Ballistic Growth Leaves a Mark
Pop quiz, hotshot. Stretching is about as much fun as:
A) Going into the locker room at the gym while the resident naked old guy "free balls" around in front of you.
B) Counting the grams of fiber in a serving of broccoli.
C) Going to the dentist... in a third world country.
D) All of the above
The answer used to be "D" of course, but times have changed!
What? You haven't heard? You still think stretching is good for you, but ultimately boring and not all that important when it comes to building babe-attracting muscle? Well then, let me bring you up to date!
Mounting anecdotal and scientific evidence indicates that extreme stretching, at a high intensity and at the right time, is proving to be a major player in the development of 250-pound plus physiques, jockeying for bragging rights along with the "other" dirty tactics for gaining monstrous size.
Get it straight. I'm not talking about a few measly pounds of muscle. I'm talking about forcing the body to produce slabs of extra mass, as much as you care to pack on, limited only by your protein intake, pain tolerance, and imagination. Yeah, it's still gonna hurt, but this time you'll have a ton of extra muscle to show for it!
What else can you expect from forcing muscle growth this fast? Nature's tattoos, that's what! You may know them as stretch marks! Scared yet? Too chicken to try it out? Better stop reading now then! For the rest of you, let's look at how this specific type of stretching can take you to the next level!
What are the latest (sometimes dirty) methods bodybuilders use to quickly gain muscle mass or break size barriers? Drugs are probably the first thing you think of and you'd be right. Examples of this are anabolic androgenic steroids, anabolic growth factors like prostaglandin PGF2a, IGF-I, growth hormone, and injected insulin.
How about site-injected oils? Yep, those too. Compounds composed primarily of medium chain triglycerides and silica are injected directly into a muscle, thereby promoting a constant stretch.
Nutrition? Yes, this definitely plays a role in massive muscle gains. Carbohydrate depletion and loading (starving then overfeeding) manipulates insulin to force excessive nutrients and water volume into the muscle cells. This practice is intensified with oral insulin sensitizing pills or good ol' creatine.
There's no doubt all these methods work. Understand, I'm not talking about safety or legality here with many of these methods, just what the biggest freaks are choosing to do to pack it on before they hit the bodybuilding stage.
But tell me, what's the single mechanism all these share? Answer: They force more nutrients and water into the muscle cells and S T R E T C H the crap out of those cells along with the connective tissues which enclose them. These two mechanisms– osmotic pressure and connective stretch–are very interesting. During the past decade they've immerged as limiting factors in adult muscle growth. Let's take a microscopic look at these powerful underlying forces.
Big, Swollen and Hard (Not What You're Thinking, Perv!)
Cellular osmotic pressure produces muscle tissue when an individual muscle cell becomes excessively filled with water and nutrients. Concurrently, the cell wall swells and thins, becoming increasingly unstable. In protective response to this change, the stretched cell wall triggers an increase in protein synthesis and thickens for survival.
Now, most times, contracting muscle initiates increased cell volume (i.e. nervous system stimulation) and its effects are only temporary. However, by forcing the same effect through overfeeding of protein and calories along with perhaps using steroids or super supplements like MAG-10, you get a constant swelling that'll occur with or without a preceding muscle contraction.
And guess what? This overloaded stiffening sustains itself for up to three weeks! The result is a much bigger, stretched muscle, regardless of any strength increase. (Now, although this nutrient-forced cell volume is interesting to me both in theory and practice, I'll refer you to T-Nation's updated ABCDE program for the nutrition specifics.)
Similarly, stretching the sheaths or layers that encapsulate the muscle bundles will elicit another anabolic effect. In protective response to this unstable change, the stretched muscle sheets trigger an increase in protein splitting, muscle cell division, and collagen breakdown and repair. The result is, again, hypertrophy for survival.
Stretching techniques like PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) or static stretching will work to stretch these layers. Most studies find that PNF stretching produces greater increases in range of motion than static stretching. In practice, I find that a weight-loaded static stretch yields comparable results to that of PNF. To effectively do this, you must incorporate a few PNF tips along with a weighted, extreme stretch for that muscle group.
How do you apply all this and start packing on the new muscle today? A step-by-step guide is provided below!
The "Stretch Mark Mass" Program
Before you assume I'm going to have you on the ground doing some weird-ass yoga stretch ("dog barking at gay florist"), let me quickly explain that these stretches will be done using weights or exercise stations. In other words, you won't have any trouble throwing them into your regular routine. Now let's start with a few extreme stretching tips and then I'll describe a few specific stretches. You can apply these techniques to any good weight-training program found in the T-Nation archives.
Tip #1: Only perform the muscle group specific stretches after the last training set and rep is completed.
Explanation: Stretching, especially static stretching, prior to weight training has been proven to weaken the trainee. Intense stretching after the last rep uses body heat, blood flow, and pressure to help expand the restrictive muscle sheaths. Greater blood flow also allows for quicker lactate removal and increased work capacity. In short, only do these stretches after your normal sets.
Tip #2: Use 60 to 80% isometric tension during a 30 second stretch-hold phase.
Explanation: Walter and Bandy et al. observed a 30-second stretch improved hamstring range of motion in comparison with both 15 and 60-second bouts. Adding a load to a stretch facilitates increasing the range of motion around the joint.
There are two ways to quantify the amount of load used in extreme stretching. The first is perceived exertion. This is used when it isn't obvious or convenient to rate the tension placed on a joint, i.e. the shoulder stretch described below. While performing any stretch, simply ask yourself what level of pain or tension you feel on a 1 to 10 scale. Your response should be between level 6 and 8, which correlates highly to 60% to 80% of maximum.
