Think of ballistic stretching as attempting to pretzel your body to its edge, Gumby style, and then pushing it even further. "Ballistic stretching is when we take a stretch to end range and then bounce in and out of its end range trying to push the limits of the stretch," says Racked Stretch co-founder Keren Day, DC, adding that she doesn't recommend this type of stretch to her clients.
Why are ballistic stretches a bad idea?
"Stay far, far away from ballistic stretches" seems to be the general consensus among stretch pros, who widely caution against the practice. Why? "When you force a stretch to happen and the tissue—either muscle and/or fascia—isn’t ready to stretch that far, it’s easy for another area of your body to compensate allowing for the stretch," says trainer Erica Ziel. "I find that when you force a stretch the fascia can actually become more restrictive, plus you greatly increase your chances of injury." Pushing any muscle, ligament, or tendon too far increases the risk of sprains, strains, and tears, which means ballistic stretches can wind up doing a whole lot more harm than good.
Forcing a stretch too far can cause stress on your body, and if you're feeling this discomfort for a long period of time your sympathetic nervous system—aka your fight or flight response—takes over. When this happens the muscle belly—which is the part of the muscle complex that actually stretches—tightens up as a response to the pain," says Dr. Day. When the muscle gets tight it pulls on the tendons. which don’t have the same ability to stretch, and that can cause strain and in more severe cases tears and inflammation.
What's more, pushing your stretches too hard with the ballistic method can tweak the muscles they're targeting, which defeats the whole purpose of stretching in the first place. "If you're doing a runners stretch where you reach for your toes and you add a forceful bounce, you risk overusing your low back and causing back strain or pain," says Ziel. "Even though you're trying to stretch the hamstring muscle, forcing it like this can actually make it more tight."
What to do instead of ballistic stretches
Since ballistic stretches should be struck from the record for good, pros suggest stacking your routine with static and dynamic stretching, instead, noting that each method has its own individual benefits.
Of the three types of stretching out there, dynamic tops most pros lists as the best one to do on the reg. It involves taking a stretch to the end of its range of motion and then back to start, and repeating the movement over and over. "It allows for the muscle to get to end range while still giving the muscle a chance to relax between reps," says Dr. Day. "In response, the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t have much time to activate and the repetitive movement allows for a deeper stretch with each pass of the stretch."
In other words, it lets you get a whole lot deeper in pursuit of loosening those muscles, which is why PTs and trainers love it so much. "Dynamic stretching is my favorite, because you are allowing your body to stretch and lengthen through fuller ranges of motions, but not forcing end ranges of those motions—It’s more about encouraging more length, rather than forcing increased range," says Ziel. "As blood flow increases and the fascia and muscles warm up, the body will be able to stretch/lengthen further, which is why dynamic stretching can be very effective to lengthen the fascial lines of the body."
Static stretching involves holding a stretch for a certain period of time, and is best performed once your body is already warmed up (for what it's worth, physical therapists agree that you should never stretch cold muscles). "This is a great way to get improved stretching, because it provides lengthening through the fascial lines," says Ziel. "In order to do that you need to have lightly activation and not forceful stretching."
Since static stretching requires you to hold a stretch at its limit for a long period of time, you'll want to take care to ensure that whatever stretch you're doing doesn't produce the same stress response in your body that ballistic stretching does. To do that, focus on finding opposition and length as you're holding your stretch, and avoid sinking into your joints.
"Rather than just reaching for your toes in the classic runner's stretch, for example, try to gently lengthen upward through your torso as you pull your sits-bone away from your heal, creating opposition through your leg. Then lengthening up and forward over that leg keeping that activation through your hamstring and torso," says Ziel. "This will create more ‘stretch’ while also creating more fascial strength in a lengthened position, better protecting your body from injury."
No matter what type of stretching you decided to engage in (as long as it's not ballistic), pros agree that the most important thing to keep in mind is that you don't force your body into any sort of position it's not equipped for. Overstretching is very much a thing, and can lead to injury. "When you allow your body to lengthen into the fuller ranges of motion with a gentleness and ease, fascia will respond nicely," says Ziel.
Feel free to push your limits on the treadmill or the bench, but when it comes time for stretching, consider it your chance to take it easy.
Need a little inspiration for your post-workout stretch routine? Follow along with the dynamic stretch routine in the video below:
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