We’ve all heard our coaches say it: “Make sure you stretch before you leave!” While this advice is well-intentioned, it can sometimes be frustrating for the athlete if they don’t know what exactly to stretch or how to stretch. Flexibility is one of CrossFit’s 10 general physical skills and is defined as “the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.” Flexibility is important for overall health, improved strength, and better movement – all components of a healthier and more beneficial lifestyle. But the concept of flexibility can often be intimidating because of the different types of stretching and the questions of when you should stretch, how you should stretch, and what muscles to stretch.
It’s important for athletes to realize that there are several different types of stretching, such as dynamic stretching and joint rotations, static stretching, loaded stretching, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching, and they each have their own time and purpose. Dynamic stretching and joint rotations refers to moving a joint through a full range of motion with minimal loading or stretching. These types of stretches are most effective when done before a workout or first thing in the morning. Static stretching is the most well known and it basically means holding a position for a period of time. It is usually most effective after a workout or when done in a dedicated stretching session and is used more as a recovery tool rather than to develop one’s range of motion.
The other two types of stretching mentioned above, loaded and PNF stretching, are not very well known to most people. Loaded stretching involves working close to a joint’s end range of motion. Loading stretching can be done isometrically where the athlete uses an external object or gravity to enhance the stretch while they hold a position near their limits of flexibility, such as holding a narrow grip overhead squat with a pvc pipe or barbell. Loaded stretching can also be done while in-motion as well. This occurs when the athlete holds a position near their limits of flexibility and then contracts their muscles to come out of the stretch, and then goes deeper into the stretch. An example of this would be using a band to create dorsiflexion of the foot, then pointing the toes forward, and then moving deeper into dorsiflexion.
PNF stretching can often be very intense. It involves using a partner or external object to move a joint close to its end range of motion before the athlete contracts against the resistance for about ten seconds. Once the contraction is complete, the athlete tries to relax and then move into a deeper stretch. PNF stretching and the two variations of loaded stretching can help to improve strength at the end range of motion, which is extremely beneficial for functional fitness. These types of stretches are best done after a workout when the athlete’s muscles are still warm.