Now, on the other stretches where you use your own body weight or free weights, the stretch load is easily calculated. Whatever free weight load you use for 8 to 15 reps will be the load used to stretch for 30 seconds. For example, if you can chin-up your body mass plus 30 pounds strapped on for 12 reps, then 30 pounds is also the stretch load. This is simple because 8 to 15 reps correlates to 60% to 80% of maximum (using regression data).
Side note: If you're not a good chinner, you'll get a number less than your bodyweight for 8 to 15 reps, so you have two options: 1) an assisted chin-up device, or 2) pulldowns (using a wide, pronated grip).
Tip #3: Don't bounce during the 30-second stretch-hold phase.
Explanation: The muscular-tendon complex has protective mechanisms that integrate the muscle with the joint. When triggered through an excessive rate of tension and length, they force a reflexive, opposing muscle contraction. (It's kind of a safety mechanism to prevent you from injuring yourself, but we can gently thwart this mechanism.) This reflex is counterproductive to our goal of increasing the pliability of the muscle bellies.
Additionally, by using the inverse stretch reflex, when a muscle stretch is held, the pull on the tendons will cause the muscle to relax and lengthen further to reduce the chances of muscle tearing.
Tip #4: Contract the antagonist (opposite) muscle during the 30-second stretch-hold phase.
Explanation: Flexion enhances extension; extension enhances flexion, etc. This is termed successive induction. For example, contracting (flexing) the rear deltoids while doing a pec stretch produces a deeper stretch.
Tip #5: Perform the body part specific stretch within seconds of your last rep for that body part.
Explanation: This simply times the maximum pump with the stretch. And because it's performed post-set, it doesn't weaken that body part.
Tip #6: Extreme loaded stretching should coincide with your bulking phases.
Explanation: Remember, the only time this is really going to force muscle hypertrophy is when the muscle cells are fully engorged with water and the muscle is extremely pumped. In other words, save this stuff for the mass phases.
Body Part Specific Stretches
After the last set and rep are complete for that body part, quickly perform the following stretches:
Chest Stretch: Get into a flat bench, dumbbell fly position. Slowly lower the dumbbells into a maximal stretch position and hold for 30 seconds. Simultaneously contract the rear deltoids to deepen the stretch.
Triceps/Chest/Shoulder Stretch: Assume the dip position and add additional load. Slowly lower into a maximal hang and hold with the elbows tucked into the body, head neutral.
Shoulder Stretch: Place a barbell in a rack at nipple level. Facing away from the rack, place both palms under the barbell, palms supinated and located in the center of the bar. Slowly walk away from the bar with the elbows extended, then slowly roll the shoulders down and back. For additional stretch tension, slowly squat down, keeping the sternum and head pointed up.
Biceps Stretch: Same as the shoulder stretch but with palms facing down (pronated) and centralized on top of the bar. Simultaneously contract the triceps to deepen the stretch.
Back (Lats) Stretch: Assume a wide grip pull-up position with wrist straps and additional load. Slowly lower into a maximal hang and hold while cursing me in a creative manner.
Posterior Chain Stretch: This one will stretch your glutes, hams and lower back. Get into a Romanian deadlift position. Slowly lower the dumbbells into a maximal stretch position and hold for 30 seconds. Simultaneously contract the quads to deepen the stretch. Aim your butt at a person you're attracted to and give him or her a "come hither" look while licking your lips. (Just kidding. You'd better be concentrating instead of trying to enhance carnal life!)
Quadriceps Stretch: Assume a single-legged squat position holding dumbbells. Increase the tension at the bottom position by forcing the knee down and closer to the bench. Perform one side at a time. Simultaneously contract the glutes and hamstrings, the antagonistic muscles to the quads.
Calf Stretch: This is a single-legged heel stretch on a stair or block. Hold a dumbbell on the stretching side. Slowly lower your body into a maximal stretch position and hold for 30 seconds. Simultaneously contract the tibialis anterior by pulling the toes toward your shin. Switch calves after 30 seconds.
Please realize the preceding stretches are simply a starting point. For competitive bodybuilders, I recommend including more specific stretches that further differentiate the body (i.e. biceps versus brachialis). You can do this by manipulating limb position, joint angle, or using a more targeted stretching method.
In summary, you're going to perform certain stretches, usually weighted, after you do your normal weight training exercises. For example, after you perform your normal chest work, immediately apply the dumbbell fly stretch described above for 30 seconds. Don't bounce.
Also, try to contract the antagonist muscle to the one you're stretching. (Basically, that's the one on the opposite side of the body.) Finally, don't use this method at all unless you're in a mass phase (eating big, training big, and using a good anabolic supplement like MAG-10.)
If your nutrition plan is in place, you'll experience growth like never before! You may even get a few stretch marks to go along with all that new mass, but don't panic or wimp out. Think of them as "battle scars" and be proud!
1. Swank et al., Adding weights to Stretching Exercises Increases Passive Range of Motion for Healthy Elderly, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Volume 17, Number 2, 2003 pp. 374-378.
2. Funk et al., Impact of Prior Exercise on Hamstring Flexibility: A comparison of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation and Static Stretching, Journal of Strength and Conditioning. Research Volume 17, Number 3, 2003 pp. 489-492.
3. Robert McAtee, Facilitated Stretching, Human Kinetics Publishers 1993