What is ballistic stretching?

Ballistic stretching is popular among athletes, but is it safe for the average person? This intense stretching method uses bouncing movements to push your body beyond its normal range of motion.

Whereas static stretches are performed slowly and gradually, the ballistic method stretches muscles much farther and faster. You can do many of the same stretches as ballistic or static stretches. For example, the ballistic method of touching your toes would be to bounce and jerk toward your feet.

People often confuse ballistic stretching with dynamic stretching. While both techniques involve movement during the stretch, they are different. Dynamic stretching doesn’t push muscles past their normal range of motion and there is no bouncing or jerking involved. An example of a dynamic stretch is arm circles. Dynamic stretching is more widely recommended by doctors than ballistic stretching.

For athletes such as dancers, football players, martial artists, or basketball players, ballistic stretching can help increase their range of motion, which may be beneficial for their performance. An athlete may use ballistic stretching to jump higher or kick with more force.

Because ballistic stretches require extra force, they extend the muscles and tendons through a larger range of movement. Muscles have inside sensors that can tell how far or hard they’re being stretched. If a sensor feels too much tension, it will send a signal for the muscle to pull back to protect the joint from injury. The sheer force of movement during a ballistic stretch bypasses these sensors, and allows the muscles to stretch more than they normally would.

While this type of stretching may be beneficial for athletes, it carries a risk of injury. Ballistic stretching is generally not recommended for everyday people who want to stay in shape or improve flexibility because there is a risk of straining or pulling a muscle. Static stretching stretches muscles more gently without risk of pulling them. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons warns against bouncing stretches, as does the American College of Sports Medicine.

Stretching movements that are too forceful can damage the soft tissues around the joints, such as ligaments and tendons. This can develop into tendonitis. Over time, small muscle tears can develop and can lead to reduced flexibility and movement.

Ballistic stretching may be helpful to some people, as long as it’s done correctly. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ballistic stretching was better than static stretching at improving the flexibility of hamstring muscles at the back of the upper thigh in people with tight hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are a common cause for sports or exercise injuries.

Before trying this technique on your own, speak to your doctor about the risk versus benefits for your individual needs. Remember that while you should be able to feel a stretch, it should never be painful.