Dynamic Mobility vs. Static Stretching: Which Is Right for You? by Stella Bergan, MEd, NASM CPT
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Are you an athlete (I believe there is one in all of us!), a recreational exerciser or a dancer? Or do you feel you have become stiffer as the years have gone by? Stretching regularly and appropriately is an invaluable tool for maintaining your body's range of motion and is a necessary component of long-term health. However, knowing how and when to stretch can be confusing. Let's take a deep dive into the world of joint and soft tissue end range of motion to help you establish a daily health routine.
There are essentially two types of stretching: dynamic mobility and static stretching. Dynamic mobility involves controlled movement. Static stretching, on the other hand, consists of an absence of movement once in the desired position of the stretch. The data supporting the effectiveness of stretching are somewhat limited, but they indicate that dynamic mobility is better at warming up the body and preparing it for exercise and static stretching is more effective at increasing limb range of motion (ROM).
What is dynamic mobility?
Dynamic mobility helps improve joint range of motion but typically does not involve movement at the end ranges of motion. If you have ever watched a sports team warm up before a game, you have most likely seen the group engage in a series of dynamic mobility exercises. Dynamic mobility involves movement and momentum to help increase joint range of motion; it warms up the body for forthcoming exercise, helps to hydrate the fascia by pushing fluid through the tissues and stimulates the nervous system. There are many types of dynamic mobility, including traditional exercises like jumping jacks, arm circles and walking lunges. Stringing several yoga poses together as a flow is another dynamic mobility exercise. The following are some examples of dynamic mobility exercises (see video link for visual examples):
"World's Greatest Stretch" (my personal favorite)
Walking lunges with overhead reach
Walking toe touches
Wide stance windmills
Ballistic stretching (a type of dynamic stretching) relies heavily on momentum and includes bouncing or swinging at the end range of motion. It can benefit certain populations like athletes, but it comes with more risk. Anytime you "force" tissue to extend beyond its ROM, you risk damaging the soft tissue. I have pulled my hamstring more than once (embarrassing, but it happens!) doing ballistic toe touches after finishing a long run. On the flip side, ballistic open arm chest stretches can feel great as a mobility break for those who work at a computer for long periods of time. Here are some examples of ballistic stretching (see video link):
Standing toe touch
Sitting toe touch
Open arm chest stretch
Seated butterfly stretch
What is static stretching?
Static stretching involves holding a stretch at an end range of motion for a proscribed amount of time (optimal time being 30 seconds) while minimizing the amount of momentum used. On his popular podcast, Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman reviewed the current science behind limb range of motion and flexibility and how to use science-supported protocols to increase them. He suggests holding each stretch for 30 seconds, targeting each limb or muscle group for a total of five minutes per week. Being consistent with your static stretching routine is key to slowly increasing your range of motion and helping prevent injury.
Static stretching can be either passive or active. Passive static stretching involves using a partner or props to help increase your range of motion by slowly expanding the end range. Below are some examples of passive static stretching (see video link):
Supine hamstring stretch with strap
Assisted neck stretch
Hurdle stretch or the splits
Chest stretch using a doorway
Elevated adductor stretch
In active static stretching, one holds the stretch at the desired ROM by contracting the opposing muscles (antagonist) while relaxing and stretching the desired muscles. Given that many of us have tight hip flexors from sitting too much, a great active stretch would be a kneeling hip flexor stretch (see how in the video below). Active static stretching aims to progressively and incrementally increase your ROM to maximize the benefits of the stretch. The key here is to hold each stretch for 30 seconds. Here are some examples of active static stretching (see video link):
Kneeling hip flexor stretch
Supine hamstring stretch
Seated butterfly stretch
Overhead triceps stretch
Open arms chest stretch
Stretching every day As a trainer, the first question I ask my clients is, what are your goals? If your priority is to increase limb ROM, then static stretching would be your best option. On the other hand, if your goal is to warm up the body to prepare and activate the muscles you will target during a workout or athletic performance, I would steer you toward dynamic mobility. As mentioned earlier, the data are limited, but most research supports dynamic mobility for warm-up and prep and static stretching after exercise to increase ROM. For a dynamic mobility warm-up, you will want to focus on warming up the ankles, hips and thoracic spine (the big three) for about 5–10 minutes. String together a series of two to four exercises for six to eight repetitions each. For example, start with the "World's Greatest Stretch" for eight reps, follow with eight reps of front lunges with opposite arm overhead reach, and finish with windmills for eight reps. You can do one set or repeat the sequence if needed. Another great option for general fitness (and for recovery days for athletes) is to pair a dynamic mobility set with a post-workout static stretching session. For example, do the above mobility set for four rounds before your workout and follow it with two to four minutes of static stretching. Pick two stretches and complete two sets of 30-second holds each (see above for a list of static stretches). There is no "one size fits all" stretching regimen, as every person needs different types of movement for their body. Practicing stretching habits that complement your fitness and health routine and are aligned with your health goals is essential. Refer to this guide and the stretching examples I provided to determine what is best for you.
Huberman, Andrew. Improve Flexibility with Research-Supported Stretching Protocols. Huberman Lab. hubermanlab.com/improve-flexibility-with-research-supported-stretching-protocols/
Ramsay, Craig. (2012). Anatomy of Stretching A Guide to Increasing Your Flexibility. Thunder Bay Press. amazon.com/Anatomy-Stretching-Anatomies-Craig-Ramsay-ebook/dp/B0095XKMW4
Chowdhary, Sunita. (2020). Top 7 Benefits of Ballistic Stretching. medindia.net/patients/lifestyleandwellness/top-7-benefits-of-ballistic-stretching.htm
Preiato, Daniel. (2021). Active Stretching Is the Static Stretching You Haven't Tried Yet. healthline.com/nutrition/active-stretching
Cronkleton, Emily. (2020). Passive Stretching: What It Is and How to Do It. healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/passive-stretching
NIH: National Institute on Aging. (2020). Maintaining mobility and preventing disability are key to living independently as we age. nia.nih.gov/news/maintaining-mobility-and-preventing-disability-are-key-living-independently-we-age
Stella Bergan, MEd, NASM CPT
Stella is an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Institute of Motion Applied Health and Human Performance Specialist. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College and graduate degree from the University of Virginia. Her training as a therapist, along with a background in executive coaching/organizational strategy, provide the foundation for helping her clients make the changes they need to live healthier, more productive lives and perform at their optimal level. Stella takes an integrative approach to wellness and performance and believes that making small, sustainable changes over time can lead to profound improvements in overall health and performance. She works with some of Silicon Valley's top executives. She is a mom, an avid trail runner, loves to travel and really enjoys converting teenagers into green smoothie drinkers.