Stretching is one of those things that everyone knows is good for them but no one wants to invest the time in actually doing it. But when asked to explain its value, Chris Frederick, a physical therapist, fascial stretch specialist and co-author of the book Stretch to Win: Flexibility for Improved Speed, Power, and Agility, immediately offers a unique insight: “Research reviews have shown that stretching does not prevent injury. It does nothing for alleviating delayed onset muscle soreness. Stretching before activity can decrease power in the vertical jump.”
Not exactly the answer you’d expect from someone who in 1999 co-founded the Stretch to Win Institute. The catch is that the research he’s quoting all references static stretching, which, for all of the above reasons, has essentially been discarded by modern sports-medicine professionals. Still, there’s a movement afoot to bring stretching out of the Dark Ages, and Frederick is at the forefront.
Recognizing that current literature on stretching is still “a long way off from giving us exact parameters and indications as to the proper dosage in intensity, duration and frequency of when, how and what to stretch,” Frederick and his wife, Ann, developed and trademarked a parallel and superior brand of movement-based stretching called Fascial Stretch Therapy or FST. In the process, they’ve carved out a tiny but critically important niche in the world of sports performance and training. “We have become specialists in this important aspect of strength, conditioning and rehab,” Frederick says.
Kneel in a lunge position with your right leg back. Inhale, keeping your chest lifted and abdominal muscles pulled slightly inward. Exhale, pressing your right hip forward until you feel a slight stretch in your right hip flexor. Inhale and release the stretch and your body slightly. Then wave into the stretch on the exhalation again. Repeat the stretch wave as many times as necessary, using the same breathing pattern until you feel the tissue release.
To continue the stretch along the front fascial line of the hips, reach your right arm upward as you continue pressing your right hip forward. Exhale into the stretch wave as you reach your hand upward, lifting your torso and arching your back slightly. Inhale as you release the stretch position.
To continue the stretch into the lateral line of your hips and torso, lean your body over to the left side and push your right hip slightly outward as you exhale into the stretch. Inhale as you release.
From the leaning position, rotate your torso by turning your chest upward. Reach your right hand upward and turn your palm to the ceiling. Experiment with the angles of your arm as you exhale.
Repeat until you feel that all the tissues are moving freely. You may feel this stretch in the front of your hip of the leg pointed back, in one or both sides of your groin, in your back, in your opposite hip and/or in the shoulder of your raised arm.
Lift your torso up from the last position. Again, lengthen it outward from the top of your head as you exhale.
Keeping your legs in the same position, twist your torso so that you can place your palms on the floor on the right side of your body. Alternate pressing your bodyweight into one arm and then the other, inhaling as you move forward to the right hand and exhaling as you move to the left.
Slowly exhale as you look around toward your back leg and walk your hands in that direction until you feel a slight stretch.
Look to the front again to relieve the stretch with an inhalation, then exhale as you look toward your back foot, going a little farther each time you repeat this movement. Progressively make larger movements as your body releases the tightness. In doing so, feel different parts of your body respond and stretch based on the angle that seems to be restricted.
FST: Stretching, Enhanced
FST differs greatly from the kinds of stretching that most athletes are familiar with. “With Fascial Stretch Therapy, the focus is not the isolated muscle,” Frederick says. “It’s the fascial connections along a certain path. If you stretch the hip flexors, there’s a whole connection in the line that connects the front of the hip up to the chest and down to the knee. FST involves whole-body movement patterns because the 600 muscles in the body all came from one when we developed. It’s like we’re one muscle divided into 600 compartments.”
According to Frederick, fascia, the tissue that encases muscle, is ultimately just as important as, if not more than, actual muscle tissue. Without fascia, he says, muscle is “just hamburger.”
“Fascia is what gives muscle its shape. If you have a muscle pull, you heal from it, but sometimes that fascia thickens right where you pulled it, unless you do something about it,” Frederick says.
Even if you’re not an avid stretcher, you’re probably at least moderately familiar with static stretching and dynamic stretching, the two most widely, if inappropriately implemented (according to Frederick), methods out there. “Static stretching, or holding a particular stretch for an extended period, is the furthest from our philosophy of how to gain flexibility,” he says. “I have many clients who have tried static stretching for years, hit a plateau and never seemed to make further gains. Plus, most athletes and clients are bored by static stretching and hate doing it.”
Dynamic stretching, a method of using low-impact activity to prep muscle and connective tissue for more intense work, is only moderately more endorsed by Frederick: “Dynamic stretching is complementary. Although generically, it lacks solid guidelines in how to vary it for better, more individualized training.”
