Is dynamic stretching for you? Ever felt stiff and rigid before a run or workout? Looking like the tinman from the Wizard of Oz?
Well, that’s probably because you haven’t warmed up! Having a structured routine before your workout conveys numerous benefits and helps boost your working energy-levels.
However, warming up is more than a few star jumps or laps around the court. One of the most underutilized exercise modalities is dynamic stretching.
Not only are dynamic stretches extraordinarily effective but also convenient to perform. Dynamic stretching is a proven technique to increase your flexibility and even performance output instantly. Need a fool-proof way of immediately relieving your pre-workout angst? This is the guide for you.
What is dynamic stretching?
Dynamic stretching definition
“…controlled movement through the active range of motion for each joint.”
Dynamic stretching is a movement where you are moving a specific joint. In the athletic population, dynamic stretching has been encouraged as the go-to warm-up activity for sports, such as running and football.
There are two types of dynamic stretches: active and ballistic. An active dynamic stretch involves controlled swinging the arms and/or the legs to its full range of motion. Ballistic stretching involves pulsing or bouncing beyond the joint’s usual range of motion. Due to reduced risk of injury, active dynamic stretches have been recommended over the ballistic variations.
They are a functional movement that replicates the main activity or sport that you are about to participate in. For example, if you are a football player, you may want to perform a dynamic kicking stretch to help warm up your hamstrings.
What is the focus of dynamic stretching?
Why do you stretch?
Is it to improve flexibility? Maybe it’s to prevent the risk of injury. Or perhaps it’s improving performance. There are many reasons why people stretch. However, dynamic stretching is typically executed as warm-ups before training or competition.
Despite this, not many people understand why dynamic stretches are such fantastic exercises. To understand why let’s examine the research to identify the purpose and focus of dynamic stretching. During this process, we’ll be investigating three big reasons why people encourage these movements.
What dynamic stretching does NOT do
Injury prevention: Contrary to popular belief, there is a lack of research supporting that stretching prevents injury. Even though you’ll see elite athletes stretching intently before their game, they will often incorporate other injury prevention drills and routines. We would recommend that you mix-up your warm-up routine to decrease the chance of injury.
“Stretching has not been shown to be effective at reducing the incidence of overall injuries…”
What it MIGHT do
Improves performance: Performance is a vague term in this context. Depending on the sport or activity, performance could describe an infinite amount of possibilities. Running? Jumping? Doing cartwheels on a shopping strip?
Some evidence has shown that dynamic stretching can be advantageous for activities, such as jumping height, sprint speed and agility. In a study comparing the effects of stretching during warm-up, scientists found that dynamic stretching significantly increased jumping height when compared to routines without it. However, there are conflicting opinions in the scientific community about its supposed benefits on performance.
What dynamic stretching DOES
Increases flexibility: Dynamic stretching is arguably the most effective way to boost your flexibility. Research by the National Strength and Conditioning Association found that less than 15 minutes of dynamic stretching immediately improved hamstring flexibility.
Whether or not these gains were long-lived has yet to be seen. Compared to other types of stretches, dynamic variations closely mimic sporting movements and techniques more accurately.
The general consensus from experts and research articles is that dynamic stretches should be incorporated before explosive sports, such as sprinting and basketball.
Consistently performing dynamic stretches can increase flexibility without any dip in power or strength. However, whether or not dynamic stretching prevents injury remains to be seen. As more research emerges, we may be able to find more definitive recommendations.
Static vs. dynamic stretching
Static stretching definition
“ …. specific position is held with the muscle on tension to a point of a stretching sensation and repeated.”
Static stretching is the more mainstream type of stretch that we frequently have seen for decades. Unlike dynamic stretching, the muscle is held in one single position and requires no movement. The videos below highlight the differences between these two types of stretches.
Cossack squat – dynamic
Hip adductor stretch – static
Although the cossack squat and static adductor stretch are very different movements, they both aim to improve groin flexibility. Therefore you may be thinking, which one should I use?
Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer. Your selection of stretches will depend on when you’re performing it and what you are trying to achieve. This will make sense as you read on.
When to use dynamic stretching?
Dynamic stretching should be performed (as opposed to static stretching) during your warm-up. Researchers identified that static stretching could actually decrease strength and be detrimental to physical performance afterwards. One hypothesis is that dynamic stretching increases the real length of the muscle(s) whereas static stretching simply allows you to tolerate the stretch more comfortably.
