Stretching I: Beginning to Unravel the Gordian Knot That is Your Tight Muscles
How many times have you heard “You should stretch more”, yet when, how, what muscles, and for how long always seems like a guess? While I could turn this article into a novella, I don’t want to write that and you don’t want to read that. Instead, let’s just clear a couple things up and give you a better framework from which to operate here on out.
Now tight muscles are not all the same. Someone could grow six inches in one summer and suddenly their hamstrings are tight because they couldn’t keep up. Core weakness can cause hamstrings to lock up and act as a secondary core trying to stabilize the pelvis. And sometimes the nervous system won’t allow the hamstring to actively move as far as it can be pulled passively. From these examples, you can see how there are different causes for tight hamstrings and obviously there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for these problems. You can see how this whole stretching thing is a rabbit hole. I would advise going to a well-qualified soft-tissue specialist to help sort out what your individual issues are.
For now, let’s just talk about dynamic vs static stretching. Dynamic stretches, as the name implies, involves movement. Think leg swings, arm circles and butt kicks. Meanwhile, static stretches are more of your classic hold the position stretches. Think toe touches, pulling your arm across your chest, and lying on your back pulling your knee into your chest. Lots of people (*ahem* small town high school strength coaches) tend to throw dynamic and static stretches out at random. However, it will serve you better to have a little more forethought and strategy for your flexibility routine.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “How many times have I been told to stretch before I workout?” Luckily science has caught up and informed us that the old-school method of statically stretching for awhile before a workout is wrong. A study by McMillan et all in 2006 showed that a dynamic stretching warmup was superior for optimizing power performance in all tests (2). This is backed up by another study by Hough et all demonstrating that static stretching was worse than no stretching for vertical jump performance while dynamic stretching was far superior to each (1). It was postulated this difference is due to the nervous system uptick which occurs with a dynamic warmup as well as the increased elasticity of the muscles. On the contrary, it is theorized that the decrease in power performance due to static stretching is due to nervous system downregulation and disrupted elastic capabilities of the stretched muscles.
“So, what? No static stretching ever?”
Hardly, just save it for after your workout to cool-down and stretch out your muscles while they are still warm (literally) and malleable from your workout. Also, static stretching separately far from a workout can be beneficial as well.
Additionally, static stretching before a workout can be necessary in some specific instances. Most often it is used to disable a disruptive muscle to allow better holistic function. The best example of this is a hip flexor stretch with a long leg to inhibit the pull of the hip flexor and better help the glutes contract. This is a strategy I use often on deadlift day when my hips feel tight and I am not able to squeeze my butt well.
Lastly, we have well established that static stretching has merit but certainly doesn’t help muscles contract to the fullest. So when you do static stretching, do a full range of motion exercise to reactivate that muscle and help reassure the system you can operate in those newly acquired ranges of motion. This is a tenet in Gary Gray’s teachings. We could get overly complicated about this but let’s not for now. Keep it simple. Stretch your quads? Do a couple squats.
With all this being said, let’s throw down some general ground rules.
#1: Dynamic stretches before a workout bout.
This serves to raise core temperature, rile up the nervous system and open up ranges of motion needed for the workout.
#2: Static stretches after or far from the beginning of a workout.
This keeps you from lessening performance or raising risk of injury by inhibiting muscle contraction.
#3: Re-activation work after static stretching to ensure proper functioning at those joint angles.
This tells your brain it is okay to utilize the ranges you just opened up instead of locking it back down.
Here is a simple vanilla full-body active warmup you can use at home to get ready for whatever workout you are doing outside a gym setting.
1. Arm circles, large, 10 forward and backward
2. Leg swings, forward and backward, 10 each leg
3. Leg swings, side to side, 10 each leg
4. Jogging in place, 30 seconds
5. Pull knee into chest quickly while standing tall, 10 reps each leg
6. Standing butt kicks, 10 reps each leg
7. Kossack Squats, 10 per side
To perform these, sit in a reasonably low and wide squat, shift onto one leg so the
other is straightened and return to the middle still in your squat position. Sit into
the other leg in the same manner and return to the middle.
8. Standing back extensions, 10 reps
To perform these, stand tall and put your fists in your low back just above your hip
bones. Push in and lean back, sitting your hips forward. Return to standing tall and
Simple, not fancy, but should help open things up a little better for your at-home or outdoor workouts. Be sure to add in a little cardio and/or enough warm-up sets of whatever movements you are doing.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t advise you to try the Limber 11 warmup from Joe DeFranco. He walks you through some more sophisticated mobilizations and activations that will get you good and ready to perform your best.
Here is a link to the Limber 11:
Now there are a ton of great stretching and mobility resources out there. A couple I use a lot are Kelly Starrett from The Ready State and Dr. Aaron Horschig from Squat University.
Hope this helps you flexible and functional!
Hough, Paul A., Emma Z. Ross, and Glyn Howatson. "Effects of dynamic and static stretching on vertical jump performance and electromyographic activity." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.2 (2009): 507-512.
McMillian, Danny J., et al. "Dynamic vs. static-stretching warm up: the effect on power and agility performance." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 20.3 (2006): 492-499.