A few months ago I was giving a presentation to a personal training organization in Canada. The auditorium was filled. Things were going smooth until I happened to make what they considered to be a provocative statement. I simply mentioned that too much static stretching prior to a workout can make you weaker.

I really didn't think it was such a big deal, but before I could even finish saying it, half the room had their hand up. Looks like I struck a chord!

Well, there's a time and place for everything and stretching is no exception. It has such an impact on strength that I had no choice but to write an entire article on this subject. Get ready for some detailed information that's gonna fly right in the face of tradition, just the way I like it!

Clearing up the Confusion

There are many misconceptions associated with stretching. First off, don't confuse stretching with flexibility. Flexibility is the range of motion around a joint, whereas stretching reflects the actual deformation of tissue. Stretching is just one form of flexibility training –weight training is another!

It's a common belief that we must stretch to gain flexibility. This isn't entirely true! Flexibility involves both the mechanical stretching of tissue and the manipulation of neural factors to increase range of motion (ROM). The irony is that we're flexible enough to do the most challenging movements; we just need to learn how to access this flexibility!

What is "Normal?"

What's normal in terms of ROM? Well, it depends who you read. Take a look at these two charts and you'll see what I mean.

 

Clarkson

Hartley

McAtee

Flexion

180

180

180

Extension

60

60

60

Abduction

180

180

180

Hor. Abd'n

45

30-45

30

Hor. Add'n

135

120

130

Int. Rot'n

70

90

90

Ext. Rot'n

90

90

50


 

Kendall

Clarkson

Hartley

Kurz

Extension

10

30

30

30

Flexion

125

120

120

110-130

Abduction

45

45

50

45-50

Adduction

10

30

30

20-30

Ext. Rot'n

45

45

45

45

Int. Rot'n

45

45

35

40

Why the difference? The starting position will account for some of the variability while other factors include subject cohort, sample size, and number of trials (subjects will learn with experience so you have to take that into consideration.)

By the way, you don't need expensive instruments to measure joint angles–research shows that eyeballing is just as accurate as using a goniometer or flexometer. The relative readings between both sides of the body are more important than trying to achieve the so-called norm!

We all have asymmetries, but we should strive to achieve balance. It's common sense that the chance of injury is greater if one side is tighter, but what you might not know is that the flexible side is most likely to be injured! If a significant contralateral imbalance exists, perform a 2:1 ratio of stretching–start and end with the tight side.

You can use static (passive) stretching and active movements to determine flexibility, although ironically (or idiotically depending on which way you look at it), the most common test of flexibility in the gym is the sit-and-reach test! Instead, this test should be replaced with the overhead squat.

Look for things like forward lean, heel rise, knee position, foot rotation, squat depth, spine curves, position of arms and head, etc. Make sure you use no or very low weight, though, since loading will cause compression and greater flexibility (a false measure.)

Common Stretching Claims

Let's examine some common stretching claims. Stretching will...

Those are pretty much a given, right? Let's find out.

You CRAC Me Up!

There are two types of stretching: static (no motion) or dynamic (with motion). Research shows that the most effective way to liberate ROM is by using proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching, particularly the contract-relax, antagonist-contract (CRAC) method.

This method basically involves intermittent contractions of 6 to 8 seconds while stretching. Are maximal contractions necessary as most texts recommend? No, not really. In fact, you should use only about 25% force during a PNF stretch since it's easy to apply and there's less discomfort and fatigue. Do as many sets as it takes to reach your maximum for the day (normally around 2 to 5 sets).

Vroom, Vroom: Velocity Specific Stretching

Many people don't realize that stretching is velocity specific. There's actually a low correlation (only 40%) between dynamic and static stretching. As Poliquin has mentioned in the past, a martial artist may be able to kick you in the head but might not reach his toes during a sit-and-reach test.

