Static vs. Ballistic Stretching

Young woman doing a static tricep stretch
Tara Moore / Getty Images

Flexibility, which is gauged as the range of motion you have about a given joint, is one of the five health-related components of fitness, and it's a critical element of functional health. If your range of motion becomes limited for any reason, it's harder to perform activities of daily living, like reaching your arms overhead to lift items from high shelves, or bending over to pick something up off the floor. Poor flexibility is also linked to fall risk and resultant injuries, which highlights the importance of maintaining a good range of motion throughout the aging process.

There are lots of ways to maintain and increase range of motion, including yoga, Pilates, certain types of strength training, and even foam rolling, but standard stretching remains a go-to approach for working on flexibility. The catch, of course, is that there are many different types of stretching, and as research continues within the field, experts are learning more about when and how to incorporate each type of stretching and whether certain forms of stretching are appropriate for different times, activities, or specific populations.

What may surprise you is that two styles of stretching that have traditionally been used as go-to approaches for flexibility training have started to go out of style. This doesn't mean there isn't a time or place for either approach, but simply that you should think carefully about how to apply them to your own training, and when they're most appropriate to use. Here's what you need to know about static stretching and ballistic stretching.

Static Stretching Basics

Static stretching is typically what most people think of when they hear the word "stretching." You move into a particular stretch, hold it in place for 10 to 60 seconds, then release it before moving to the next stretch.

For example, when performing a standing quadriceps stretch, you bend one knee, lifting your foot from the ground, grab the lifted foot with your opposite hand, and draw your heel toward your buttocks, holding the position in place when you feel a nice stretch down the thigh of your lifted leg.

There's nothing inherently wrong with static stretching, and indeed, it's an effective way to maintain and improve range of motion. That said, a 2015 review study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, found that, contrary to popular belief, engaging in static stretching prior to a workout doesn't necessarily reduce the likelihood of injury.

Additionally, a 2014 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretching before exercise may limit performance when participating in strength training or other forms of exercise that require explosive power, such as sprinting or jumping. This makes a pre-workout static stretch less than ideal for many populations, especially athletes and individuals focused on power-based training.

This doesn't mean static stretching doesn't have its place—it does; but for the greatest benefit—namely, to maintain or increase range of motion—you should perform static stretching after a workout or as its own routine following a short warm-up. In either case, this approach gives you the chance to focus on flexibility while your muscles are warm and more pliable, better prepared to move to the end (or past!) your typical range of motion in a controlled and safe manner.

Ballistic Stretching Basics

Ballistic stretching is another form of stretching that has been challenged by modern research due to its potential to cause injury. That said, chances are you've probably performed ballistic stretching at some point in your life. Just think back to elementary school for a moment. If you ever had a physical education teacher lead you through the "butterfly stretch," you probably did it ballistically.

While the practice has started to change, many P.E. teachers used to cue their students to:

  • Sit on the floor and bring the soles of your feet together.
  • Open your knees wide, so your outer thighs reach toward the ground.
  • Draw your heels toward your body as far as you can.
  • Bounce your knees up and down like a butterfly flapping its wings to stretch your groin.

It's this last cue, "bounce your knees up and down," that make this a ballistic stretch.

In essence, ballistic stretching is a form of stretching where you bounce or repeatedly push your body past its natural range of motion by using momentum, force, or gravity. On the surface, it sounds effective, and certainly, athletes and dancers use the method to enhance their flexibility. That said, it's considered a more advanced methodology that's best left to high-level athletes who have the requisite control and finesse to engage in ballistic movements without risking injury.

For the average exerciser, there are few significant benefits (compared to other forms of stretching), and a greater comparative risk of muscle pulls or tears due to the ballistic nature of the method. It should rarely (if ever) be included in a standard stretching routine.

Ballistic Stretching Is Not the Same as Active Stretching

It's important to note, however, that ballistic stretching and active stretching are not the same things. These two forms of stretching often get confused because neither version involves holding stretches for an extended period of time. That said, there are key differences between the methods.

Active stretching (sometimes termed dynamic stretching) is a form of stretching in which you take your joints through their full range of motion in a controlled manner without holding the stretch at the end of the range. For instance, doing arm circles, leg swings, deep walking lunges, or deep air squats before starting your workout would all be considered forms of active stretching.

Active stretching is different from ballistic stretching because bouncing and jerking motions that push your joints past their natural range of motion aren't performed; rather, you're simply taking your body to its limits in a controlled and continuous fashion.

Active stretching has grown in popularity because studies, like the 2015 review study cited above, indicate that it's more effective at preparing your body for exercise, improving performance and reducing the likelihood of injury, than static stretching. This is particularly true if you're performing active stretches that mimic the types of movements you'll be performing during your workout routine. For instance, doing high knees and butt kicks prior to a running routine.

Static Stretching vs. Ballistic Stretching

When comparing static and ballistic stretching, the main things to remember is that each form is appropriate in different situations and populations. Static stretching can be appropriate for all individuals, including older adults, due to its controlled nature and its effectiveness at maintaining and improving range of motion, particularly when performed following an exercise routine.

Ballistic stretching, on the other hand, isn't appropriate for all populations due to its more advanced methodology. As such, it should be limited to more advanced athletes or dancers, or those with lots of practice performing the method safely. If you're not sure whether you fall into the category, hedge your bets and stick with static stretching.

Best Practices

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines released by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests that adults complete at least two to three bouts of flexibility training each week. These bouts should target all the major muscle groups, taking your joints through a full range of motion.

While it's up to you to decide how to incorporate flexibility training into your weekly routine, here are a few safe and effective suggestions:

  • Engage in active stretching prior to cardio and strength training as part of your warm-up routine. Choose active stretches that target the same muscle groups and joints you'll be working during your cardio or strength routine. For instance, if you plan on doing weighted squats, a series of deep air squats can help prepare your body for the weighted version.
  • Engage in passive stretching after your cardio or strength-training sessions. Target all your major joints and muscle groups. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat each stretch until you accumulate a total of 60 seconds per joint and muscle group. For instance, if you hold a quad stretch for 30 seconds, release the stretch, then repeat it a second time to accumulate a total of 60 seconds. A standard total-body stretching routine that hits all the major muscle groups should take about 10 minutes to complete.
  • During static and active stretching, move your joints through their full range of motion, but avoid pushing them past their limits. You should feel a slight level of discomfort at the end of your range of motion, but it shouldn't be painful. If you experience pain, back off a bit.
  • Try forms of exercise that include flexibility training, such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, or barre.
  • Avoid incorporating ballistic stretching into your routine unless you're a highly skilled athlete or performer with an experience that lends itself to performing the method safely. When in doubt, stick with active and static stretching.

A Word From Verywell

At the end of the day, the reality is that most people simply don't stretch enough. If you're stressed out about when and how to add stretching to your hectic schedule, keep it simple.

Start by trying to accumulate the recommended 150-minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise each week. After two of your daily 20 or 30-minute cardio sessions, add 10-minutes of static stretching. You can read a straightforward guide to get you started.

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Behm DG, Blazevich AJ, Kay AD, McHugh M. 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. 2016. 41 (1); 1-11.

  • Haddad M, Dridi A, Chtara M, Chaouachi A, Wong DP, Behm D, Chamari K. Static Stretching Can Impair Explosive Performance for At Least 24 Hours. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2014.

  • Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2012. 7:109-119.

By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.