OK, now that we understand the different types of flexibility the human body has, we have a basis for understanding the different types of flexibility stretches we can use in our martial arts stretching program to increase our flexibility. We will discuss the main methods of increasing flexibility and then discuss briefly some lesser known techniques. If you will remember from our article “Types of Flexibility,” the main categories of flexibility are Static Active, Static Passive, and Dynamic . It stands to reason that the main types of flexibility exercises can be divided into Static Active Flexibility Stretches, Static Passive Flexibility Stretches, and Dynamic Flexibility Stretches.
One side note, I will occasionally use the term “stretching” for flexibility exercises because it is easily understood. The truth however is that effective flexibility has less to do with the actual stretching or elongation of individual muscles or muscle fibers and more to do with mastery of your central nervous system’s response to extended ranges of motion and the strength you can facilitate at these extended ranges.
Static Active Flexibility Method
To perform a static active stretch you will move your body part into an extended range of motion and hold it there unassisted as you wait for the tension to lessen. Static active stretches will increase your static active flexibility and your static passive flexibility. A general static active stretch is more effective if held for twelve seconds or longer.
Static Passive Flexibility Method
Static passive stretching in the practice of moving your body into an extended range and using some external assistance to hold it. It could involve the use of a device, a partner or your bodyweight to hold and/or extend the stretch.
While relaxation is an important component to all stretching methods, the “Relaxed Stretching Method” is a specific type of static passive stretching method and is sometimes referred to as “waiting out the tension.” This involves gently relaxing the limb or body part you are working on into a extended position and holding it there using the weight of your body, a partner, or devise until your stretch reflex relaxes the tension. You must be careful when performing relaxed stretches to isolate the muscle groups you are working on and not induce elongation of the ligaments. Static passive relaxed stretching methods are not advised for flexibility stretches targeting the back because of the potential of ligament damage. Relaxed stretching also does not help increase strength along with flexibility which should be the goal of every martial arts stretching program so use this technique sparingly.
Isometric stretching is a form of static stretching which utilizes tension of the antagonist muscles that you are stretching. Also known as contract-relax stretching isometric stretching will involve moving a body part into a position of maximum stretch, tensing the muscles being stretched and then relaxing the tension. One of the benefits of isometric stretching is that it will increase the strength in addition to the range of motion of the muscle groups being worked on and is much more effective than individual static or dynamic stretching methods for increasing functional flexibility.
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) Stretching
PNF is a combination of passive stretching and isometric stretching and is generally considered the most effective method for increasing static passive flexibility. As in isometric stretching you will stretch a muscle group to its limit, then tighten up or tense the stretched muscles, but then you immediately move into a position of greater stretch and hold that position. The act of tensing the stretched muscles resets the stretch reflex which allows the immediate extension. It is recommended to allow at least twenty or thirty seconds of relaxation between tension/extensions to allow your muscles and stretch reflex to release the strain of the newly realized position.
Dynamic Flexibility Exercises
As the name would indicate, dynamic flexibility stretches involve motion. When performing a dynamic stretch you move the limb or body part in a rapid but controlled motion. The movement are typically carried out using a full range of motion, starting slowly and working up to a controlled full speed and maximum range of motion. Dynamic flexibility stretches typically imitate the specific movements used in your sport or art. Examples of dynamic flexibility exercises would include fast leg swings.
Ballistic stretching is the rhythmic bouncing or bobbing type of stretch which relies on the momentum of the moving body part to forcibly move the muscles being stretched to a position beyond the normal limits of flexibility. Ballistic stretching was once a popular method used by martial artists but it can easily lead to muscle or connective tissue damage or tearing. This method is not recommended unless under the immediate supervision and direction of a licensed physical therapist or professional trainer. The risk of injury far outweigh the potential for gains in flexibility using this technique.
Some Additional Methods:
Active-Assisted Stretching – This technique involves performing an active stretch and when the limit of flexibility is reached the range of motion is assisted by a partner. Like ballistic stretching there is a risk of damage and professional supervision is called for.
Active Isolated Stretching – Also called the Mattes Method after its originator Aaron Mattes, AIS stretching is similar to PNF stretching but uses short rest periods of around two seconds between contractions to specific isolated muscle targets
Rhythmic Stabilization – This technique is accomplished by alternately contracting the agonistic and antagonistic muscles of the limb being stretched while the range of motion is being gradually increased.
Many flexibility exercises can be performed using different methods. For instance the seated butterfly stretch can be done using the dynamic method, the ballistic method (not recommended), the static active method including isometric stretching, or the static passive method with the assistance of a partner or your hands. Which method you choose for which exercises should be a function of the end result you wish to achieve and what part of your workout you are in. For instance if you are a student of Taekwondo and you desire increasing the flexibility in your legs and hips for high kicks, you could perform front leg lifts in a light dynamic method as part of your warm-up, the same exercise with a more intense dynamic effort as part of your main workout, and perform the foreword leg lift movement and holding it at maximum height for the combination of flexibility and strengthening benefits using the static passive method as part of your cool down portion of the workout.
The proper use of these flexibility methods will greatly increase the effectiveness and speed the progress of your martial arts stretching program. We invite you to visit MartialArtsStretching.com often to continuously learn more about modern flexibility stretches and the science of modern martial arts stretching.