If you want to be flexible in motion, you must stretch in motion. For example, stretching while running has more to do with running than sitting on the ground pointing at your toes! Think about it. If you're a runner, use high knees, butt kicks, karaoke's, etc. It just makes sense.

Hey Neophyte, Don't Go Ballistic!

Also, keep in mind that dynamic and ballistic stretching are not the same. Ballistic stretching uses momentum rather than muscular control to increase ROM, whereas dynamic stretching involves controlled movements: no bouncing or jerking.

Although touted by many as dangerous, ballistic stretching does play a role in the athlete's repertoire. Ballistic stretching will actually increase maximum strength temporarily and is useful during warm-up, but it's reserved primarily for the advanced athlete. Progress from active to ballistic stretching as you would in sport.

Dynamic stretches improve strength, coordination and elasticity. They are excellent pre-workout to rev up the nervous system, but again, is it really safe to stretch in this manner? This is what Pavel Tsatsouline, an expert and advocate of dynamic stretching, has to say:

Alright, you get the idea. There's a risk involved with this and any other method for that matter, so it's important to use the pendulum method where speed and range are increased gradually. Here's a sample of dynamic stretching using the pendulum method.

The "Two Second Stretch Reflex Rule." What?

First, some basic physiology. We know there are two stretch reflexes that occur. The myotatic stretch reflex is located in the spindle cells of the muscle belly, which basically senses the rate of stretch. If it's too quick, the muscle will contract as a protective measure. When performing a static stretch, make sure to ease into it slowly and gradually to inhibit firing of the stretch reflex.

Then there's the inverse stretch reflex, which involves the Golgi tendon organ (GTO). As the name implies, the GTO is located in the tendon of the muscle. It causes the muscle to relax in the extreme stretched position to protect it from tearing. Got all that? Okay, now we can move on.

Let's discuss a popular method of dynamic stretching called Active-Isolated Stretching (AIS). In The Whartons' Stretch Book, the AIS system is outlined as follows:

Now, I searched the literature high and low for some validity to this two-second rule (i.e. holding a stretch longer than two seconds will trigger the protective stretch reflex and subsequently contract the muscle), but I came up empty-handed. Then, by accident, I stumbled across the following excerpt from Tsatsouline's book Super Joints:

Makes total sense! Now, that's not to say that AIS is without merit; in fact, there are many useful applications of this method. I'll give you an example of one. If you have problems getting your hands in close to your shoulders and driving your elbows forward during a squat (a technique to help keep your chest up and out while promoting ideal posture and alleviating stress from the lower back) or maintaining optimal arm/shoulder alignment during the behind-the-neck press (i.e. your head juts too far forward or your elbows wander too far backward or you simply can't get the bar behind your head), try the seated external rotation stretch using AIS.

Static + Stretching = Boring!

Let's move on to static stretching now. Let me be frank for a second: static stretching will make you weaker! This has been well documented in the literature, and yet a typical warm-up usually contains some form of (you guessed it) static stretching! It can be useful in certain instances though (more on that later.)

The proposed theories of force decrement with stretching (which breaks down to roughly 60% neural and 40% muscular/contractile) include:

It's beyond the scope of this article to discuss each item in length; however, let's take a look at the last one. Tyson, 2002 describes an altered actin-myosin position as follows:

Now, I'm sure you've heard this rule before: stretch the antagonist statically prior to a set of the agonist. Right? Remember, static stretching in particular will weaken a muscle so not only will this improve ROM, it'll also increase strength of the agonist since there's not as much resistance by the opposing muscle. Great advice for isolation (single-joint) movements, but be careful applying this rule to multi-joint exercises.

For instance, recruitment of the hamstrings increases as you go deeper into a squat – stretch them out beforehand and you may have trouble coming out of the hole. (If your low back rounds prematurely as you squat, then I suggest you do stretch your hams beforehand but use PNF methods instead to liberate greater ROM.) This same advice applies to the lats, which are involved during the initial drive at the bottom of the bench press. There are exceptions, of course (e.g. static stretching of the hip flexors before a jump test does tend to improve performance.)

