up the muscles to prepare them for activity,” Soliman says. It also improves mobility and decreases pain or soreness, Dr. Helfrich notes.
What It Is: “This form of stretching occurs when the muscle that is being stretched is contracted in a static position,” Helfrich says. Essentially, you’ll take a static or active stretch and add an isometric muscle contraction — this is where the muscle doesn’t change length (visibly move). “An example would be when you’re stretching your quad,” says Helfrich.
Try It: While standing, bend one knee to bring your ankle close to your glutes. Firmly hold your ankle in place and try to straighten your knee against the resistance of your hand.
Benefits: This type of stretching improves your range of motion and strengthens your muscles at their end range of motion, “which is typically where they are the weakest,” Helfrich says. This perk makes isometric stretching helpful for injury prevention, she adds.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
What It Is: PNF, which stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, is typically performed with the help of a practitioner, Giordano says. It alternates between contracting and relaxing a muscle to deepen range of motion, per ACE. And there are several different types of PNF, including “contract relax,” “hold relax,” and “contract-relax agonist contract,” according to a research paper. While these types differ slightly, they’re generally performed by contracting the stretched muscle at 75 to 100 percent of its maximum, holding for 10 seconds, and then relaxing, the paper notes.
Try It: Per ACE, a hamstring stretch using the PNF “hold-relax” method would look like this: Lie on your back and have someone lift one leg toward the ceiling until you feel a stretch in the back of your lifted leg. Hold there for 10 seconds. Hold and contract your hamstring for six seconds while the other person applies force. Relax and hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
Benefits: PNF is used in therapeutic and athletic settings to rehabilitate injuries, improve performance, increase strength, and encourage full range of motion, according to a research paper. It’s thought that resisting force while stretching, and then relaxing into a passive stretch before repeating the contraction sends signals from the nervous system that tell the muscles it’s safe to stretch further, the paper explains. The contraction builds strength, while achieving a deeper stretch improves flexibility and range of motion.
What It Is: Dynamic stretching involves actively tightening your muscles and moving your joints through their full range of motion, per the HSS. Whereas static stretches are meant to be held for a length of time, dynamic stretches aim to get the body moving. “It’s a way to warm-up the muscle and prepare it for exercise,” Soliman says.
Try It: Walking lunges, leg swings (standing on one leg and swinging the other in front of and behind you through the full range of motion), and torso twists (moving your torso from one side to other without moving your feet or legs) are a few examples of dynamic stretches, per the HSS.
Benefits: According to the HSS, dynamic stretches are functional and sport-specific movements that boost muscle temperature and reduce stiffness, which may improve speed, agility, and acceleration in your chosen activity. In fact, several studies have found short-term increases in power, sprint, or jump performance after athletes performed dynamic stretches, according to a research review.
Other Types of Stretching
What It Is: Even if you’ve never heard of somatic stretching, you’ve likely come across it in commonly associated forms of exercise, such as yoga, pilates, qigong, the Feldenkrais Method, and tai chi.
Somatic stretching differs from other stretching methods in that it doesn’t have a set protocol; you don’t have to target specific muscle groups or hold a stretch for a preestablished length of time. Instead, you release muscular tension by performing gentle movements and staying aware of your body and any sensations that come, Soliman says.
For example, you can arch your back and stretch. As you do, notice where you feel tension and adjust your movements. You can also raise your arms overhead, twist your torso from side to side, or round forward. Because somatic stretching doesn’t require muscle contractions, it may qualify as either passive or active stretching.
Try It: This total-body stretch practice, per Johns Hopkins Medicine’s YouTube channel, uses a mix of held stretches and slow, fluid movements to bring mobility and flexibility to the body.
Benefits: Studies in somatic stretching are lacking. However, this stretching method may improve your mind-body connection, “which can allow people to be more in tune with their body and move in ways their body craves,” Helfrich says. And by using slow, controlled movements combined with deep breathing, you may experience reduced muscle tension and pain, improved blood flow to the muscles, and a more relaxed state of mind.
All told, no matter how you stretch, it’s important you do. Not only does regular stretching improve your flexibility and mobility, it can also help you prevent injury, prepare for and recover after workouts, age well, and combat stiff, sore, or tense muscles from everyday life.