The Stretching Roundtable - Part 1

With Joe DeFranco, John Paul Catanzaro, and Don Alessi

Stretching is a lot like flossing. We know we should do it, we know it's beneficial, but a lot of us don't do it very often or very well. But maybe that's because we can't decide how or when to stretch. It seems like every training expert out there has a different opinion about stretching. What's the real story?

I sat down with Joe DeFranco, John Paul Catanzaro and Don Alessi to find out the real scoop.

Chris Shugart: Let me start off by saying that I think many T-mag readers are experiencing a sort of "paralysis analysis" when it comes to stretching. They hear so many opposing opinions that many just say "screw it" and don't stretch at all. What do you guys think?

Joe DeFranco: That's just being lazy. I think most people don't seek out the best stretching methods because they don't truly understand the positive benefits of being flexible. It's usually after an injury that people start incorporating some kind of flexibility work. Whether it's a pulled hamstring while sprinting or low-back pain when squatting, that's when people usually open up their eyes and start researching the positive benefits of flexibility training.

Don Alessi: I agree. Not knowing how or when to stretch is just an excuse. The truth is, the average person knows that stretching is a fundamental part of movement, just look at your dog or cat the next time they wake up; the first thing they do is the "cat stretch" to prepare the spine for mobility. All activity is the balance between stability and mobility.  People confused? Possibly. Lazy? Definitely!

John Paul Catanzaro: I think stretching can be a useful tool if used appropriately. It can rev up the nervous system and temporarily increase strength; it can also sedate the nervous system and decrease strength, which may be beneficial in certain cases. Of course, it can also increase range of motion or ROM.

Stretching can have both positive and negative effects. It's like a drug. You've got to pick the right drug at the right time at a specific dose to get a desired effect! When you hear a number of different theories, you must decide which has the greatest merit. Nothing is written in stone.

Do the research and come up with your own conclusions. You know, it may take me just minutes to read an article, but hours to go through the references! Do your homework, try things for yourself, and you'll quickly figure out what works and what doesn't.

Now, with all that said, if you insist on not stretching, don't sweat it! Research from Magnusson contends that the effectiveness of different stretching techniques is attributed to a change in stretch tolerance rather than passive properties.

Shugart: Interesting. Let's assume for now that most people need to stretch more. Okay, scare us into stretching. What's going to happen if we continue to pound the weights but pay very little attention to stretching?

DeFranco: Basically, you'll end up being a big pile of useless muscle! In other words, you'll be the typical non-functional meathead who looks like Tarzan, but performs like Jane!

If you're an aspiring athlete, you'll never be able to achieve all of the positions required of you on the athletic field. This will hurt your sprinting speed as well as your jumping, throwing and kicking power, just to name a few.

It's also inevitable that you'll end up having low back and shoulder problems. This, in the long run, will take away from your time in the gym and on the athletic field. Unfortunately, most people don't see the light until something goes wrong.

Alessi: For bodybuilders, the major sacrifice is muscle development with only a minor concern of acute injury. With athletes, career-ending acute injuries should be the biggest concern with a close second being a chronic deterioration of technique such as swing or throwing mechanics. This is due to increased stiffness at the expense of mobility, and it can also lead to chronic overuse injuries.

Catanzaro: Yes, but keep this in mind: weight training alone will improve flexibility if you balance agonists and antagonists and train in full ROM. Flexibility is at least average or above in strength athletes, refuting the concept of them being "muscle-bound." Furthermore, weightlifters can often squat deeper than other athletes, dispelling the myth that strength training and large muscles decrease flexibility. This is supported by research, so don't be scared if you don't stretch much!

Shugart: Okay, JP, I didn't expect to hear that! Can you expound a little?

Catanzaro: Sure. A study by J.R. Leighton in 1964 compared Mr. America, a world champion weightlifter, and a group of 16 year-old boys in various measures of flexibility.

