by: Nate Green
Want to know how to prevent injury, fix nagging imbalances, gain some extra strength, and be able to perform nearly all of the Kama Sutra positions (even Splitting of the Bamboo!) with ease?
Well, I’ve got the elixir – the miracle pill – the cure you’ve all been looking for to help you achieve all this and more. And it’s something we haven’t touched on in a while.
All right, so it may not seem as sexy as, say, throwing’ some more plates on the bar or cutting a few tenths of a second off your 40 – hell, it doesn’t even seem that cool when compared to it’s dynamic counterpart with all those fancy names like ‘scorpion,’ ‘fire-hydrants,’ and ‘toy solider.’
But static stretching is a much-needed tool in the arsenal of the weightlifter, weekend warrior, or athlete.
So why aren’t more people doing it?
Well, static stretching has gotten a bad rap since the 1980s when the many benefits of dynamic stretching were introduced. Since it’s been documented that static stretching may slightly reduce force output in subsequent strength training, many people have stopped static stretching altogether. This is not necessarily the right idea.
You see, every preparation method (foam rolling, static stretching, dynamic stretching, etc.) has a different purpose and can all be utilized in a harmonious fashion to promote the absolute best results.
After taking a few tips from renowned strength coach Mike Boyle, I started implementing a new series of warm-ups with all my clients. The results have been nothing short of extraordinary.
But I’ll get into that in a minute. Back to why nobody stretches.
I also think guys tend to just group stretching into the yoga and Pilates category where only flexible, nubile women and men afraid to lift weights gather to tone their tummies or whatever else they do in those classes.
Well, buddy, I’m here to tell ya that static stretching doesn’t have to be wimpy. And you don’t necessarily have to wear colorful yoga plants with flowers on ‘em—unless you’re into that sort of thing, I mean.
So, why static stretch at all?
Well, if you’re into lifting big numbers you may be shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not stretching.
You see – a shortened muscle that hasn’t reached its full potential is bound to cause some postural problems (think slumping shoulders and other ape-like posture). Even worse, the antagonist muscle fibers aren’t going to be properly recruited due to reciprocal inhibition.
When an agonist contracts, in order to cause the desired motion, it usually forces the antagonists to relax therefore inhibiting the antagonists to contract.
Simply put, if you’re muscles are shortened due to sloppy and compromising repetitive motion (such as sitting too much or leaning forward too far on the computer), and you’re not doing anything to correct this imbalance, you can bet that your muscle isn’t firing properly and is actually hindering your strength gains.
Static stretching can also lead to decreased injury rates and can clear up certain little nagging ‘problems’ that most people just seem to live with.
Ever notice how most people have a ‘bad back?’ They may go to their chiropractor, the acupuncturist, or may just lay facedown on the carpet and have their girlfriend walk across their spine (not recommended!).
However, their ‘bad back’ may have nothing to do with their back at all! More often than not, a flexibility discrepancy between their left and right hip musculature may be causing the problem.
As such, everything from sitting to squatting will cause their body to compensate by grooving to the right side and placing added stress on the right hip. With a healthy dose of stretching, though, this could be avoided altogether.
This alleviation of side-to-side flexibility discrepancies is more important than you might think, as a number of possible injuries can be avoided further down the line. While an absolute perfectly balanced body isn’t logically attainable, one should strive to be as close as possible.
All right, I’m convinced. When should I static stretch?
Static stretching can be a great addition to your training program if you know where to implement it.
We’re all too familiar with the guys in the gym who take the first five minutes to ‘warm-up’ which usually includes a minute or two on the stationary bike followed by a few half-assed static stretches for the hamstrings and chest. While they mean well, they’re going about it the wrong way and may actually be hindering their performance.
While this article deals with just static stretching, I wanted to quickly outline my general warm-ups.
Nate’s Warm-Up Order:
1. Foam roll – Soft tissue quality is paramount. If you’re all knotted up, you won’t be performing at your best. Get the foam roller, tennis ball, or whatever you prefer.
2. Static stretch the tight areas – Now it’s time to ‘iron out’ the areas we just rolled. I’m not talking about performing 8 sets of 1-minute holds, though. Two sets of 30 seconds or so would be sufficient depending on the area and how tight it is comparable to the other side and your flexibility goals.
3. Do your dynamic warm-up – Toy soldiers, walking cradle walks, and a few other choice movements will, in my experience with, counteract any ‘negative’ effects from the static stretching and prime your body for movement and heavy lifting.
I’ve also found that my clients have great success with enhancing flexibility before bed when they can fully relax and not jeopardize their accomplishments by performing more contradictory movements.
Think about it: if you’re about to drift off into dreamland, there’s virtually no way you can put yourself in negative, compromising positions (unless you have extremely awkward sleeping positions) that will further facilitate bad movement patterns.
As a final point, I’d definitely warn against static stretching in between sets during the actual workout. This will inhibit strength and doesn’t really lead to more flexibility that couldn’t be obtained before a workout or before bed.
A Few Guidelines
Before stretching, I recommend trying to get as ‘warm’ as possible, since a warm muscle will have a better ROM (range of motion) and will be more compliant. There’s some debate on this point, however, and some soft tissue experts believe starting from a ‘cold’ position may be better due to the potential elongation effects the muscle undergoes.
