Ballistics and Linguistics

I fielded a question this week regarding “bouncing” stretches; are they safe? Are they dangerous? When are they appropriate? The term “ballistic” stretching is used by athletic trainers and exercise scientists use to describe either a “bouncing” type of stretch or an “explosive” type of stretch. Over the last 20 years the general consensus among fitness pros has been to discourage “ballistic” stretching because it can…under certain circumstances…lead to injury. Ballistic (or indeed any aggressive) stretching of the muscles “cold”, that is without engaging in a brief warm-up period, risks injury in the following ways:

1. Cold tissues are stiffer and more resistant to stretch. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and other connective tissues are more likely to tear when pulled out of shape if the surrounding microclimate is cool. Synovial fluid, which lubricates many major joints in the body, is thicker and less efficient at lower temperatures. Engaging in a warm-up period prior to stretching increases blood circulation through the area, rendering local tissues warmer and more pliable. The moral of the story: don’t stretch without warming up, ballistic or otherwise.

2. Ballistic stretches rely upon momentum; often the limbs or torso are flung explosively in different directions. This can lead to trauma if the velocity of the movement brings excessive forces to bear on the muscles and connective tissue. Second moral of the story; if you wish to stretch ballistically, ease into in and gradually increase your range of motion as you get a feel for the activity.

Finally, evidence shows that ballistic stretching is appropriate for those engaged in explosive physical activity, such as basketball, dance, and other types of high-impact exercise. However…

The most recent position stand from the American College of Sports Medicine (2011) is this:

Ballistic stretching, when properly performed, increases flexibility similarly to static stretching.

(You can find the whole article here, rather interesting stuff for the biomechanically curious.)

SO…if your goal is to increase your flexibility, and you have a choice between stretching modalities, choose the flexibility exercises that are similar to your activity patterns. If you are a non-impact, non-explosive type of fitness person, static stretching is just plain fine, and PNF is even better (that’s a whole future post). If you are a competitive athlete, it may be worth your time to learn how to perform sport-specific ballistic stretches from a qualified professional.

Like this fabulous Canadian physical therapist!

Finally, the phrase of the week was “kit and caboodle”. Thank you,!


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