Too many articles zero in on the how-to when it comes to stretching, so this one will be a little different. What’s equally, if not more important than how to perform a stretch, is knowing what kinds of stretches to use and when. This should help.
Types of Stretches
When most people think of stretching, they probably think of a held position that lasts a significant period of time, yoga style. In truth, that’s just one of five kinds of stretches we’re going to zero in on.
Static stretching, mentioned above, involves holds that can last 10 to 60 seconds. Many view static stretching as a touch “old school” and something that should be reserved for after a workout. In truth, you can employ static stretches strategically during your workout for a specific reason: When you hold a stretch, you’re not only stretching the muscle belly, but you’re also stretching the fascia (the connective tissue) and the nerves. Long story short, static stretching can act to temporarily dull and suppress the nervous system. Applying this to a workout, if we notice we’re having a hard time targeting one specific muscle during an exercise, it may be because other muscles surrounding it are overactive. A common example of this would be the quadriceps doing too much during a squat or deadlift, therefore hindering a lifter’s ability to feel his or her glutes. Holding a 30-second quad stretch and then immediately going into your next set of squats can level the playing field and allow the glutes to become more involved to assist the movement.
A second kind of flexibility tool is dynamic stretching. Since muscles are passing through movements here, this is an appropriate warm-up tool that can allow for synovial fluid release to joints and double as a vehicle toward greater mobility. Especially if your workout ahead involves many compound movements, dynamic stretches and drills can be worth their weight in gold for preparation. Examples of dynamic stretches include arm circles, leg swings, high-knee walks, Spider-Man walks, iron crosses, scorpions and T-spine rotations.
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Just as important as considering static or dynamic stretching is that of understanding the difference between active and passive stretching. In the case of the former, a lifter is actually allowing a co-contraction of antagonistic muscles to create a deeper stretch to the muscle in question. For example, think about a Thomas stretch to the hip flexors. In this stretch, a lifter lies faceup on the edge of a table with his legs hanging off. He holds one knee tucked into his chest and allows the second leg to hang loosely. A partner then gently pushes on the hanging leg, allowing for a giant passive hip stretch to be achieved. Contrast that with a half-kneeling or lunge-position stretch for the hip flexors done solo. In this stretch, contracting the glute on the trailing leg can intensify the stretch for the same hip, and in doing so, it can teach the body that tightness can actually be caused by looseness on the opposing side. Muscles only pull, and evening out the playing field by having the antagonist contribute to this “tug of war” can be just what’s needed to solve chronic pain or tightness issues.
When it comes to lifting weights, we can take advantage of loaded stretches to create more mobility and enhance our warm-up. Two great examples come in the form of squats and Romanian deadlifts. Often, a lifter may think that he or she needs to cut his or her range of motion short in both these lifts to avoid butt wink and lower-back rounding, respectively. For big, muscular squatters, a set with the empty bar will look quite different from a set with even 95 pounds because the light loading can allow a lifter to engage the right muscles to brace against the load and create the freedom for other muscles to “let go” to create the needed hip and ankle mobility for better lifting range.
Romanian deadlifts change in nature substantially when performed from the top down. A loaded stretch creates longer hamstrings, which can drastically affect spine position because of how the hamstrings will act on the pelvis in bottom end ranges. This can positively impact the length-tension relationship of the hamstrings and increase their involvement while creating flexibility to promote a neutral spine. And you’ll notice the difference the next days after, too.
Stretch to Win
Stretching isn’t a be-all and end-all. Ask any practitioner worth his or her salt, and he or she will say the same thing. Truthfully, it’s a tool that you should have in your tool box. Put these nuggets of wisdom to good use and you’ll know just when and how to employ stretching to help your performance in and out of the gym.