Static stretches are more appropriate in situations where you need flexibility. They should be performed as a warm-up or cool-down routine for activities, including gymnastics and dance. Being able to withstand awkward for extended positions is not easy. But some static stretches can help make the process less uncomfortable.
On the other hand, dynamic stretching is recommended for sports such as running and volleyball. As muscle strength and power are preserved during dynamic stretches, you can be reassured that your performance isn’t compromised.
Benefits of dynamic stretching
As established by the current research and expert recommendations, dynamic stretching is a tremendously useful warm-up exercise. They can be performed anytime and anywhere without the use of any equipment.
But one area that hasn’t been explored is the positive effects of dynamic stretching. So let’s delve into the science to see how these exercises physiologically benefit the body.
- Increases blood flow and temperature to the muscles being stretched.
- Can be performed in a sport-specific manner. By practicing relevant movements, you can be assured that your warm-up will be more impactful. One great example is performing straight leg kicks to help boost your kicking abilities in football.
- Improves mobility and flexibility by muscle extensibility (length of the muscle fibers).
- Enhances muscle power by stimulating the nervous system.
- Actively engages more muscle groups than traditional static stretching.
Dynamic stretching examples
Stretches for warming up
Walking Lunge twist
The walking lunge twist is a total body dynamic stretch for the torso, shoulders, and hip flexors. By performing this exercise, you’re also working on activating your lower body muscles including glutes, quads and hamstrings.
Given the multi-purpose nature of the walking lunge twist, it should be one of your staple warm-up stretches. Those who train in running, twisting and/or throwing sports should consider incorporating the lunge twist during the warm-up.
- Begin the exercise by starting in a lunge position.
- Bring your back leg forward and plant on the floor.
- After planting, keep your arms outstretched in front and twist towards the same side.
- Repeat steps 1-3 on the opposite leg.
Windmill Twist and Stretch
The windmill twist and stretch is another total body stretch which works on lengthening the hamstrings, groin, torso and shoulders. Doing this is an excellent way of loosening yourself up immediately, particularly if you’ve been quite sedentary and inactive.
You’ll be able to feel your whole body working as you reach down towards each side. Definitely an exercise suitable for the masses – unless you have had any significant low back problems (e.g. disc herniation, sciatica, etc.).
- Assume your starting position while standing and legs out wide.
- Start the exercise by extending your right arm to the side.
- Twist your body and touch the left foot.
- Return to your original position (in step 1)
- Repeat on the other side and repeat.
Stretches for runners
Knee to chest stretch
Sufficient hip mobility allows for the ability to run smoothly. The knee to chest helps stretch several areas, including the glutes and hamstrings. By loosening up the thighs and hip joint, you’ll find that swinging your leg forward will be less restrictive and effortless. This exercise is particularly relevant for sprinters who need to be able to flex their knees and hips forward.
- Start in a standing position
- Bring one leg up to your chest
- With your hands, pull your leg towards your chest even more
- Stand on your tip-toes on your standing leg. You should feel your calf muscles contract
- Lower raise leg and repeat.
Although running requires forward momentum and movement, it’s important that the hips are free to move in multiple directions. The ability to open up your hips to the side is often overlooked. Instead, we focus too much attention on the hamstrings and the quads.
The fire hydrant is an excellent exercise because it can help activate the glutes and stretch out the inner thigh at the same time. Although it’s usually performed steadily, you can make it more dynamic by accelerating the opening phase.
- Begin in four-point kneeling on knees and hands
- With your knee bent, open up hips to the side (as if a dog were peeing on a fire hydrant)
- Return to the original position
- Repeat exercise on the other leg
Activities, such as running and kicking can be limited by hamstring tightness. Although static hamstring stretches can improve flexibility, a loss of power is a potential side-effect.
The Frankenstein offers a dynamic way of stretching the hamstring while preserving your power and strength. Due to the height of the kicks and acceleration required, the Frankenstein is considered an intermediate to advanced dynamic stretch.
