If you aren't making stretching an emphasis in your training right now, you'll probably have an injury some day that could have easily been prevented. I know, no one likes to hear that. And I'll bet even the word "stretching" in the title of this article scared off a few people. Too bad for them, because hardcore training needs to incorporate hardcore stretching. In this article, I'll tell you how to do it!
The Two Questions
There are two questions I ask people to get an idea of their feelings on stretching. If they aren't stretching I ask, "Why aren't you stretching?" If they're already stretching I ask, "Why are you stretching?" This may sound confusing at first, but read on and you'll see the method to my madness.
1. Why aren't you stretching?
Do you not have the time? Do you not have the inclination? Have you been completely injury-free for quite some time now? Do you see any benefit to stretching whatsoever? What we're getting at here is how you value stretching. If you've never stretched and never had an injury, then you might not see a need for adding stretching into your program.
On the flip side, though, what if you have had an injury? What if you had to take significant time off from the gym? What if you've had tons of nagging little injuries along the way? Would you be more interested in improving flexibility then? I'd hope so, and this article may be crucial in keeping you healthy and injury-free in the future.
2. Why are you stretching?
This may sound like a weird question to ask, but again, you want to see what goals this person has with his training. Quite often, you'll find that a lifter's program and his goals are on opposite ends of the spectrum. For instance, consider someone who wants to get huge but spends most of his gym time watching Oprah while stomping away on the Stairmaster; his goals and his training program simply aren't in-line with each other.
A flexibility example might be someone who wants to significantly improve his current ROM (range of motion), but weight trains heavily four times a week while only spending 15 minutes twice a week to improve flexibility. It's good that he sees the value of stretching, but his program isn't in-line with his goals.
Sometimes, I have to put it into a different perspective for people. Let's say that on average you train legs two times per week. Over the course of those two workouts, the exercises that hit your quads look like this:
Tuesday, Quad Dominant Workout
Squats 4 x 8-10, 201 TUT (92-120 seconds of work)
Lunges 3 x 8 each, 101 TUT (48 seconds of work each leg)
Friday, Hip Dominant Workout
Step-ups 4 x 6-8, 101 TUT (48-64 seconds of work each leg)
If you add all that up, that turns into 188 to 232 total seconds of strength work for the quads. It doesn't look like much on paper, but now compare that to how long you spend stretching. A general flexibility program calls for two sets of 20 seconds per body part. Even if we follow that recommendation three times per week, that's only 120 seconds of stretching compared to the 188 to 232 total seconds of strength work you're doing! In my eyes, that's not even enough stretching volume to maintain your current flexibility level, let alone improve it. And I didn't even include warm-ups in my example!
The example above is somewhat assumptive, but hopefully it gives you an idea of just how much stretching is really needed to keep pace with your strength work. Keep in mind that a lot of other factors come into play with regards to maintaining or improving flexibility. These would include the intensity level of your stretching and strength work, your current level of strength/flexibility, injury history, flexibility goals, etc.
The Three Levels
In my experience, there are basically three levels of people who stretch:
Level 1 – People who are stretching because someone told them they need to, or they feel they need to.
Trainees in this group typically go through a few stretches each day, with no real rhyme or reason to their stretching. At some point, they picked up the habit or someone told them they needed to stretch more than they were.
This is better than no stretching at all, but they probably aren't seeing a whole lot of progress. As well, their time could be much better served with a few adjustments to their program.
Level 2 – People who stretch for injury prevention purposes and/or flexibility maintenance.
Most people reading this probably fall into this category. They aren't necessarily stretching to improve flexibility per se, but they do value the role of stretching in their programs. Here's the kicker, though: Most people really need to improve flexibility before they focus on maintaining it!
This is like trying to maintain a 300 pound bench when you can only bench 250. You can't maintain something you don't have enough of in the first place! The majority of T-Nation readers probably need a little, if not a lot, of improvement in their flexibility before they move on to a maintenance program.
Level 3 – People who are actively seeking to improve their flexibility.
Believe it or not, there are some true masochists out there who have a specific goal of improving flexibility. I'm not trying to turn you from a T-man into a yoga instructor, but by improving your flexibility you can greatly improve your performance in the gym and speed recovery out of it.
Four Reasons to Stretch
Let's move on to the part where I try to convince you that you need to stretch (or more importantly, improve flexibility). I'm not trying to bore you with rationale, but I think you should at least consider some of the benefits to adding static stretching into your program:
1 – Improve flexibility imbalances between sides
I know what some of you are thinking, "Human beings aren't perfect, so why bother?" Just because we aren't perfect doesn't mean we can't strive to improve our current physical state. After all, we don't get up in the morning and think, "Gee, my body isn't perfect, so I don't think I'm going to hit the gym today."
Just as we should be working to achieve a balance in strength from side-to-side, we should also be focusing to achieve balance in flexibility as well. Flexibility imbalances between sides will typically manifest into bigger problems down the line.
Take someone whose left hip musculature is tighter than his right. Since the left side is tighter, the hips will typically deviate toward the right side on movements like squats and deadlifts. This will put more stress and torque around the right hip joint (or knee, low back, etc.), which will eventually lead to overuse or injury. We can add single-leg strength work to improve balance between sides, but we also need to address the tension/flexibility issues in the left hip if we're going to increase our lifts and decrease our susceptibility to injury.