I, however, have found that most people when left to their own vices just end up hurting themselves when employing this method. If you decide to go at it ‘cold’, make sure to take it a little slower and be aware of how hard you’re pushing yourself.
If you stretch before bed, take this tip I picked up from my friend Mike Robertson: perform your stretching after your evening shower or after a trip to the hot tub or sauna. This will definitely warm you up and put you in a better mood.
Relax, will ya?
Relaxation is also a big key, and you should try to fight the urge to push your body to the max. Shoot for a mild stretch and don’t get too overzealous by hurting yourself even further! When you stretch, you’re basically tearing down tissue just like strength training, although to a much lesser degree. So, the stretch should be uncomfortable but not unbearable.
Focus on the areas that need it the most
From elite athletes and soccer moms to the average weightlifter, the tightest areas tend to be the hips, glutes, pectorals, lats, and calves. Your stretching program should reflect that.
If time is a factor, there’s no need to have four different biceps stretches or a wide variation of esoteric contortionist-like moves—just get to the goods and get out.
Also, keep in mind that the tighter the side, the more attention you should place on it. For example, if your left quadriceps is tighter than your right, you’ll need to increase the time stretched, frequency, and intensity until it catches up to the right side.
An addendum: How often and for how long you stretch is completely up to your current levels and goals, and many factors including training frequency, volume, and current flexibility levels play a role. That said, I typically stretch at least three times per week and hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds, though usually longer for excessively tighter areas.
On to the stretches!
Standing Glute/Hip External Rotator Stretch
People tend to have extremely poor ROM and function in their gluteals, and having excessively tight hips doesn’t necessarily make strength training any safer. Deadlifting and squatting with these conditions can definitely lead to some lower back pain.
This stretch focuses on both the hip flexors with emphasis on the glutes.
Stand next to a table or something of comparable height. Bend your knee and externally rotate your hip and allow your entire lower leg to rest upon the surface. Ease into the stretch by gently leaning forward. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
Allow your hip to straighten toward the table for additional hip flexor stretch.
Lying Side Quadriceps Stretch
Tight quads lead to messed-up knees, especially when coupled with tight hip flexors! The body is great at compensating and when certain muscles aren’t optimally stretched, this can lead to placing too much emphasis on other joints to help take the load.
Lie on one side and grasp your top ankle from behind. Now pull your ankle to your butt and straighten your hip by moving your knee backward. Hold. Try not to let your knee flare upward away from the floor, as this will lessen the effect of the stretch. Make sure to repeat on the other side.
Another small yet important muscle is the piriformis. It’s a thick band of tissue that if irritated can cause excruciating pain and impingement of the sciatic nerve.
Flex your left knee/hip and keep your foot on the ground. Now, flex the right knee/hip and then externally rotate the leg, and let your ankle rest below your knee.
Now, reach through the hole and place your hands on the back of your left leg. Pull your left leg into your body until you feel a mild stretch in the right hip
Gastrocnemius and Soleus
People tend to spend a ton of time on their feet, which can lead to some rather tight calves. If you’re leaning forward while standing for extended periods of time, sitting in a lot of recliners or stools, or just walking and running a ton, you can definitely see some relief from these two stretches.
Face a wall with both knees slightly bent. Position one foot on wall with heel on floor.
Straighten your knees and lean your body toward the wall. Hold stretch and repeat with opposite leg.
To target the soleus, simply bend the knee on the leg you’re stretching.
Basic Hip Flexor
The hip flexors tend to be the most overactive group of muscles and stretching them has many benefits including improved glute firing and reduced lower back pain.
Lunge forward with your knee on a padded mat and position your lead foot beyond the forward knee. You can place your hands on your knee if you like.
Straighten your hip of the rear leg by pushing your hips forward. Hold stretch and repeat with opposite side.
The pecs are usually extremely shortened and tight due to too much sitting and slumping forward. Check your posture right now! The bench press epidemic and lack of rowing is also to blame for our shortened pectorals and slouched posture.
Find a doorway or power rack and bend your arm to 90 degrees. Place the lower arm and hand along the length of the doorway. From the starting position, twist the hips in the opposite direction until you get a mild stretch in the chest. Repeat on the other side.
Like the pecs, the lats are internal rotators and are usually placed under a ton of stress through chin-up variations and the like.
Stand up straight with the chest held high and grasp a stationary bar with one hand at approximately waist height.
Bend over allowing hips to fall back and slightly lean your torso toward stretched arm. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds or so and switch sides.
The Cool Down
Stretching need not be a chore that you absolutely dread. With just these few choice movements successfully added into your program, you could expect to see a ton of gains. But the results aren’t necessarily instantaneous. You’ve got to be consistent.
Your ideal body won’t be built in a day so don’t expect your overall flexibility to improve significantly overnight. That said, however, many people will feel almost immediate relief or just feel ‘better’ after a few stretches.
To recap, a few of the many benefits of static stretching are: decrease your susceptibility to injury, improve side to side discrepancies, improve the length-tension relationship and therefore recruit more motor units, and fix all those little nagging injuries that seem to build up over years of hitting the iron.
Stretching is cost effective, doesn’t take much time, and will make you a badass if you ever fall into an impromptu game of limbo, which is all the reasoning I need.
Now stop slouching, get out of your chair and start stretching!