The Pros and Cons of Ballistic Stretching

What is ballistic stretching? 

Ballistic stretching uses momentum to force a muscle beyond its normal range of motion. Unlike a static stretch where you stop at the end range of the joint, ballistic stretching adds dynamic movement (such as a “bouncing” motion). This end range dynamic movement pushes the joint to go further as it creates a spring out of the stretched muscle. 

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Typically, stretching at end range triggers a stretch reflex in the muscle, causing the muscles to contract to prevent the joint from being injured. In static stretching, the position is held for a long period of time. The muscles eventually get used to the stretch and relax, decreasing the reflex and allowing increased range of motion.  

Researchers believe ballistic stretching can change the way that the muscle fibers relay the message of their movements to the nervous system. The belief is that these ballistic movements bypass the muscle fiber sensors that initiate the stretch reflex, leading the muscles to be stretched further than they typically could. 

Benefits of ballistic stretching

This form of stretching is beneficial to some, including elite, higher-level athletes. The sports these individuals participate in often require a high degree of flexibility not easily attained. The forceful dynamic stretch can help these athletes achieve increased range of motion.  

  • Increased tendon elasticity: In a 2007 study, researchers found that ballistic stretching had a significant increase on tendon elasticity. While static stretching showed no influence on tendon stiffness, ballistic stretching showed increased compliance of the tendons. Tendons store and release energy during movement. In high intensity activities, a lot of stress can be put on the tendons. Higher level athletes need tendon elasticity to perform optimally.  
  • Increased range of motion: In a 6-week ballistic stretching training program of the lower leg, data showed that it increased the range of motion of the ankle without effecting the muscle or tendon tissue compared to those who did not undergo any stretching. 

Potential risks

Ballistic stretching is often critiqued as dangerous and therefore has become less popular over the years. The American College of Sports Medicine reports that it can be beneficial and useful for those who participate in higher level athletics.  

However, experts do not recommend ballistic stretching for the typical adult. These stretching movements can be too forceful and lead to damage of the soft tissue around the joints, including ligaments and tendons. This damage can eventually lead to injuries such as tendonitis.  

A common misconception is that flexibility equates to healthy joint mobility. The tendons, ligaments and surrounding muscle tissue are there to protect the joint and maintain a strong foundation. When these joint components are over stretched, it decreases the stability of the joints and increases the risk of injury. 

Final take aways 

Unfortunately, this form of stretching often gets a bad reputation, as it does carry a higher risk of injury. Most individuals should opt instead for safer stretching options such as:  

However, this does not mean that ballistic stretching is bad for everyone. When done correctly, it can be superior to other forms of stretching for a small population of individuals participating in high level activity. Athletes should perform these stretches only under the guidance or suggestion of their coach.