- Begin the exercise by walking forward and kick up as high as you can
- Aim for your outstretched opposing hand
- The higher you kick, the greater the flexibility required
- Alternate legs as you begin to step forward
Like the fire hydrant, the Cossack squat is a 2-in-1 exercise. During this exercise, you’ll be simultaneously strengthening your thighs and loosening up the groin muscles. Beginners will often find it difficult to squat deep. Footballers and tennis players will particularly benefit from the Cossack squat because of the overlapping lateral movement patterns.
- Begin the Cossack Squat in a wide stance position
- Initiate the movement by squatting to one side
- The other leg will extend out straight to the opposing side. You should feel a stretch along the inner thigh
- Return to the original position (step 1)
- Repeat for the other side
Upper body stretches
Like the hip joint, the shoulders move in a 360 plane of movement. These are the most mobile joints in our body. The arm swings are an excellent way of reciprocating the large range of movements from the shoulder. These dynamic stretches are a simple way of warming up the shoulders for throwing and racquet sports (e.g. tennis, baseball, etc.)
- Begin the exercise by rotating the shoulders forwards at the same time.
- Allow the momentum to assist with the motion. You may feel the muscles around the chest and upper back stretching with the joint.
- Repeat this exercise by going in a backwards direction.
Overhead foam roller and stick stretch
Best overhead mobility exercise ever! This dynamic stretch helps target muscles that limit our overhead reach (e.g., pecs, lats, upper back, etc.). Opening up the chest and upper back improves the positioning and movement of our shoulders.
Overhead mobility is particularly important in activities, such as above-shoulder weight training and calisthenics (e.g., handstands, pull-ups, etc.). If you don’t have a foam roller, this exercise can also be performed standing up with a stick. Nonetheless, this is a must-do exercise for anyone needing that extra bit of overhead mobility.
Dynamic stretches are typically recommended for warm-ups but can also be performed during the cool-downs. Many athletes will generally opt for static stretches. These can be just as effective for flexibility and often require less energy expenditure. Anecdotally, the sustained positioning of the stretch can also provide additional relief for tight or sore muscles (especially after a workout).
Examples of some common static stretches include: Calf, Glute, Quad and Hamstring stretches.
How to get started?
Dynamic stretching can be awkward for beginners. To make it easier for those that are, here are 3 simple tips to get you swinging into the action!
- Do not overstretch. The temptation with most stretches is to further and further. Although you may feel that this provides you with more benefits, it can increase the risk of injuries (i.e., muscle strains). Start with a comfortable range of motion before pushing yourself any further.
- Start your dynamic stretch journey by performing 2-3 sets of 30 seconds. Although there haven’t been any distinct recommendations, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that 2-4 sets of 15-30 seconds of static stretching are beneficial for flexibility. Always start with a lower volume of the same exercise before attempting to push past your tolerance.
- Stretch the right muscle. Make sure that the dynamic stretch is targeting the area you desire. If you’re feeling it elsewhere, you may want to re-evaluate your form.
For the majority of the population, dynamic stretching is a safe exercise. However, if you’ve had a current or past history of injuries (e.g., sprains, strains, joint problems, etc.), you may want to consult your physiotherapist or physician.
More inflexible individuals should also begin at a lighter intensity before progressing too quickly. Alternatively, static stretches may be more appropriate and controlled than the dynamic variety.
- Dynamic stretching is a safe and effective warm-up exercise before training or competition.
- Unlike static stretching, there is no substantial evidence that shows muscle power or strength is affected. Dynamic stretching is a more viable option for those who play more explosive and running sports (i.e., basketball, sprinting, athletes, etc.).
- Static stretching helps build a tolerance for sustaining large ranges of movement. These are a great warm-up exercise for dancers, gymnasts, or any other activities which favor flexibility.
- Commence your dynamic stretching for 15-30 seconds over 2-3 sets. You can build up your tolerance as you become more experienced.
Dynamic stretching is a fantastic warm-up exercise for all athletes. Whether you’re a tenacious tennis player or seasoned sprinter, incorporating these types of stretches can be extremely beneficial.
Unlike traditional static stretching, the dynamic variant immediately enhances flexibility without compromising power or performances. The beauty of dynamic stretching is that it can be performed anywhere, any body region, and without any equipment!
If you have had a previous history of injuries or are just unsure, we recommend consulting with a fitness expert (e.g., physiotherapist, strength & conditioning coach, etc.). For the most part, dynamic stretches are a safe way to warm your body up!