This is a quick list of the types of stretches I’ve tried and how I feel they’ve worked for me. Remember, each individual will react differently to each stretching method. What works well for me may not for you.
Waiting out the Tension
PNF tricks the stretch reflex into switching off. Another option is to just hold a stretch for a long time. Sooner or later, the stretch reflex will give up and you will be able to move further into the stretch. The length of time you will have to wait varies between individuals, and even between muscle groups.
I find this mentally quite grueling. It requires far more will power than PNF, and the results seem slower to me.
Slide into you maximum stretch and hold is for 5-15 seconds, then come out of the stretch and rest for a few seconds, no longer than a minute. This is one rep. Repeat for 5-25 reps.
I use this type of stretching on days when I feel I can’t cope with PNF. I just put something on the TV and just do rep after rep.
Whenever you tense a specific muscle, the muscle on the other side of the joint with the opposite affect tends to relax. So for instance, when you are bending forward to touch your toes, you want your hamstrings to relax. If you tense your quadriceps (frontal thigh) hard, you will feel the hamstrings relax a little more. Using this technique while stretching can instantly make you more flexible. It’s subtle, but it works.
Active Isolation Stretching (AIS)
An abreviated form of reciprocal inhibition, this method stretches a single muscle group at a time, using a strong reciprocal inhibition contraction, but the maximum stretch is only held for 2 seconds before moving out and resting briefly. Stretching for such a short time is meant to prevent the stretch reflex from firing, allowing you to get further into the stretch without any tightening of the stretched muscle.
This is great for gymnasts, martial artists and sports people who need to improve their dynamic flexibility. Essentially, you perform stretches with some controlled movement, like leg swings, arm swings or lunges. The important point is the move is controlled, not ballistic. You are not trying to go beyond your normal static flexibility range, you are just trying to make your dynamic range match your static range.
This definitely helped me at Karate, but you have to keep control or you will pick up injuries very quickly. Remember, dynamic, not ballistic.
For more information check out the Dynamic Flexibility page.
This involves using your own muscles to pull you into a stretch. A great example of this is trying to hold a stationary high kick in Karate. You need flexibility to get your leg up there, but you need muscular strength to keep it there.
Practice makes perfect. The more you try to maintain a stretch under your own control, the better you will get at it.
Just a quick word on breathing. The body has a natural tendency to relax on an exhale. Steady, relaxed breathing is used in Yoga all the time. When stretching, make an effort to breath properly, and try to increase your stretch with every exhale. You may find benefit in making the exhale an exaggerated sigh. It helps!
Try not to tense your whole body when stretching. You often see people grimacing and tensing their upper body while trying to stretch their legs. Unless you are doing a specific style of stretching that requires tension (Reciprocal Inhibition or Isometric Stretches), you should be aiming to relax everything as much as possible. Often, tension in the face is enough to start a chain reaction, resulting in you tensing your whole body, including the muscles you are stretching, which is counter-productive. Try to keep everything, including your face relaxed and neutral.
Of course, there are lots of different methods of stretching, and variations on those I’ve mentioned, but this is what I’ve tried and my reactions to them…