In my opinion (and I'm sure you'll agree), stretching is boring! We know that stretching follows the law of specificity. Well, how many real static situations in a stretched position do we face during our workouts? As far as I'm concerned, most movement is done in a dynamic manner.

On the other hand, static stretching may be valuable for restoration so use it more as a tool to enhance recovery than a method to improve flexibility. What differs us from many Russian and Eastern European lifters is that they actually plan for restoration in their periodization scheme. We, on the other hand, concentrate so much on training that recovery gets overlooked.

In fact, Russians do three semesters on massage and restoration (in Kin or PE courses.) Guess how much we do here? Dr. Siff summed it up quite elegantly when he said, "Here a coach cannot manipulate or they get sued!" Bottom line, stretching is an excellent method of restoration.

This chart below demonstrates a microcycle (basically a one week training plan) where maximum strength training is alternated with power training in the morning and various restorative techniques are used in the afternoon/evening. Sunday is a day of rest.

 

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thur

Fri

Sat

Sun

AM

MxS

P

MxS

P

MxS

P

-

PM

Contrast Shower

Stretch

ART

Epsom Salt Bath

EMS

Massage

-

If increased flexibility is a priority, daily stretching (for a period of at least 6 to 10 weeks) may be in order. In general, though, only 39% of athletes stretch daily.

When to Stretch

Dynamic or active stretching as a warm-up will help you make the transition from resting to activity; whereas a cool-down method like static stretching will help bring you from a high-energy activity back down to rest. Take home message: static stretching may be useful at the end of your workout where dynamic stretching is more appropriate at the beginning.

Now, before you get all bent out of shape (pardon the pun) and remind yourself that some of the Nelson & Kokkonen studies suggest otherwise, consider this: PNF or dynamic stretching are useful for warm-ups since the lingering discharge (facilitation) from the contraction phase of a PNF or dynamic stretch counters the effects of any reduced stiffness.

So to summarize:

Can Stretching Increase Size?

According to John Parrillo, it most definitely can by as much as 20% due to a rise in the GTO threshold. If you could get your hands on the second and final edition of Body International magazine, Parrillo outlines 28 special fascial stretching exercises (self-stretches and partner-assisted stretches) where each body part is stretched past the point of pain and held for ten seconds. Believe me, this stuff is pretty severe!

For instance, Parrillo advocates the skin-the-cat maneuver: hang from a pull-up bar, invert your body, pulling your feet through the space created by your hands and then rotate around to a hanging position. Now point your toes and try to touch the floor. Ouch!

A narrow grip stretches the delts, medium grip stretches the pecs, and a wide grip stretches the biceps.

The premise is to stretch the fascia between sets when muscles are pumped. You see, the pump itself has a pre-stretch effect on the fascia so timing is important. Also, to enhance the pump, consume a high calorie, nutrient dense diet to load more glycogen.

Now, if you could score the Nov. '97 issue of Muscle Media, our very own TC writes about another form of stretching called "SPIDER" which stands for Stretching with Pre-Induced Defense by Eccentric Repetitions. This concept was developed by Torbjorn Akerfeldt who felt that remodeling connective tissue surrounding muscle cells (thought of as bags or girdles that restrict muscle growth) will give them extra space to grow.

However, much like Parrillo, Akerfeldt contends that the conditions must be right for this to occur: a) the pump contributes to muscle growth due to compartmental stretching induced by muscles filled with blood, and b) overfeeding increases IGF-1, Testosterone and insulin. Keep in mind that stretching can increase IGF-1 release 12 fold. IGF-1 mediated activation of satellite cells peaks after 3 to 7 days of stretching so perform SPIDER stretching sparingly, maybe one week out of every month.

Next week in Part 2, John Paul will go over the do's and don'ts of stretching.