Here's where most people go wrong with flexibility imbalances: they train each side with identical set and rep schemes because they don't want to be "imbalanced!" I'm sorry, but this is totally asinine. If you train in a balanced fashion but are imbalanced to begin with, you'll be more flexible, but you'll still be imbalanced!
For that reason, you need to increase the time stretched, frequency, and intensity on the tighter side until it catches up to the good side. This may take a while, but will be worth it when you're training injury-free and making amazing gains all at the same time.
2 – Decrease susceptibility to injury
The previous point leads right into this one. If you're working to improve flexibility imbalances between sides, your body is going to work in a more optimal fashion once it re-learns proper movement and function.
Note: This does not mean your body is automatically going to be perfect; you've been moving the way you are now for quite some time. It's going to take time and repetitions in your "new" body to really reap the benefits.
Beyond unilateral imbalances, however, static stretching seems to decrease the formation of muscular adhesions while also decreasing excessive muscle tone to some degree. Now before you ask, no, there's no research out there to date on this. It's simply something I've noticed with myself and with my clients. Several massage therapists I've talked to have noticed decreased adhesion formation and decreases in muscle tone after their clients started incorporating more static stretching into their programs as well.
3 – Improved length-tension relationship in muscles and improved firing of lengthened muscles
Simply put, if a muscle isn't at its ideal resting length, you're not going to get ideal muscle function. The shortened muscle is going to cause postural distortions, and the antagonistic muscle group is going to suffer from poor motor recruitment due to reciprocal inhibition.
4 – Improve quality of movement
Something that I feel isn't discussed frequently enough is the quality of movement. Quite often you'll hear people refer to the ability of various forms of stretching to increase the ROM or the quantity of movement. When you take the previous factors into account (decreases in myogenic tone, decreased adhesion formation, improved flexibility levels between sides, etc.), you'll find the quality of your movements will be greatly improved: smoother and more effortless.
To sum it all up, static stretching can promote balanced ROM from side-to-side, decrease susceptibility to injury, decrease the formation of muscular adhesions, improve firing of antagonistic muscle groups, and promote optimal function. Shame on you if you thought static stretching was stupid!
Four Stretching Tips
Before I give you the goods, I should probably give you some insight so you can get the maximum benefit from your Hardcore Stretching program. These are some tried and true principles that I use not only on myself, but all my clients as well. Following these simple tips can be the difference between seeing some modest gains and seeing some truly significant gains in flexibility.
1 – Warm-up
In the days of old, trainees would start off their weight regimen with a serious bought of static stretching. Since then, numerous studies have concluded that static stretching simply doesn't cut it as a pre-workout modality. Not only can it increase your risk of injury, but it kills your ability to display strength and power.
However, a warm muscle is not only more resistant to injury, but better able to display ROM as well. So how might we warm-up? I'm not thinking along the lines of cardio here, but rather passive means such as a warm shower, bath, or even a trip to the sauna or hot tub. Passive means give us the benefits of increased temperature in the muscle without the negative effects that exercise can produce (e.g. shortening of the muscle which we're getting ready to stretch!).
If you aren't interested in these means (or simply shrug off hygiene in general), you can always start off cold, but make sure to start off very gently and increase the stretch as you go on. I don't like this method as well, but it's definitely better than nothing.
2 – Shoot for a mild stretch
You probably read T-Nation because you're a hyper-aggressive person that wants to see big-time results, fast. This approach can get you in trouble in the weight room, and it can do the same with regards to your flexibility training.
The password is "mild stretch." If you get too overzealous and stretch to a point of pain, chances are you'll injure yourself...the very thing you're trying to prevent with your stretching program! Stretching is something that will work, but you have to stay dedicated and make it a priority. Trying to stretch too intensely is a sure-fire way to get yourself hurt.
3 – Make your stretching outcome-based, not time-based
This is really much more simple than it sounds. When you start out you should have a basic idea of how tight each muscle group is, along with how long you need to stretch it to see improvements. However, just like your weight training, some days are going to be better (or worse) than others.
So if you normally stretch your quads for 5 sets of 30 second holds, after a treacherous squat workout you might perform 10 sets of 30 second holds (or even more) just to get to the range you're used to! You know what your current ROM is, so focus on getting to, or beyond that range, instead of focusing simply on the amount of time you're stretching.
This point is also applicable to unilateral imbalances in flexibility. For instance, if your right glute is significantly tighter than your left, you need to spend more time stretching it. Stretch the good side first to determine the range you want to achieve on the other side. Then simply stretch the tighter side until you can achieve that same range. It may take only a little while longer (or significantly longer) to achieve, but making your stretching program outcome based ensures that you're doing everything possible to iron out imbalances.
4 – Relax!
Learning to relax while stretching is critical to getting the most out of your program. Simply put, if you're fighting your body just to get into the stretch position, you aren't going to get that much out of it!
This is one reason why I don't like to have people stretch immediately post-workout. Your muscles are full of blood and your nervous system is jacked to the max. Do you really think you're going to be able to relax and get a deep stretch?
Instead, you can incorporate this with your evening shower. I try to do this about an hour to an hour and a half before bed. Use the sauna, hot tub, etc., perform your flexibility program, and then read for a little while before bed. Not only will your muscles be able to relax even further since you aren't moving around anymore, but you'll probably sleep like a log to boot since you have rid your body of all that excess tension!
Okay, now you know you should start a static stretching program. In Part II, I'll outline a thorough program that'll help even the most bound-up trainees improve their flexibility and train injury-free!