Stretching is a bit of a nuanced subject as “stretching” can mean very different things to different people. Furthermore, there are two camps on this subject, with one being pro-stretching and the other being not-so-much-pro-stretching (anti-stretching seems a bit too extreme). To further complicate the confusion is that there are different types of stretching. This article will go over one of the methods known as “ballistic stretching”. We will answer some of the following questions:
But first… let’s explain the difference between ballistic stretching and ballistic exercises as they are sometimes confused.
These two movements are sometimes confused to mean the same thing or are they are assumed to be connected. They’re not. The only thing that connects the two is the term “ballistic” in their names, which eludes what occurs during the movements.
The term “ballistic” relates to projectiles in flight or something that happens explosively. Ballistic exercises refer to exercises in which a trainee throws an object, causing it to propel into the air. Examples of ballistic exercises are medicine ball throws, barbell throws, and even jumping could be referred to as a ballistic exercise as the trainee is propelling themselves into the air. Its purpose is to increase the neuromuscular efficiency of a muscle for a more powerful force production.
Ballistic stretching refers to a form of stretching in which a trainee will propel his or her body to force a greater range of motion than usual. Even though the body is staying on the ground, in this context, the body is acting as a “projectile” as it is forcefully being made to travel further with body movement.
In order to understand what makes ballistic stretching unique, you need to have a good grasp on the other options that exist when choosing to stretch. In addition to ballistic stretching, there are three other variations that you can choose from.
1. Static Stretching
Static stretching is what most people think of when they hear the word “stretching”. This involves pulling a body part to elongate the muscle and then holding it in position for a determined amount of time, usually 10-30 seconds. Common static stretches involve touching your toes and standing quad stretches.
2. Dynamic Stretching
In contrast to static stretching, dynamic stretching involved moving the muscle through a full range of motion (ROM). Dynamic stretching is the most similar to ballistic stretching and is often confused, or some people even consider ballistic stretching as a subcategory. However, the main difference is that in dynamic stretching, the body is moved quickly but in a controlled motion. This means it only moves through the ROM with the muscle’s help, which is different from ballistic stretching, which we will discuss below.
3. PNF Stretching
PNF stretching stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching. This form of stretching requires the use of a trained partner to help stretch the muscle into a further ROM than usually possible. This is the least common form of stretching and is usually seen with performance athletes and physical therapy…or at least it should. As mentioned, this is an effective means of stretching, but it requires specific training, and it is only appropriate for a small population. Unfortunately, it is becoming more common to see minimally trained trainers performing this on clients who don’t need it.
These three forms of stretching are used much more commonly than ballistic stretching and are generally prescribed for the majority of trainees. You can also stretch with resistance bands as they all you to manipulate the body in ways usually not possible when alone. Furthermore, you can perform some modified PNF stretches which usually require a partner.
4. Ballistic Stretching...
Ballistic stretching is a form of stretching that uses body momentum from bouncing to force the bodies joints to move with a larger ROM than normal. This is what sets it apart from dynamic stretching. In ballistic stretching, the movement is done using a bouncing motion to force the joint to close more, whereas dynamic stretching uses momentum created by muscle activation.
Think of it this way. Dynamic stretching brings the body to your normal ROM ends while ballistic stretching takes it beyond your normal. It says something that it gets the term “ballistic” as the body is seen as a “projectile”.
One of the most common examples (which was performed often in middles school back in the day) is the sitting toe reach. In this stretch, a trainee sits down with their feet together in front of them. They then reach down as far as they can go while attempting to touch their toes. Once they go do down, they come up and bounce back down, trying to force a farther reach. They then repeat this action in succession for the pre-determined time.
Our joints are complicated structures composed of bone, ligaments, tendons, and muscle. This is the location where two separate bones are attached to one another in a way that they can be flexed, extended, and manipulated. When we move, these joints will bend to allow the body to perform an activity and the amount of bend that occurs in a joint is called the range of motion (ROM).
