Imagine living in a country where you weren’t able to speak your mind for fear of punishment? Now imagine that your body is one of those places – locking down what can and can’t be done athletically, all in the name of what is good for the whole body.
The freedom to move in all directions is one that we take for granted as children and then lose as adults. The mainstream fitness media do little to help this situation. There are plenty of articles about how stretching is dangerous, lowers power production, or is ineffective. None of this is true. The bottom line is that range of motion gives us the ability to better express our athleticism. As we get older our ability to move freely becomes worse and worse. All those years of sitting down teaches the body to only work to a certain point and then stop, which limits our full potential. Even if you’ve been active there can be problems because muscles need to be stretched again to regain their length after all the contraction of athletic activities, especially resistance training.
When we move without load we can see our full range of motion. Now, load can also be speed in the context of movement so it is possible that even unweighted you lose range once you try to speed up a movement. The more load (or speed) we use the more limited our range will become. If you have a hard time getting into a squat without weight, once we add load to that it’s not going to get better. This is how you can always find that guy in the gym who has about 400kg on the leg press and is doing quarter inch reps with it – the load has diminished his ability to express how much range he has.
There can be a dangerous side to range of motion. Imagine someone with contortionist flexibility. Now imagine that at the extreme of their already extreme range of movement we add a big load to them. That’s not going to end well. So yes, extreme flexibility an be a problem if you decide to add load/ speed to it at extreme ranges. But how many of you are circus contortionists? How many of you can’t actually touch your toes?
In terms of basic movement ability touching your toes is a pretty good test for a lot of things. But how do you go about it? And is gaining flexibility different for kids than it is for mature adults?
If you go to PubMed and search for articles on stretching for both adults and children you will get a fair idea of the differences. The search for adults will show that the vast majority are related to performance with a few that are for injury rehab purposes. However, the search for stretching for kids shows that all of them are for children with a disability of some sort such as cerebral palsy. What that says to me is that (a) there is no money in researching flexibility in children so we see it only being conducted in medical settings, and (b) it’s likely that children have a CNS that is much more responsive to all types of input. That makes sense as children learn by moving and their body adapts to all movement.
The situation isn’t the same for adults. Once you pass the age of twelve the CNS is largely set in stone. Making significant changes becomes much harder and learning new skills becomes more difficult. If we view stretching as the same as any other athletic skill, such as ball skills, you always see the most advanced athletes in any sport were the ones who took it up the youngest. This, in part, has to do with the 10,000 hour concept, but it also has to do with learning of fine motor skills. But none of this helps us as adults.
There’s literally over 2,000 articles on stretching in PubMed alone. All of them show that stretching has a benefit of some kind. That’s some pretty compelling evidence as to why you should be stretching. Forget what you’ve heard about how it decreases power production. While studies such as this one by Yamaguchi et al do show ” that relatively extensive static stretching decreases power performance” the reality of how you train is different to what is being researched.
Firstly, this study, and others like it, are on peak power/ maximum intensity training. As in, perform static stretching and then go immediately to a max effort. How many people do you know who actually train that way? A far more likely scenario is that they might stretch, then perform some activation type drills before moving onto their warm up sets. At this point, maybe thirty minutes after their stretching was completed they will be starting to work towards their maximum efforts. The short-term loss of power is a small window of minutes, not hours or days.
Secondly, for many trainees they will never, ever get close to a real maximum effort. At RPT we rarely work towards 1RMs as I don’t believe they’re that useful for the majority of people. Our typical rep range is between 5-8 reps. That corresponds to an intensity of 75-85%. Do you know how many studies show a drop of performance in people lifting at 80% after static stretching? The number is zero.
Another common comment people make regarding static stretching is that it doesn’t do anything for injury prevention. Yet this study by Small et al, taken from cross-referencing 364 studies from four different resources shows that stretching does reduce the risk of musculotendinous injuries. Things that make you go hmmm…
The missing link here is talk about types of flexibility. Research is often done just on either passive static or dynamic flexibility, so we need to understand the difference. Static and dynamic are opposite ends of the movement continuum. Static obviously means that there is no movement at all during the stretch, while dynamic is the opposite and includes exercises like rhythmic arm and leg swings. But there’s some missing information here too. You need to take into account both passive and active flexibility as well. Passive flexibility is displayed when you have an external force acting on you. An example would be sitting on the ground and trying to reach your toes while a partner pushes you forward. The combination of your relaxation and their assistance enhances the stretch. Active is the exact opposite. A good example of active flexibility would be lying on your back and lifting a straight leg as high as you could in the air without using your arms to assist the movement (because using the arms would be passive stretching). What you’ll see is that there is a difference between passive and active flexibility.
This difference between the two is what a dynamic warm-up tries to reduce. A well-constructed dynamic warm-up consists of dynamic stretching as well as active range of motion exercises. The combination of the two is superior to static stretching in both warming the body up so that it functions better as well as activating muscles so that everything is switched on and ready to go. For people keeping a close on things this is exactly what I wrote about above describing going from stretching to activation drills, to specific warm up sets. To those of us who have been around a while it’s just called warming up and we have always known that this is the best way to go about things based on what we feel and see going on with ourselves and our clients.
But still none of this helps our aging athlete gain movement. As my man Ido Portal says, “You won’t foam roll your way to the splits”. When you look at a cross section of the world’s best movers you will see one common theme – they all stretch, and they do so in a variety of ways but static stretching is always part of that practice. The biggest problem with using static stretching is that it can feel like it takes forever to achieve any kind of appreciable results. In today’s world of instant gratification that obviously isn’t popular. Charles Poliquin believes that it takes roughly an hour of flexibility work daily for six weeks before the effects of your program will be noticeable.
Ido Portal has great results with what he terms his Corset protocol. The Corset is a blend of concepts taken from martial arts, gymnastics, and dance and uses all the various types of flexibility as well as mobility/ activation work, which is then followed by strength work. The continuum is to gain range, activate the muscles so that you are protected within the new range, and then strengthen the entire range. One of the key features of the Corset is the use of loaded stretching. The adult CNS is quite resistant to change and often overly protective. Trying to get the attention of the CNS with light static stretches is like a mouse trying to hump an elephant. No matter how hard that mouse tries the elephant isn’t going to notice.
The use of loaded stretching speeds up the process of encouraging the body to embrace new range. It has the added benefit of being an activation drill at the same time because you are strengthening at the same time as you are developing new range. Keep an eye out soon for our own workshops that go through the main problems of the body and how to address them by tying together drills from various sources with a knot made from the FMS system.
One final point is that static stretching has a calming effect on the CNS. After spending time winding it up with performance training it makes sense to spend time after training allowing it to wind down too. All those negative points about static stretching being damaging to power production if done pre-workout are the exact reasons why you should put it at the end of each session to regain movement and settle the body and mind.
The bottom line is that stretching is always beneficial. Don’t over think it, especially if you’re an old dog trying to stay athletic. You need to keep as much range as possible and can’t risk losing more – you’re already going to be stuff from years of desk work and training. High degrees of movement are the fountain of youth so work to retain as much suppleness as possible at all times. Gain movement pre-workout with a combination of active and dynamic flexibility exercises and then activation drills. Settle the body post-training with relaxed static stretching. Done regularly you’ll find regained athleticism, even as you age.