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Remember back to elementary school gym class when the teacher started every session with warm-up stretches?
They always included the one where you put the bottoms of your sneakers together, pulled your feet in, and bounced your knees like a butterfly flapping its wings. The goal was to get your knees as close as possible to the floor to stretch your hip joints.
This was most people’s first experience with ballistic stretching. It also turns out that this likely wasn’t a good type of stretching for children to be doing, but that probably goes for a lot of activities we did as kids.
Ballistic stretching is a technique used to increase the distance that you can stretch your joints and muscles, but there’s some information you should know to avoid injuries.
What is ballistic stretching?
Stretching is a familiar warm-up used by all types of people participating in physical activity. It can help you to (Page, 2012):
- Increase your range of motion (the distance that you can move a joint)
- Decrease muscle soreness and stiffness after exercise
- Possibly prevent injuries
While sports medicine researchers know the benefits of stretching, there is still controversy about which forms of stretching are best to help you reach your health goals (Page, 2012).
Ballistic stretching is one type of popular stretching technique. During a ballistic stretch, you extend your joint as far as possible to lengthen the targeted muscle groups. Instead of stopping there as you would with static stretching, you add in a dynamic movement. This is typically a “bouncing” or a “pulsing” motion. This motion pushes your joint to go further than it usually would while in the stretched position (Konrad, 2014).
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Researchers think that ballistic stretching works by changing how the fibers in your muscles report their movements to the nerves in your spinal cord. Normally, stretching your muscles as far as you can will trigger the “stretch reflex,” which causes your muscle to contract and prevents your joint from being injured.
In regular passive stretching, you hold a position for a prolonged period. This allows your muscle fibers to get used to the stretch. Eventually, they stop signaling the nerves in the spine as often, and your muscle is allowed to lengthen more than before. This increases your normal range of motion.
When you perform ballistic movements, researchers think you can bypass these fiber sensors and stretch your muscle further than you normally could (Behm, 2016).
What are the benefits of ballistic stretching?
The major benefits of ballistic stretching are increased tendon elasticity and increased range of motion.
Tendons are the tissue that connects your muscles to your bones. They help store and release energy while you’re moving, particularly in sports activities. High-intensity activities, such as a basketball player jumping, can put a lot of stress on the tendons, increasing the risk of injury (Witvrouw, 2007).
If you’re a professional-level athlete or a dancer, your tendons require a high capacity to absorb and release energy, known as tendon elasticity. Training and rehabilitation programs often focus on increasing elasticity to treat and prevent tendon injuries. Studies have shown that ballistic stretching can significantly increase tendon elasticity (Witvrouw, 2007).
Another study looking at 48 police cadets had half of them follow a 6-week ballistic stretching training program focused on the lower leg muscles. At the end of the study, the cadets in the stretching program had a greater range of motion in their ankles than those who didn’t stretch (Konrad, 2014).
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Most of us aren’t professional athletes or law enforcement officers who need a tremendous range of motion, though. Ballistic stretching may not be the right approach for the average person.
What’s the difference between active stretching and ballistic stretching?
There are two types of dynamic stretching or stretches that also involve motion: active stretching and ballistic stretching. People often get them confused, but they are two different techniques (Page, 2012).
Active stretching involves moving your limb through its full range of motion and repeating this motion several times. It doesn’t push your muscles past their normal range, and no bouncing is involved (Page, 2012).
On the other hand, ballistic stretching includes rapid, alternating movements that push muscles past their typical stopping point. Due to the increased risk of injury, most physical medicine experts no longer recommend ballistic stretching (Page, 2012).
What are the most common techniques for ballistic stretching?
Most ballistic stretches are similar to regular static stretches, just with the addition of a bouncing or pulsing motion at the furthest point of the stretch.
To perform a ballistic hamstring stretch, fold forward from a standing position and try to touch your toes. When you are as close as you can get, add a little bounce in to see if you can get closer. Over time, this is thought to increase your hamstring flexibility.
Ballistic shoulder rotations can help you to improve your chest flexibility. Stand upright and extend both of your arms straight to the side. Your palms should face up, and your elbows should be a little flexed. Now flex your shoulders to move your arms behind you repeatedly.
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Swinging exercises for legs
Stand sideways about an arm’s length from a wall. Put your body weight on your left leg and put your right palm on the wall for balance. Now swing your right leg forward and backward for several rounds. Repeat this stretch with the other leg.
Pulsing while in a front or middle split is another form of ballistic stretching. This looks like a standard split, but you gently apply pressure to your hips in order to get your groin closer to the floor. You should do this with caution, as there is a high risk of injury to the groin with this exercise.
This exercise requires either a prop or a partner to hold your legs down. Start with your body facedown with your feet held down by the prop or partner. Lift your chest away from the floor as far as you can and pulse in this position.
Does ballistic stretching have any safety risks?
Ballistic stretching can have benefits for high-level athletes, but it also carries a higher risk of injury. It generally isn’t recommended for the average person who just wants to increase their flexibility. Improper use of ballistic stretching techniques can result in damaging your muscles, tendons, or ligaments.
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Most studies comparing different types of stretching regimens have found no significant differences in the amount of improvement you can gain. Some have found that proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching might have a slight advantage over the long term, but more research is needed (Behm, 2016; Konrad, 2017).
Other stretching options available are at least equally effective as ballistic stretching but with less risk of injury. This may be a reason that ballistic stretching is falling out of favor.
- Behm, D. G., Blazevich, A. J., Kay, A. D., & McHugh, M. (2016). Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, And Metabolism, 41(1), 1–11. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0235. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26642915/
- Konrad, A. & Tilp, M. (2014). Effects of ballistic stretching training on the properties of human muscle and tendon structures. Journal of Applied Physiology 117(1), 29-35. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00195.2014. Retrieved from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00195.2014
- Konrad, A., Stafilidis, S., & Tilp, M. (2017). Effects of acute static, ballistic, and PNF stretching exercise on the muscle and tendon tissue properties. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports; 27(10): 1070–1080. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5479471/
- Page P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 109–119. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/
- Witvrouw, E., Mahieu, N., Roosen, P., & McNair, P. (2007). The role of stretching in tendon injuries. British Journal Of Sports Medicine, 41(4), 224–226. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2006.034165. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2658965/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.