Every joint and every person has a different ROM and the ability to bend is termed “flexibility”. The muscle is the greatest determinant for people in regulating their flexibility with other examples being bone structure. The muscle can affect flexibility in two ways; passive and active tightness. The former is caused by structural properties of the muscle and surrounding fascia while active is caused by muscle contraction. Either way, excessive tightness can can cause muscle imbalances and lack of flexibility which can result in injury. Maintaining an active lifestyle and stretching routine (if needed) can help keep these muscles stay “loose” and operational with a full ROM.
This is where the main complaint against ballistic stretching lies. The fact that trainees use the body to force a greater stretch inherently brings a heightened risk of injury. This is especially true for those new to training. Trainees also need to take into account why they are stretching. A common misunderstanding is that the more flexible you are, the healthier your joints are. This is not true. Our tendons, ligaments, and muscles surround a joint to maintain a sound foundation. When we stretch this component too much, we can actually decrease the stability of our joints.
In fact, there is an optimal ROM that exists for all people. While you can increase the risk of injury from not being flexible enough, you CAN ALSO increase the risk of injury by being too flexible (study). Bear in mind, this is referring to an increased ROM regardless of the method used to get there. However, the sole purpose of ballistic stretching is to increase the ROM by forcing it with excessive body movement.
For this reason, there is really no reason for your average trainee to use ballistic stretching in their routine. Even if this population needs to increase their flexibility, they can use static stretching, dynamic stretching, and PNF stretching (for extreme circumstances) are suitable options. In order to make an educated decision, you need to examine your need (or why you think you need) from stretching, your current level, and what other options that are available to you.
Good question. If you are asking this, then it’s probably not you as the only time someone should perform ballistic stretching is under the guidance and suggestion of a coach. This being said, those you can benefit from implementing ballistic stretching are elite athletes who REQUIRE an advanced ROM. Emphasis on “requires”. This is because not every sport does need a huge ROM. As mentioned above, being too flexible can actually decrease power output and strength of an athlete, thereby causing a decrease in performance.
Some example of these athletes are gymnasts, some dancers (especially ballerinas), martial artists, certain track and field events (hurdles), and hardcore yoga practitioners. This is not an exhaustive list, nor does it mean these athletes have to use ballistic stretching. However, this will give you an idea of the type of athletes and individuals who might use ballistic training in their practice.
These athletes participate in sports that require a very high degree of flexibility that is often unattainable without force. However, it should be noted that these athletes will usually already have a certain degree of flexibility before they begin to implement ballistic stretching.
Even though most people don’t (shouldn’t) use ballistic stretches, there are some that do. For that special group, here are some of the best and most popular examples of ballistic stretches there are.
1. Ballistic Pancake (Standing or Sitting):
Chances are you have seen this movement. You can perform this stretch either sitting on the ground with your legs split as far as you can go or while standing with the same idea. The person will then attempt to bring over as much as possible while keeping the legs straight. Once they reach the bottom, they will then bounce up and down, attempting to go farther down.
You can also perform this same movement but offsetting your body some and reaching down midway between straight forward and one of the legs. Then repeat towards the other side.
2. Toe Touch:
A classic example of ballistic stretching. Similar to above but this exercise is performed with the legs together. Reach down to touch the toes and once at the bottom, perform little bounces in an attempt to reach farther.
3. Ballistic Core Twist:
Many people actually doing this without even thinking about it. Regardless, this is done as the individual stands and then uses their arms and force to twist the body while maintaining straight hips.
4. Single Leg Stretch:
This movement is easiest performed while sitting down and in a straddle position. Lean the body down towards one leg and ideally, grab the foot if you are able to. If you do not have the flexibility to grab a foot, just place your hands on either side of your leg. Now, reach down as far as you naturally and then perform your ballistics by making small bounces and bringing the body further down. If you are able to grab afoot, you can use that to help pull you down as well.
5. Standing Offset Toe Touch:
This is similar to the toe touch, except now one foot will be in front of the other. This will place greater tension in the hamstrings of the back leg.
6. Ballistic Runner Stretch:
This looks similar to the low position of a lunge, except you will have the forward leg out in front of you on the heel. The trainee will then bend down and attempt to reach the toe. Once at the bottom, begin to perform your bounces
7. Hurdle Stretch With Twist:
Have the trainee sit on the ground with one leg extended out in front and the other bent behind them. This should mimic the look of a hurdler jumping. Next, reach both arms over the extended leg and reach outwards. Then perform your ballistics.