The bodybuilder had greater flexibility in 16 tests, the same in eight, and less in six. The weightlifter had greater flexibility in 14 tests, the same in six, and less in ten. The conclusion: weight training increases muscle size and strength as well as flexibility!

Another study examined flexibility in weight-trained athletes: male bodybuilders, college football players, students from a college conditioning class, Olympic weightlifters, and a control group of students. The Olympic weightlifters and the control group exhibited the greatest degree of flexibility.

Furthermore, a study of 13 novice weight trainees engaged in an eleven-week training program found that weight training didn't impair flexibility; it actually increased it!

Studies conducted in the 70's showed that weightlifters were second only to gymnasts in flexibility.

As for real world examples, John Grimek in the 1940's did back flips and splits, Flex Wheeler could do the splits, and Tom Platz went far beyond his toes when bending over with stiff legs and did full squats in spite of his enormous thighs.

Shugart: Okay, before we dig deeper here, let's get some definitions out of the way. John Paul, since you recently published an article on this, will you briefly lay the basic stretching vocab on us?

Catanzaro: Okay, to review, there are two general types of stretching: static (no motion) and dynamic (with motion). Static stretching basically consists of stretching a muscle as far as possible and then holding that position.

Passive stretching involves the use of some external force (body part, partner assistance or apparatus) to bring the joint through its range of motion or ROM. Loaded stretching (or weight training if you will) is a form of passive stretching.

Ballistic stretching uses momentum rather than muscular control to increase ROM, whereas dynamic stretching involves controlled movements – no bouncing or jerking.

Now, 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 six to eight seconds) while stretching.

Shugart: Thanks! Now, I don't think most men paid attention to stretching until someone said it could make them more muscular. Can stretching really make a person bigger and stronger, or is that just a way to sex up a stretching article?

DeFranco: As far as strength is concerned, my views on stretching vary depending on the situation. There isn't one answer to this question.

Let's take the box squat or a powerlifting-style squat as an example. When "sitting back" into your squat, flexible hamstrings may actually have a weakening effect by not eliciting the stretch reflex. Now, I'm not saying you gotta have tight hamstrings to squat big, but how many world-class squatters (900 pounds plus) have world-class hamstring flexibility? In this case, I feel that being too flexible in certain muscles may be detrimental.

On the other hand, let's examine an Olympic-style squat or power clean. Stretching and lengthening your hip flexor muscles on a daily basis can have a profound effect on your strength in these two lifts. If your hip flexors are tight they'll alter your mechanics in these two lifts by pulling you forward. In this case, I feel you must stretch certain musculature if you ever want to reach your full strength potential.

As you can see, stretching must be implemented at the right time, and with the right muscles, in order to have a positive effect on your strength.

Shugart: How about muscle size?

DeFranco: Stretching plays a positive role with regards to muscular growth. Now, I don't think that stretching will turn Ryan Seacrest into Ronnie Coleman, but it can give you an edge. Using techniques that stretch the fascia of the muscle is the key to accelerating hypertrophy gains.

Shugart: Okay, Don, you've written articles about stretching for size gains. How does that work?

Alessi: There are several ways this occurs. For one, stretching increases joint range of motion, which increases the distance that a load is moved thereby increasing the work performed. Also, specific methods like PNF stretching increases isometric and dynamic strength, muscular endurance, and functional flexibility. 

Additionally, specific stretching conditions the stretch reflexes that are involved in weight training, thus shutting off these protective mechanisms. This allows the trainee to train at a higher percentage of his rep maximum more often. That means a greater force traveling over a greater distance.

Finally, stretching of the parallel elastic components (PEC) immediately after resistance training increases muscle hypertrophy by stretching the limiting "sheaths" that encapsulate the muscle belly. 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 hypertrophy or "thickening" for survival.

Catanzaro: Bigger muscles? Perhaps. But stronger? I say no way! In my stretching article for T-mag, I mentioned two methods of aggressive stretching advocated by John Parrillo and Torbjorn Akerfeldt where the object is to expand the fascial compartment thus allowing greater room for growth. The classic bird study you've probably heard about also proves that stretching may have some merit for muscle growth.

