Stretching Doesn't Work
I spend most of my day working with sedentary office workers who toil in cubicle mines for an average of 8-12 hours a day. Not surprisingly, most arrive at my door with the mobility of a clam, which makes training them to do even simple things like hip hinges, squats, and other staples of a training program a challenging endeavor.
However, static stretching alone is not the answer. In fact, it barely provides any benefit at all.
No matter how much time a client spends stretching, they typically see only transient improvements in flexibility and negligible improvement in motor control when performing any movement using that new range of motion.
As a result, I've dropped almost all static stretching from my programs in favor of some more advanced mobility methods I'll discuss here.
Banana Hammock Splits
Let's start with the basics. "Mobility" means increasing the usable range of motion at a joint or joints in the hope that this increased range of motion allows for performance benefits and injury prevention.
This new range of motion should stick, or at least be something you can get back relatively quickly, as the only limiting factor should be the joint structure itself.
Everyone should theoretically be able to do the splits. The hip joint can get to 170 degrees of flexion, and in some angles outside of the saggital plane it can get to more than 200 degrees flexion. It can also extend to between 40-60 degrees, which adds up to way more than the necessary 180 degrees to do a split.
This leaves soft tissue restrictions as the reason most people can't tea bag the floor. Sure, some have structural issues with the shape of their hip joints, but that can't be something that could account for the entire population.
Flex Wheeler used to hit the splits on stage, carb depleted and dehydrated while packing more muscle than 95% of the population, proving the concept of being "muscle bound" to be complete and utter horse shit.
Why "Stretching" Won't Make you Stretchy
The common thought process regarding static stretching is to hold an elongated position for 20-30 seconds to create additional length within a muscle to allow for a greater range of motion.
This is good in theory, but in practice it doesn't seem to happen. If stretching is supposed to increase range of motion, why do people keep stretching while remaining chronically "tight"?
A better question would be why is that muscle or tissues so tight that they require stretching in the first place? Muscles are stupid creatures and they only do what they're told to do. The nervous system calls the shots and if it says contract, the muscle contracts.
If the brain tells a muscle "get tight," it's for a reason, usually to produce movement (eccentric or concentric action), provide stability, or to protect joints during novel movements or ranges of motion.
The muscles of the hips are getting tight to try to provide some level of stability for another area of the body that doesn't have it, so you can move efficiently and without pain.
This means that simply stretching a muscle without figuring out why it's tight will just result in it getting tight again.
Below is a video to show the thought process in action with a live assessment and corrective strategy. Watch what happens with her left hip internal rotation:
She didn't have to move her hip through any kind of range of motion to gain that new mobility, so we know stretching wasn't going to be the answer.
Some people claim that static stretching helps increase the length of the muscle, which is almost as possible as me caring about Kim Kardashian or not being glued to the TV when the movie, Blood Sport, is playing.
If you grab a rope and pull it, it gets longer for as long as the tension is applied, but then when you let it go it returns to its normal length. That is unless you start ripping fibers and causing some irreparable damage.
Gymnasts and dancers have crazy mobility for life because they tend to go through deformational changes as children to help them get deeper stretches and more range of motion through alterations to their femoral head and neck, hip capsule, and almost every other joint where freaky mobility is necessary for their sport.
Static stretching a muscle is the same. Sure, it changes length for a little while, but returns quickly. There's no way stretching will add sarcomeres in series – which would actually increase the length of the muscle – without long sustained holds of about 20-30 minutes, as shown by some studies.
Additionally, static stretching reduces your ability to produce muscular force, meaning you're less likely to push massive weights and catch the attention of someone who may want to see you naked. Who would want to limit themselves like that?
What Else Could You Do?
While many people think foam rolling is a method of stretching, it's not. The length of the muscle or tissue isn't undergoing any kind of length change, but rather a neural down-regulation that reduces resting tone in prime movers, meaning you can move more easily and with a better chance of having balanced tension around the joint.