8. Hurdle Stretch:
This is set up the same way as above, except now you simply reach down towards the foot on the extended leg.
Similar to any form of stretching, the trainee should complete some form of general warm for about 10 minutes before stretching. This will effectively increase the internal temperature of the body (it’s not called “warm-up” for no reason!), which allows the muscle to be more supple and permits it to stretch farther.
Before jumping right into ballistic stretching, you should perform some other form to get the muscles used to the stimulus. For this, dynamic stretches will be optimal as it will loosen up the entire joint and maintain elevated internal temperatures. You can then move into your ballistic stretches routine.
The time and reps (bounces) you do will depend on performing your ballistic stretching routine to prepare for a competition or using it for a separate session to increase your flexibility.
If stretching to prepare for performance, a ballistic stretching routing generally lasts 3-5 minutes with an athletes flowing from one stretch to the next. Each stretch will have 5-10 reps but may vary depending on how the athlete feels. A common practice is for an athletes to perform a stretch and then come back to it later.
If stretching in a separate session with the purpose of increasing ROM, a ballistic stretching routine will last longer and look more similar to a normal routine. Each stretch may contain a few sets of up to 20 reps. Again, this will vary according to the athlete and needs.
Similar to any form of exercise or when adding a new stimulus, you want to start with a low intensity. For ballistic stretching, this means keeping the bounces small and with little force. As your body becomes more accustomed to the stress, you can increase the size and force used. However, the force should always be controlled. You do not want to use all of your power unless you want to get hurt.
So, what if you discover that you actually don’t need static stretching in your regime, what should you do? This is still a somewhat convoluted subject with a bit of controversy. The first thing to address is that there is a difference between warming up and stretching. Often times, people conflate the two and when they hear “stretching isn’t as important as once believed” they hear “you don’t need to warm up”. You need to warm up. Always warm-up.
However, when it comes to trainees who are solely involved in resistance training; there is a good argument that they don’t even need stretching. In reality, using free weights through a full range of motion is actually stretching! That is what the eccentric contraction is, the stretching of the muscle. Resistance training has been shown to be just as effective in increasing the flexibility of trainees as other forms of stretching (study).
That being said, dynamic stretching is without a doubt the best method of stretching you can perform before a session. This is because in addition to prepping your body to move through full ROM, you are also warming up the joints, ligaments, and tendons. Another is benefit is that because you are actively using the muscle to bring it through the ROM, you are firing the muscles and preparing it for heavier loads. A proper warm-up that includes dynamic stretching in addition to executing full-body movements with full ROM will generally be plenty for a good portion of people to provide them with optimum ROM.
You don’t want to perform static stretching before a session because there have been studies to show that it can cause an acute deficit in performance (study), specifically when longer durations are used. When our muscles contract, overlaying actin and myosin will pull on each other similar to a ratchet to shorten the muscle and manipulate a limb. When we stretch, we actually decrease the amount of myosin and actin that overlay each other. Performing excessive static stretching too much can cause a temporary situation where these stay in that position which causes a decrease in force production.
That being said, if you tend to be tight and need extra work, performing static stretching either post-workout or in a separate session works great. Performing static stretching post-workout is a great time as your performance definitely won’t be affected and your muscles are warm and in a prime state to be stretched farther.
Ballistic stretching gets such a bad rap due to the general public’s misconceptions about flexibility, which causes an inappropriate audience to perform it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that ballistic stretching is an exercise that is bad for your health; just that it’s bad for your health when done incorrectly. Ballistic stretching stands out merely because a smaller population can actually benefit from it and are at an appropriate level of fitness to do it without injury. This means there are a lot more people who don’t need to be performing ballistic stretching (who are) even though there are more appropriate choices.
If you feel you need ballistic stretching, it would be smart to get at least a couple of private sessions with a coach who specializes in flexibility and is familiar with proper form and prescription. If you do that, any chances of getting hurt are drastically minimized.
Just remember…Always be safe!
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