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Ballistic stretching is probably the most dangerous form of flexibility training you can use, but when done properly can significantly increase your range of motion (ROM). This is a very advanced form of flexibility training that is not considered very useful due to the potential for injury.
Cheerleading Toe Touches – Seriously?
There is very little worth knowing about ballistic stretching, but we will go over all of it anyway, just so you know the how, where, when, and why to use ballistic stretching; or more accurately the how, where, when, and why NOTs.
Ballistic stretching attempts to force the joints of the body beyond their normal ROM by using momentum. A ballistic movement is a forced movement initiated by muscle actions and continued by the momentum of the limbs.
Ballistic movements have three main phases:
- initial phase – concentric action
- coasting phase – relying on the momentum generated in the initial phase
- deceleration phase – initiated by eccentric actions as the muscle passes its normal ROM
To use ballistic stretching, you would use a forced muscular contraction of the antagonist muscle, or you would push or swing a limb, to get the target muscle into a stretched position beyond its normal ROM. Then you would use the stretch reflex as a spring to bounce out of the stretch before bouncing or forcing it back into a stretch.
This type of stretching does not allow your muscles to relax and adjust to the stretched position. Instead, ballistic stretching may instead cause both the agonist (target) and antagonist (opposite) muscles tighten up, or contract, by repeatedly activating the stretch reflex.
Why Ballistic Stretching is Bad
Ballistic Stretching is a prescription for injury – muscle pulls, muscle strains, and muscle tears can all result from ballistic stretching. You can also end up with tendon, ligament, and joint trauma from such aggressive stretching.
Deep connective tissue such as fascia and tendons can limit ROM. The two characteristics of connective tissue related to ROM are elasticity and plasticity.
Elasticity - the ability to return to the original resting length after a passive stretch.
Plasticity - the tendency to assume a new and greater length after a passive stretch.
Ligaments do not display elastic properties, although with exposure to stretching they may extend to new lengths. Strength and conditioning coaches would do well to remember that the stability of any joint is decreased as a result of the increased mobility of the surrounding connective tissues.
This is often an unfavorable adaptation that can lead to injury, particularly in contact sports and weight bearing exercises. Most athletes are usually concerned with strength and power rather than flexibility, especially since increased flexibility is often responsible for decreased strength and power, specifically at an extreme ROM.
Weight training typically decreases flexibility anyway, especially with exercises using heavy loads in a limited ROM. Instead of ballistic stretching, use dynamic stretching and PNF stretching to increase ROM after a suitable warm-up or after a rigorous workout.
Who Should Use Ballistic Stretching
The simple answer is “no one”, but the realistic answer is that ballistic stretching could be used by elite athletes with supervision by their personal trainer.
Cheerleaders, gymnasts, ballet dancers, and martial artists often use ballistic stretching to gain extreme flexibility in some of their limbs. You’ve seen cheerleading and gymnastic toe touches, and I’m sure you’ve seen martial artists who can kick over, and sometimes behind, their own head.
Ballistic stretching routines can be used to reach this extreme level of flexibility, but so can PNF stretching, which is far safer.
Who Should NOT Use Ballistic Stretching
In my opinion, no one should use ballistic stretching except maybe cheerleaders, gymnasts, and ballet dancers. I don’t recommend ballistic stretching for martial artists because they need to maximize strength and power in order to excel at their sport.
Ballistic Stretching Examples
The simplest and most popular ballistic stretch is bent over toe touching with a bounce. On each rep, the athlete attempts to touch his or her toes using gravity and bodyweight to facilitate the stretch.
By ballistically stretching your hamstrings this way, you risk hamstring tears and cramping in your quadriceps, not to mention the possibility for lower back injury. Do not use ballistic stretching! If you disagree, you are welcome to leave comments.
Leighton, J.R. A study of the effect of progressive weight training on flexibility. J. Assoc. Phys. Ment. Rehab. 18. 1964
National Strength and Conditioning Association. Essentials of strength training and conditioning, 2nd edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2002
Vidic, M. Flash Mavi. Ballistic Stretching in Martial Arts.