Benefits of Functional Stretching – and How NOT to Stretch

Chances are, at some point you learned how to stretch before a workout. Chances are, the way you learned to stretch could actually be slowing you down and increasing your risk of injury!

There are four main types of stretching:

1. Static (or sustained): Hold a single stretch position for 15-60 seconds. Some yoga styles take this idea further; you hold a position for more than a minute, while using your breath to relax the target area. Contrary to popular belief, you should not do static stretching before a workout. Stretching a muscle for a long period of time like this temporarily weakens and deactivates the muscle - not the desired effect pre-activity! Static stretching is, however, great for post-workout, when muscles are already warm but need to be loosened up again.

2. Ballistic: Bounce rapidly in and out of the stretch position. For example, reach down to touch your toes, forcing the movement until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings, and then repeat this movement several times. This style of stretching was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. (--And it should stay there.)

Let's set the record straight right now. Ballistic stretching is a no-no. I repeat, do NOT practice ballistic stretching. This style of stretching might be useful to a very tiny percentage of incredibly fit, elite athletes with very specific, highly elastic muscle character. For the other 99.9% of us, ballistic stretching is a recipe for injury. Essentially, you are pulling a muscle taught like a rubber band, and then "zing!" letting it go. The result is an already-fatigued muscle that responds by tightening up further. Or, if you have bounced too forcefully, you can easily end up with a strained or pulled muscle.

3. Active Isolated (AI): Assume a stretch position, and then contract the opposing muscle for about two seconds. As you relax the opposing muscle, you gently stretch the target muscle for two seconds. This is a component of the functional stretching I'll describe in a moment.

4. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): You assume a stretch position, contract the target muscle for a few seconds, and then deepen the stretch position. This is usually repeated three times. This style of stretching can be a little risky if you don't know exactly how much tension to use, or how to breathe with the stretch. It's commonly practiced by sports massage therapists, physical therapists, or movement specialists.

(I actually pulled a hamstring just before a race with PNF stretching. Even though I am trained in PNF stretching, I was a little excited and rushed before the start, and forced the move too far. If you attempt PNF stretching, do it in a calm moment, and be overly cautious!)

What is functional stretching?

Functional, or dynamic, stretching is a fluid series of movements, some of which incorporate AI stretching. It is based on the principle that in order to get ready to use a muscle, you must activate the muscle, and you do it by using the same range of motion as the real work you're about to do. This is called "movement prep" in some core strength vocabularies.

Functional stretching activates and warms up muscles and muscle connectors (such as tendons), without fatiguing the muscles.

Here's a quick look at a functional, or dynamic, stretching routine. This routine would be appropriate as a warm-up for field or court sports involving lots of running. (This is not the routine I do for triathlon; my routine comes next!)

Important: Start any functional or dynamic stretching movement gently. Do the move very slowly the first, to get the feel for how far you can comfortably stretch. You should feel a stretch, but no pain!

Sample Dynamic Warm-up Routine

Which Muscles Do I Activate?

So, which muscles do you need to activate? Which specific moves you should do depends partly on your sport, but all sports have one thing in common: the body core. "Core" is the body pillar, or the muscle groups in the back, chest, abdomen, gluteus and hip flexors. These muscle groups control all movement. If your core is strong and flexible, you do not necessarily need pumped-up biceps, calves, or other peripheral muscles.

Your gluteus muscles are the center of all weight-bearing movement, and a lot of non-weight-bearing movement too. But, your muscles have memory, and when you first start to move, they don't remember how to "fire" properly. Imagine riding a bike or running 100 meters without the strength from your glutes. Your legs would be quickly fatigued!

Functional stretching triggers your muscle memory and get the muscles firing in a pattern that supports the movement you're going to do. This greatly shortens your warm-up time, increases your potential power once you're in motion, and reduces the risk of pulling or injuring soft tissue. With every step, think to yourself, "Fire the glutes!" (I mean, you can say it out loud if you really want to...)

My Routine

I do a short routine before every bike or run workout. It takes about four minutes, but it's worth an extra 30 minutes of training, maybe an extra year of life. Doing this routine not only loosens up the muscles; it wakes them up and reminds them how to activate.

Here's my sequence:

Hip Crossover

Hip Crossover (cross over to both sides)
Hip Crossover (cross over to both sides)

Forward Lunge/Forearm-to-Instep (or “World’s Greatest Stretch”)

World's Greatest Stretch, Step 1 (fire the back-leg glute as you lunge)
World's Greatest Stretch, Step 1 (fire the back-leg glute as you lunge)
World's Greatest Stretch, Step 2
World's Greatest Stretch, Step 2

If you only do one stretch, do the World's Greatest Stretch!

Step your left leg forward into a lunge position. Bend your left arm, and reach left elbow down toward the floor, so your shoulder touches the inside of your knee. Fire the right glute! Then straighten the bent leg and pull the left toe up off the ground (flexing the foot). Repeat this three times on each side.

Lateral Lunge

Lateral Lunge (fire the bent-leg glute as you lunge)
Lateral Lunge (fire the bent-leg glute as you lunge)
Calf Stretch (go up on your toes and back down 5 times)
Calf Stretch (go up on your toes and back down 5 times)

Hand Walk

Backward Lunge (with Optional Twist)

Backward Lunge with Twist (fire the glute!)
Backward Lunge with Twist (fire the glute!)

Walking Quad and Hip Stretches

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