FST, on the other hand, is highly customizable based on an individual’s needs, and the benefits of putting it into practice make it worth learning. “For starters, it’s based on science,” Frederick says. “Ann did a videographic analysis in 1997 for her thesis at Arizona State University that showed a 36 to 52 percent increase in cold range of motion. The system has evolved, of course. We get up to a 100 to 200 percent increase now. And more recent research shows that active stretching techniques, such as PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation), can actually reduce the severity of DOMS.”
The Fredericks have anecdotal evidence of FST’s benefits, too. “Ann was working on the ASU Sun Devils [football] team when they went to the Rose Bowl in 1997,” Frederick reports. “Injuries went down 45 percent just from her stretching them. Then she went to the 1996 Olympics with the men’s wrestling team. They beat the Russians for the first time and gave her credit for keeping them injury-free.”
Also among FST’s heavy-hitting endorsers are Olympic sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross and former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. These elite athletes have seen how Fascial Stretch Therapy can lead to better production, but it’s also about comfort. “Traditional stretching hurts,” Frederick says. “Athletes can grit their teeth and clench their jaws, but they don’t really like it when it hurts a lot. They can handle the pain of weight training, but they can’t take the stretching pain. FST is pain-free. You develop a tolerance to stress on your body — your muscle and connective tissues get stronger. If you start out pain-free, you don’t expect it, so you relax. That’s the secret to our results. This gets the heart rate down, relaxes you and takes your body to places you never thought it’d go.”
This pre-habilitative approach may sound attractive to payday athletes, but what can it do for you, the dedicated gym rat? The increased range of motion precipitated by adopting FST, Frederick says, can produce greater gains in strength, improved balance, faster recovery times and better overall muscle function. “If your hip flexors are tight, it shuts down your glutes, which leads to back and hamstring problems,” he says. “Keeping your hip flexors open helps you get better range of motion on squats and deadlifts, therefore recruiting more total muscle fibers and ultimately leading to more hypertrophy. And that’s just one example.”
From the lunge position, drop to the floor, sitting with your left leg bent behind you and your right leg bent in front of you. Your right foot should touch your left knee.
Place your hands in front of you in a push-up position with your arms straight. Inhale and lengthen your torso from the top of your head.
Exhale as you lower your upper body over your front knee until you feel a slight stretch, then wave back up by inhaling and rolling through the spine.
Repeat, going lower on each repetition until you can comfortably lower your torso to the floor.
Fascial Stretching, Applied
You don’t want to just be a shapeless heap of hamburger, do you? Frederick certainly doesn’t want you to be. Taking the time to improve the quality and suppleness of your fascia can elevate your training capacity while keeping you healthier. Key areas, Frederick says, include your hip flexors, glutes, lower back and lats, all of which are critical to athletic performance, whether you’re running top-speed sprints or plowing through a day of heavy squats.
The self-stretch sequence feature here, Frederick says, can be employed before workouts as a movement-based warm-up, after workouts as a more involved, restorative cool-down, or as a dedicated routine on rest days to restore flexibility and speed recovery. “You’ll perform this sequence of stretches in a flowing manner to target the four core areas for movement: the flexors, glutes, lower back and lats,” he says. “But it shouldn’t be the totality of your program. Rather, it’s a good place to start and build a matrix specific to your needs. The idea here is to lengthen from the center outward. The effect you desire will determine how much time you spend on your routine.” If performed preworkout as a dynamic warm-up, the movement should be slightly faster to prep the heart and muscles for the work ahead. In total, the routine will likely take five to 10 minutes. A postworkout FST session will take 15 to 20 minutes. “You’re allowing everything to slow down, so you can really take your time with each one and go a little deeper on each stretch,” Frederick advises. And if you’re doing FST on an off-day, the sky’s the limit — but 20 minutes is a good minimum investment. “Rest days are a great time to really push the envelope where the duration of the stretches are longer,” he says. “I still recommend that your core temp should be up to a very light sweat. Then you’re warm enough to start doing a progressive stretch.”
Follow the stretches step by step in the order listed for maximum results.
From the last position, drop down so you’re resting your upper body on your right forearm.
Inhale and exhale as you reach your left arm in an arc overhead, lifting your chest toward the ceiling and turning your palm upward to face the ceiling as your arm reaches straight overhead, and then rolling downward as youraarm stretches out in front of you.
Repeat the entire sequence on the other side by lifting up onto your knees and sliding your other leg forward into a lunge position.
Chris Frederick, PT, is a KMI (kinesis myofascial integration) Certified Structural Integrator, co-creator of Fascial Stretch Therapy and co-founder of the Stretch to Win Institute in Arizona. He co-wrote Stretch to Win: Flexibility for Improved Speed, Power, and Agility with his wife, Ann Frederick, and was an expert source for the new book Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body — The Science and Clinical Applications in Manual and Movement Therapy.