It's a testament to how resetting the neural tone of a tissue can help increase range of motion faster than simply stretching.
But again, un-gluing a chronically tight area without restoring stability to the tissues it's trying to help stabilize will only result in it getting tight again.
Chronic IT band pain? Look at how your hips and feet are moving, how your knees are positioned during your squats, and also your lateral core stability on that side.
Start off by gripping the floor and trying to form an arch in your foot whenever you have it in contact with the ground. You should be thinking of using your heel and the ball of your foot to shorten your sock without curling your toes.
From there, drive the knees out when squatting and deadlifting, so you keep the knees vertical over the feet instead of letting it cave in a valgus stress.
Foam rolling should be the first step to regaining lost mobility, specifically for the hips, typically occupying the first 5 minutes or so of any training session. Go super slow through all the tight spots, slow enough to make glaciers say, "Slow down!"
Traction is another form of mobility that can be applied to anyone and is a very effective form of mobilization to help un-glue sticky joints. I picked up a version of a dynamic traction movement with a thick elastic band from Kelly Starrett.
This involves having the band up high on the thigh, close to the hip joint, and rocking side to side. The elastic is pulling the hip joint slightly apart, while the action of the rocking helps to get the muscles working around the hip while in the new joint position.
(Just watch out so you don't get your junk caught in the action.)
This can help reduce the resting tension of the muscles around the joint as it reduces the compressive signaling in the muscles supporting the joint.
An additional benefit is that the mild compression on the adductor muscles of the inner thigh can help increase activation and provide a better chance of total joint stability rather than simply addressing hamstrings and glutes.
The adductor magnus also causes a degree of hip extension, so spend some time on that as well when you're trying to build your posterior chain.
Traction has commonly been used in therapeutic settings to provide a decreased stimulus to overactive muscles and receptors, and encourages an increase of fluid delivery into the joint spaces. Decompression tables for disc injuries are a common method of traction.
In passive settings it's effective, but again doesn't address the muscular stabilization component mentioned earlier. Having the dynamic rocking as shown here helps clean this up nicely.
Active mobility comes into play with the newly unlocked joints and tissues. The role of active mobility is to train the body to use the range of motion in the most effective way possible so that the likelihood of maintaining this new range is higher than simply rolling in to the gym at peak hour, squatting heavy, high fiving everyone in the gym and then going home.
The major directions that tend to be lacking in hip mobility are full hip flexion (bringing the knee to the chest), abduction (legs wide apart), external rotation (crossing an ankle over your knee), and even hip extension.
When doing any active mobility, it's best to try to get all the movements down as fast as possible while focusing on getting the movement to come from the hip and not from the lumbar spine.
Focus on keeping the spine tense and the core active while sinking deep into the stretches, hold each for a single breath per rep, and continue on to the next one.
Putting it all Together
So to outline a plan of attack to get your hips going in the right direction:
- Foam rolling: Super slow, hips, IT band and adductors – 5-10 minutes
- Traction: Super slow and concentrated – 2 sets x 15 reps
- Active Mobility: Core tense and focus on breathing – 2 x 8-12 reps each side
The total time needed to get the hips singing a happy tune should only be about 15 minutes. If this 15 minutes means the difference between squatting deep into the hole and developing a bigger and better squat, or getting your hips back in a deadlift without having your low back flex to compensate, you'll have a greater chance of pulling big numbers and not getting injured.
I should also say that having more hip mobility opens up more possibilities for exercises you can do, which will help reduce boredom and monotony in the gym. It can also increase the number of, ahem, positions you can get into outside of the gym.
Winchester et al (2009). A single 30-s stretch is sufficient to inhibit maximal voluntary strength. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Vol 80 (2) pp. 257-261.
Liebenson C: Rehabilitation of the Spine ? A Practitioners Manual. 2nd edition Williams and Wilkins. 2006.