I get this asked a lot. So let's get it out of the way first: "static vs. dynamic stretching: which is better" is the wrong question. The right question is "when is static stretching better and when is dynamic stretching better?"
The research in sports medicine is not yet fully conclusive but we can see a certain trend, which I will explain in this article. The positive influence of stretching routines on athletic performance is well established.
In this article I will discuss static vs. dynamic stretching, go over the different types of stretching, when you should use which, and how to safely stretch. I will also present the world's greatest full-body dynamic stretch routine.
Why Should We Stretch in the First Place?
Why, when, and how you stretch depends on what your objectives are. In general, the benefits of stretching include reduction of risk of injury and increase in athletic performance. This is achieved by using stretching for joint activation, to encourage increased blood flow, and to increase range of motion (ROM), mobility and flexibility.
Mobility and flexibility are often regarded as the same. But in fact they are two different but related concepts. Mobility is the range of motion in your joints. Flexibility refers to the ability to lengthen your muscles, muscle groups, and tendons, while mobility is your joints' ability to reach their end range of motion. You will never have more mobility than flexibility. For athletic performance and injury prevention you need both. Different types of stretching influence mobility or flexibility differently.
Different Types of Stretching
There are various different types of stretching and stretching techniques available. All have certain benefits and purposes related to specific objectives. It is good practice to combine general stretches and moves with sport-specific movements. This is related to the principles of generality and specificity. I will go over some of the most popular stretching exercises that go beyond just static vs. dynamic stretching in this section.
In static stretching we try to lengthen a muscle or muscle group to its farthest point. Then we hold that position for a certain time period (usually somewhere between a minimum of 10 seconds up to one minute or more).
Dynamic stretching describes the movement of joints through their full range of motion. There are no longer holds (maximum a couple of seconds) and movements are executed in a slow and controlled way.
Passive (Assisted) Stretching
Passive stretching is related to static stretching and involves a further person or some means such as a band or wall to hold or increase the tension of the stretch.
Active stretching is like passive stretching but in this case we don't use any other mechanisms than the muscle itself that we want to stretch.
Ballistic stretching could look similar to dynamic stretching. The difference is that momentum is used to go beyond the end of your range of motion (like bouncing into a certain position). This could lead to injury, which is why it is generally discouraged.
Isometric stretching is a form of static-passive stretching. The main difference is that the stretches are held for a longer period of time.
PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It is not a different type of stretching per se, but another form of a static-passive stretching technique. Although research is not yet fully conclusive, PNF is often regarded as the most effective stretching technique typically executed by physical therapists.
When to Use Dynamic Stretching
The two top application areas of dynamic stretching are as part of a warm-up routine before a main strength or cardio workout or as a standalone stretching routine. The latter done regularly is very effective to increase general mobility as you go through a full range of motion.
Motion is lotion. That's critical before starting a workout, especially an intense one. Using dynamic stretches as part of a warm-up routine helps a lot to activate joints, improve blood flow, increase body temperature and prepare the whole body for the following work. A typical athletic warm-up should incorporate about 5-10 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity movement and dynamic stretching.
If you are a bit pressed for time, I recommend to focus your dynamic stretching on those muscle groups that you plan to work on during your session. For example, if you are going to focus on legs during your workout with heavy squats, make sure that you warmed up your legs with different types of leg swings to cover all angles of a full range of motion. Jeff Nippard (I wrote earlier about him in the Revolution In The Fitness Industry) gives great advice in a video about this type of specific workout including stretching techniques.
When to Use Static Stretching
Some studies associate static stretches with a decrease in performance. However, more recent studies suggest this effect isn't as bad as we thought. It largely depends on how and when we use static stretching.
Static stretches shouldn't be held for too long (less than 30 seconds) as otherwise the stretch reflex may occur. This is a phenomenon where the muscle contracts in response to too much stretching, which is the opposite of what we want to achieve.
I recommend to use static stretching as part of your cool-down routine. It reduces muscle soreness, risk of injury, and generally just feels relaxing.
World's Greatest Full-Body Dynamic Stretch Routine
The World's Greatest Stretch is a well-known, fairly comprehensive stretching exercise. I extended this idea to a full-body dynamic stretch routine, which I typically suggest to my clients and in my programs as a warm-up. The routine covers the majority of joints and muscle groups in your body from top to bottom and prepares you for the subsequent workout. It can also be used as a standalone mobility flow that you could do as part of a morning routine.
My routine follows the principles of a RAMP warm-up (Raise, Activate, Mobilize, Potentiate) developed by Ian Jeffreys. RAMP currently seems to be one of the most researched and scientifically proven warm-up types and is popular among athletes.
Here is how the flow of my six-minute routine works (this video shows it in action):
- 20 arm circles forward and 20 arm circles backward. Make the circles as big as possible to go through the full range of motion.
- 20 torso twists (spinal rotations). Keep both feet flat on the ground.
- 10 shoulder rotations forward and 10 shoulder rotations backward.
- 10 vertical neck flexions, 10 horizontal neck flexions, and 10 neck half-circles.
- 20 hip circles clockwise and 20 hip circles counter clockwise.
- 20 knee circles clockwise and 20 knee circles counter clockwise.
- 20 left ankle circles clockwise and 20 left ankle circles counter clockwise. Repeat the same on the right leg.
- Bend forward for a posterior chain and hamstring stretch. Bounce 20 times.
- Bend backwards. Bounce 20 times.
- 10 front kicks with the left leg. Keep your leg straight. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and glutes. Repeat with the right leg. This is especially a great stretch to improve your Thai boxing game.
- Get down into a deep squat. Keep your feet flat on the ground and stay there for about 30 seconds. Gently bounce up and down. Make sure you keep your back straight. To increase tension, bring your feet slightly more apart.
- Lift your left arm up to the sky and try to keep it as vertical as possible. Open your hand and have your palm face forward (your left thumb should point to the right side. Stay in that position for about 30 seconds slightly bouncing. Repeat with your right arm.
- Get on your belly and do a cobra stretch. Hold for a couple of seconds.
- Change to downward facing dog. Hold for a couple of seconds. Alternate between cobra and downward facing dog 3 times.
How to Stretch in a Safe Way
Risk of injury during stretching is actually not a big deal. In order to be safe just follow a couple of basic guidelines.
If it hurts, don't do it. Of course, a slight discomfort is OK. But if it's too much, your body will tell you. At that point, stop.
When you stretch, regardless of if it's a static or dynamic stretch, go till the end of your range of motion but do not go beyond.
Avoid ballistic stretching. If done wrong, the risk of injury vs. the actual benefit is not worth it. Also avoid super long, isometric holds (except for PNF stretching if done by a therapist). Due to the stretch reflex you may actually achieve the opposite.
Do not perform dynamic stretches on any body parts where you are injured. The dynamics may do harm. In that case consult with a doctor or physical therapist.
Adults over 65 should also take care when performing dynamic stretches. Gentle and careful static stretches may be more beneficial in this case.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching: the Verdict
Stretching should form part of every fitness routine. Not every type of stretching is made equal — there are lots of differences and pros and cons. But if deployed correctly and carefully, stretching will improve your athletic performance and it will reduce the risk of injury.
To address static vs. dynamic stretching I generally recommend to go through a dynamic stretching routine at the beginning of a workout and some static stretches after. Stretching, flexibility, and mobility are essential to improve your recovery. If you don't recover well, your performance, fitness, and health will not rise up to the full potential.
In my Build Bullet-Proof Health program I focus strongly on integrating the right stretching and recovery into an effective and comprehensive health and fitness program.
Check out the free trial to see the quality of the program for yourself.
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