Now, as far as strength is concerned, that's a whole 'nother story! Sure, dynamic stretching may increase strength temporarily, but static stretching will definitely weaken muscle. The proposed theories of force decrement with stretching (which breaks down to roughly 60% neural and 40% muscular/contractile) include decreased motor neuron excitability, increased tendon slack, decreased stiffness, and altered actin-myosin position.

As the length of the muscle increases, stiffness decreases. As stiffness decreases, force decreases, which means...drum roll please...strength decreases!

Shugart: What are biggest myths out there about stretching?

DeFranco: I think a lot of men feel that stretching just isn't "manly." Flexibility training somehow gets thrown into the same category as ballet and yoga. A manly man doesn't want to be associated with such activities so he just sticks to lifting weights his entire life. There are just too many positive benefits associated with stretching for someone to neglect it!

Alessi: Another myth is that strength athletes are inflexible. As JP has said, strength athletes such as Olympic weightlifters are amongst the most supple of all athletes, followed closely by gymnasts, wrestlers, kickboxers, and then bodybuilders.

 It's also a myth that ballistic stretching is dangerous. There's no such thing as an unsafe stretch, only an unsafe way of executing any movement! Russian research and the work of Matveyev suggests that three to five sets of 8 to 12 gradually increasing ballistic reps can be very effective, especially in sports specific applications.

Another myth is that stretching will make your pecker longer. Sadly, not true.

Shugart: Yeah, I walked around with a couple of 45's hanging off my... well, never mind, long story.  JP, what stretching myths have you heard?

Catanzaro: The stretching advocates claim that stretching will improve performance, reduce soreness, decrease injuries, increase flexibility, and increase strength, speed and power. Well, as far as I'm concerned, all of these are myths including the last one! Stretching doesn't necessarily increase long-term flexibility, and the way most people stretch I'd be surprised if it even increased short-term flexibility!

Shugart: Let's take a closer look at one of the more controversial stretching debates: stretching before weight training will make you weaker. Agree or disagree? 

DeFranco: It depends on what kind of stretching you're performing and what muscles you're stretching. Static stretching the prime movers of your workout will definitely have a weakening effect and it'll increase your chances of a muscle pull or tear.

There are exceptions to the rule, though, such as static stretching the hip flexors before squats, Olympic lifts, and vertical jumping.  Static stretching the pecs and lats before squat workouts to alleviate shoulder discomfort is also perfectly fine, as is static stretching the external rotators of the humerus before bench-pressing.

These exceptions won't weaken you when training; they'll actually enable you to lift heavier weights! Generally speaking, I feel that warming up properly is much more important before weight-training workouts, compared to stretching.

Alessi: I agree that stretching pre-workout can make you weaker, static stretching primarily. Remember, all activity is the balance between stiffness (stability) and mobility.  A stiff, stable muscle is a strong muscle (as anyone on Dianabol and insulin knows).

Static stretching destabilizes this stiffness and therefore decreases the contraction leverage or mechanical advantage. 

On the other hand, dynamic and PNF techniques pre-weight training facilitate the potentiation of the nervous system, thereby increasing strength and muscle pump. This increases stability and stiffness once again.

Catanzaro: Dynamic stretching before weight training will temporarily increase strength. This form of stretching is used to rev up the nervous system so I can't completely agree with the original statement that stretching before weight training will make you weaker.

As mentioned above, PNF stretching (particularly the CRAC method) will liberate the greatest ROM. Let me remind you that PNF or dynamic stretching is 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.

Acute static stretching, on the other hand, can decrease strength of the stretched muscles by as much as 5 to 30%.

Next week in Part II, the coaches will talk about pre-sport stretching and about how age and genetics affect flexibility. They'll also talk about stretching for sex, which is interesting yet faintly disturbing. Stay tuned!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram