In parts I and II, we looked at the utility of static stretching for warm ups before and cool downs after exercise and activity, and concluded that for most people it is at best a waste of time, at worst counter productive.
So stretching may not be an effective warm up or cool down, but at Least it will make you more flexible, right!?
Do you actually need to be more flexible?
Before we get onto the question of whether stretching is an effective strategy for increasing flexibility, first it’s worthwhile considering the question:
- Do I really need any more flexibility?
For a large percentage of people, the answer is probably no!
There is no need to be able to do the splits, kick your foot up above your head, or bend over backwards so far you can touch your nose to the floor.
While these might all be very cool things to do, there is absolutely no health benefit to having above average flexibility. On the contrary, excessive flexibility often comes at the expense of stability, and can result in joint problems and pain.
Dude, I can’t even touch my knees, let alone my toes!
OK, it is possible that after a lifetime of sitting down and doing little more than reach for the mouse/TV remote, there’s a significant proportion of you out there who would benefit from more flexibility.
Again, though, we have to question:
- If so, is stretching the most effective way to achieve it?
If you do feel that you have particularly bad flexibility that is compromising your quality of life, the good news is that there could be a more efficient way to achieve it than static stretching.
Strength Training through a Full Range of Motion, has been shown to be equally effective as Static Stretching when it comes to increasing flexibility, with the added bonus that it makes you stronger and can help build lean muscle mass, both of which pay dividends as you get older in terms of health and wellbeing.1
The reason for this is that flexibility is not down to the physical length of your muscles – we all have muscles long enough to do the full splits or touch our nose to our knees.
It is your unconscious brain which controls your ROM. When a joint gets taken “outside of its comfort zone”, the stretch reflex we talked about previously activates in order to prevent injury.
In people who are inflexible, this comfort zone has become very narrow, and so the stretch reflex kicks in too early, causing the muscle to contract as it is “worried” about going too far and getting injured, even though it’s hardly moved at all.
By strength training through an ever-increasing ROM, you can gradually increase that comfort zone, and thereby your flexibility, no stretching required!
Anecdotally, I can testify that it was doing full range deadlifts and kettlebell swings which (probably) finally improved my hamstring flexibility. Having previously never been able to get close to touching my toes, within a few months of training these movements I could easily touch the floor, and now can almost get flat palms (despite not having trained either movement in a good few years).
But I thought Yoga was really good for you?
Yoga (providing you have a good teacher) is about a lot more than just static stretching, with the majority of the poses requiring active isometric strength, rather than just passive flexibility.
Yoga develops proprioception (body awareness), balance, coordination, and strength as well as flexibility. In addition to the physical benefits, it is also great for stress relief and relaxation.
So Stretching is a Waste of Time?
Hold up fella – don’t put words in my mouth!
I personally stretch on a daily basis.
And though we may well have “enough” flexibility, there’s no reason not to try to pursue more – who isn’t impressed by the feats performed by accomplished yogis, gymnasts, dancers and martial artists?
I personally would like to be able to do the full splits, just because – well why the hell not! It’s also useful to be able to do so in my next progression for the planche which I’m training, straddle planche. I’m also working to improve my bridge to be able to do flicflacs and walkovers etc.
Tips for an Effective Stretching Routine
Here are my tips for effectively increasing ROM:
- Practice Everyday
- Separate Dedicated Sessions
- Use 4 Types of Stretching
- Limit your Objectives
- Be patient!
The real key to improving flexibility is consistency. You need to take your joints to the edge of their comfort zones as often as possible in order for them to readjust. Stretch at least once per day, though more is better. Stretch while you are chilling out at home, making cups of tea, set an alarm for every 30 mins. All the time!
While it may be convenient to stretch immediately after you train, there are arguments that it’s not the best time as the soft tissue is more pliable when it’s warm, and the gains don’t translate. Perhaps this is an old wife’s tale, I’ve no idea. If you’re really knackered though, you’re not going to put in the same effort. Perhaps hedge your bets by stretching after training, and again in at least one other session in the same day.
This is using an external force – gravity, a wall, a partner, a rack – to force your joint to the end of its range of movement and hold it there for at least 30s. The idea is to simply accustom your body to being in this position. The key is to try to relax, using deep breathing and calming thoughts, and let the stretch reflex subside.
Using box splits as an example, you could have a partner push open your legs using their feet while holding onto your arms.
>Isometric Strengthening of the Antagonist
In this method, the muscle being stretched is maximally contracted against an external resistance isometrically, if you’re feeling particularly brave, until momentary muscular failure. What fun!
Again, sticking with the box split example, this could be done as above, but you’d forcibly try to close your legs and against the resistance of your stretching partner.
>Isometric Strengthening of the Agonist
Active range of motion is as much about the strength of the agonist as it is about the “tightness” of the antagonist.
Taking for example the box splits, you can probably already open your legs a lot further with the aid of a partner, than you can simply under your own steam by contracting your hip adductors.
To strengthen the antagonist you simply have to try to go to the extreme limit of your ROM and hold there under your own steam.
*These three can be combined into one medieval torture type flexibility circuit ala proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching taken to its zenith, by actively opening to your maximum by contracting the antagonist and holding (let’s say 30s), then applying resistance and actively contracting the agonist (muscle being stretched), let’s say another 30s), then trying to relax maximally and applying the force to take the muscle to its maximum ROM in a passive stretch. Now a good time to think of kittens chasing butterflies in a meadow.
For example, you’d open into box splits as far as you can on your own and hold for 30s, your partner would then place their feet on your ankles to hold them in place, and you’d contract against them as hard as you can. After 30s/MMF, you’d let out a deep breath, try to totally relax, and they would “gently” push with their feet to take you to the limit of your ROM. Hopefully without splitting you in two.
NB – Disclaimer – try this at your own risk, I’m not a medical professional blah blah!
Here we simply move dynamically through the full range of motion using no external assistance.
For example repeatedly opening and closing the legs maximally. With the box splits for example you could do this from an L-Hang, in a head stand or lying on your back.
Increasing flexibility is a slow and painstaking process which takes time and dedication. Best to stick to 1 or 2 objectives at a time, rather than trying to simultaneously become some kind of flexibility ninja.
I repeat, slow and painstaking process… Keep going. Take some kind of measurements so you can monitor and see your process. Don’t give up!
The Wrap Up
Static Stretching before exercise is definitely a bad idea – it won’t protect you from injuries, but it will harm your performance.
If you don’t have the time/patience/inclination, there’s really no need to stretch. It doesn’t have any health benefits, and it won’t prevent muscle soreness.
If, however, you enjoy stretching, it makes you feel good, and/or you really want to be able to do the splits or get your leg behind your head, then please, go ahead.
1) Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. Morton SK, Whitehead JR, Brinkert RH, Caine DJ.