Too often, individuals are given the advice, "Don't forget to stretch" – as if stretching is both a monolithic category of movement and uniformly positive.
Both assumptions are overly simplistic and potentially dangerous.
Stretching is not a homogeneous category. The appropriateness of each type of stretch, which includes dynamic, static, corrective and fascial, depends on the goals of the individual and the segment of the workout.
In addition, stretching is not a panacea for all body ailments. Optimal biomechanics require a balance of strength and flexibility. Too much mobility (hypermobility) can be detrimental – think ankle sprains and dislocated shoulders. Too little mobility (hypomobility) can also be problematic – think pulled muscles and backs that "go out."
Like any program, an effective stretching program should be based on your unique goals and weak links.
With static stretching, you passively hold a muscle in its lengthened position for a sustained period – usually 30 seconds to two minutes. Static stretches "downgrade" the nervous system and relax and cool down the body. Save them for after exercise.
A good one for your quads and hip flexors is the static lunge stretch. Step forward with your left leg into a shallow lunge, both feet facing forward. Tuck your pelvis – your right hip bones should move toward your ribs. Feel the stretch up the front of your right thigh. Hold for 30 seconds or more before switching sides.
Dynamic stretching exists on a continuum from fairly ballistic and intense to a moving version of traditional static stretches. All dynamic stretches require participants to move through the range of motion. Dynamic mobility exercises "turn on" the nervous system and prime the body for movement. Do them before your workout.
Make the static lunge stretch a dynamic stretch by flowing from one leg to the other. Step forward with your left leg into the shallow lunge stretch described above. Hold for one or two seconds, then step forward with your right leg and repeat. Continue for five to 10 steps.
For a more sport-specific dynamic warm-up (e.g., before a run or soccer game), do bum kicks: "Run" on the spot kicking your heels to your bum.
In general, do dynamic stretches and mobility exercises before a workout and static stretches after your workout. Corrective static stretches are the exception.
A corrective stretch is a static stretch done before a workout to fix a specific muscular imbalance. For example, if you have trouble activating your glutes (bum muscles), a static hip-flexor stretch before your workout is often beneficial; owing to muscular inhibition, when the hip flexors are over-facilitated (tight), the brain has a hard time getting the glutes to work. Consult with a knowledgeable health practitioner to learn appropriate corrective stretching.
Fascia is a web of connective tissue that encases and connects the entire body, uniting bones and muscles. Multiple "lines" of these webs have been delineated, including the "superficial back line" and "lateral line."
To the untrained eye, fascial stretching looks similar to dynamic stretching. The difference is that the aim of dynamic stretching is to warm up particular motions and joints; with fascial stretching, the aim is to target the specific fascial "lines."
Turn the above hip-flexor stretch into a fascial stretch by adding arm motion. As you step forward with your left leg into your shallow lunge, reach up toward the ceiling with your right palm. Then sweep that right arm backward – as if you were swimming. Finally, sweep your right palm to the ceiling again as you rotate your torso left. Switch and repeat on the other leg.
You can also manipulate fascia by "rolling it out" with a foam roller. To roll out a similar area to the above stretch, try the leg extension roll. Lie facing the floor with the roller horizontally under your thighs and your forearms on the ground. Use your arms to roll your body forward and backward so the roller moves up and down your thighs. As you roll, bend and straighten your knees. Repeat five to 10 times.
A final tip
Not every muscle has to be strengthened during every workout and/or at the same intensity. If a joint is already hypermobile, prioritize strengthening the muscles around the joint instead of stretching.
Also, one side of your body will probably be noticeably less flexible, and your flexible side will not necessarily be consistent from stretch to stretch – both are totally normal. With each individual stretch, consider spending more time working the tighter side of the body; do the exercise on the tight side, then the looser side, then finish with the tight side again.