If I told you stretching was good for you, I would certainly be stretching the truth. There are many accepted ways of facilitating muscle lengthening, passive stretching being the most common form, some yoga poses and Pilates moves as well, but the healthiest and most effective form of stretching that I have found is active stretching, also known as reciprocal inhibition.
About Active Stretching
Active stretching effectively utilizes the proper range of motion in a functionally dynamic movement. Through reciprocal inhibition, one muscle is contracted dynamically through the entire range of motion (facilitation), turning off the opposing muscle group (inhibition) and causing a relaxation or, if you like, a stretch.
Over time, the human body develops muscle imbalances. In most cases, the pectorals are facilitated, or strengthened, causing an inhibition, or weakening, in the rhomboid group. These imbalances take place throughout all the muscle groups the facilitation of hamstrings along with the inhibition of quadriceps is also a good example.
Poor Stretching Practices
If a muscle group was already weak or flaccid, what would be the benefit of stretching it? The inhibited muscle should be worked after the facilitated muscle group. If the imbalance is pronounced, refrain from working a clients facilitated group, and train only the weaker group until balance is achieved. Again, the muscles are long and weak; stretching is unnecessary and will only cause laxity in the joint.
I have found little benefit from passive stretching, and it can cause severe muscle imbalances by weakening an already inhibited muscle group. How often have you seen a runner pulling his heel to his glute, causing severe flexion to the knee? This can cause micro tears to the quadriceps group and laxity to the patella tendon and ligaments of the knee.
This type of stretch has become an almost automatic after running or participating in a sport. This movement is completely unnecessary. In most cases, an athlete will already have facilitated hamstrings, which means the quads are already inhibited and out of balance.
Quite often muscular discomfort after an activity is caused by the microscopic tears in the muscles, which is caused by the stretching and not the activity itself. The feeling achieved from this act is misinterpreted as relief, and some people even view it as a form of pleasure. Even avid stretchers will admit that if they passively lengthen the muscle too far, they will cease because of the pain.
There are many excessive stretches that are commonly done by athletes. These moves are not only unnecessary but can cause injury. Lets take a look at the stretches referred to as the sit and reach and the standing toe touch. These exercises stretch the longitudinal ligament beyond its normal anatomical bounds and can cause a great deal of stress to the sciatic nerve that can and, most likely, will result in pain. This is an excellent example of a stretching exercise thought to help the lower back that can accomplish the very opposite effect.
Exceptions to the Rule
Though I do not agree with the theory of passive stretching, there are sport-specific needs that need addressing at times. In cases for the need of additional ROM, such as in the sport of hurdling or gymnastics, joint laxity is needed to enable the athletes to perform the unnatural positions required by the sport. Even such highly conditioned athletes risk severe injuries because of these training practices.
Professional bodybuilders have been using reciprocal inhibition for years. Most have probably been unaware that they have. How many times have you heard the words antagonist and agonist in the gym? Its basically the same theory. The experienced weight trainer gravitated naturally to a method that will protect his joints and lengthen the facilitated muscles where needed.
The Real Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
This now brings us to PNF, a contract and relax type of active stretching that actually has nothing to do with true proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. In this form of stretching, the proprioceptors in the golgi tendon and the muscles to be stretched are exhausted through static contraction. The opposing muscle group is then contracted to lengthen the exhausted muscle. This is a form of reciprocal inhibition one muscle stretching another without any assistance will not take the joint beyond its normal limits. The problem is most trainers do not feel that this stretch is sufficient and passively assists the muscle to lengthen. This is not good! The muscle is now completely exhausted and cannot protect itself.
True PNF is the act of the neurological recruitment of a facilitated muscle to stimulate the same nerves that also serve an inhibited muscle group to effectively strengthen or rehabilitate it. Diagonal movements of the upper and lower extremities are what are used to accomplish this. True PNF has nothing to do with stretching!
Passive Stretching Blues
Passive stretching has become deeply ingrained in the fabric of our business, and I have spent too many hours in the to stretch or not to stretch debate. However, I have been very fortunate to have clients that keep an open mind, and, over the years, I have managed to cure most of them of passive stretching. Of course, old ways are sometimes hard to change, and I have to admit that some of my clients are still closet passive stretchers, even though I have proved to them over and over again that it is unnecessary and, in some cases, actually dangerous.
Good Stretching Techniques
If you finish your workout feeling tight or congested in a particular muscle group, try doing some light work on the opposing muscle group. As the tight muscle group is now probably in hyper tone, the reciprocation will help to turn the muscle off and return it to the proper tone gradient.
In most cases, I have found that light cable work and small dumbbells are best for resetting muscles. Heavier weights can inhibit proper joint movement, and without performing the full range of motion, the facilitated muscle will not relax properly enough to complete the inhibition.
Im not trying to convince you to stop stretching, Im simply offering you an alternative. At the very least, you have another tool in your exercise toolbox. Try putting together a program that reciprocates the facilitated muscle groups. If you have tight hamstrings, finish the leg workout with a knee extension exercise. Tight pectorals? Work the rhomboids to lengthen them. If reciprocal inhibition is done properly, it could eliminate the need for stretching while creating healthier and more flexible muscle tissue without damage to the joints.
Robert Bresloff is a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Therapist and Adaptive Fitness Specialist with the International Sports Sciences Association. He has been coaching athletes and training for the last 25 years and served on the advisory board of the