It’s easy not to make time to stretch. I suppose it’s because of the view that it won’t help us get into a smaller pair of jeans, and it’s very easy not to make time to exercise in the first place, so it seems to fall by the wayside.
But if you maintain the view that bettering your health is why you train, can you really get away without stretching?
Olympic lifters are some of the strongest people in the world, but we hardly ever talk about how damn supple these people are. If you want to be able to squat down to the ground, without rounding out your lower back, you need the most incredibly supple hamstrings around.
There are a number of reasons I like this photo – see how straight his lower back is? How the feet are flat on the ground, even if the shoes do have an inbuilt heel? How the chest is up and open, the shoulder back, and the bar is well supported? How the wrists are extended but the grip remains strong?
If you stand up with your feet about shoulder width apart, and then try to squat down as far as you can while keeping your heels on the ground, you’ll hit a point where either you can’t go any further, or you can’t maintain the natural curve in your lower back – the hips tuck forward and the back rounds out. The reason for that is basically hamstring flexibility. The more flexible your hammies are, the deeper you can squat without losing that arch. Sometimes people say the depth of your squat should be so that your thighs are at such-and-such an angle in relation to the ground, but it’s crap – that angle is different for everyone. If you want to squat with weight on your back, you need to maintain that arch, so don’t go so low that your lower back rounds out. If you haven’t got a barbell on your back, it probably doesn’t matter very much how low you go. And if you have knee problems, that changes everything again.
A post on squatting techniques would be a long one indeed.
Clearly, the dude in the photo is very strong. Look closely and you’ll see that he’s incredibly supple too. People talk about how important resistance training is, but it’s pretty easy to stay strong into old age. Most of us notice our flexibility decline after age five.
And in terms of exercise that will serve you for life? Mobility trumps everything else, I think.
There’s a relationship between strength and flexibility, because good strength and good flexibility equals good mobility. Too little of either one, and mobility suffers. Posture worsens.
Some people like to talk about how stretching doesn’t really help to prevent injuries. But saying all stretching methods are the same is like saying there’s no difference between yoga and Olympic weightlifting.
There was a study I read online (I can’t remember where) which followed four dudes in their twenties – they were lifting weights and didn’t stretch for three months. None of them got injured. Therefore we’re supposed to believe stretching does not prevent injuries? It isn’t necessary? I couldn’t believe they were serious. A twenty-three year old dude doesn’t like stretching, so I’m supposed to stop stretching clients with poor mobility and back problems?
People like to justify what they want to do. Like lifting weights? Don’t like stretching? Let’s do some studies to try to justify one and discredit the other. I don’t buy it.
So, back to flexibility...
If you want to increase your flexibility, the way to do so isn’t just to bend down and try to touch your toes. That’s only one of many stretches, and it stretches the hamstrings, calves, lower back, hips, upper back, and a whole lotta ligaments and tendons if you don’t watch what you’re doing.
It’s like chin-ups – the toe-touching exercise isn’t the method you should employ in order to become more supple, it’s only a test or a measure of your flexibility. It tests your flexibility training, to see if your training is delivering what it should. Train your flexibility with appropriate techniques and then test it with that measure, if you want.
So, how do you train your flexibility?
With patience. So that’s like everything else, I guess.
There are stretching charts at many gyms, and online resources too. Typically they’ll tell you to hold a stretch for thirty seconds, or they’ll talk about contract-relax stretching, PNF, ballistic methods, and more.
The most effective method I know of – for beginners who are tight – is just to hold a stretch for a really long time. This is best at the end of a training session, when the muscles are warm and fatigued. Don’t go so far that you’re tightening up against the stretch, but try to relax into it. If you’re tightening up, you’re pushing too far. Just relax. And try to hold it for two minutes, if you’re going for a hamstring stretch.
Rather than simply forcing through to touch your toes, try this:
Stand up. Put one foot up on a raised surface in front of you – as high or low as is comfortable. Your supporting foot should be pointing straight forward, not out to the side. Lean the chest forwards, not down, as if you’re trying to touch your chest to the opposite wall. This stops your back from rounding out. If you feel the stretch behind your knee, that’s the tendons stretching – we don’t want that, we want to stretch the belly of the muscle. Bend the knee of the elevated leg a little bit – you should feel the stretch move into the hamstrings, at the back of your thigh. If you don’t feel the stretch pulling behind your knee, you can have your leg straight – do whatever seems to get the stretch in the place you want it. If you want to emphasise the calf stretch, flex the toes back towards you. If you don’t, point the toes instead.
If you feel the stretch in your calf or the muscles of the supporting leg, rather than the hamstrings of the leg that’s elevated, you might not be ready for this stretch yet. You might need to focus on the hip flexors and calf muscles first.
If you stretch regularly, and build up the ability to hold lower body stretches for two minutes, you’ll notice dramatic improvements in your flexibility. If you feel numbness or tingling, don’t worry – it’s normal. Just back off, and be gentle. Flexibility is one thing you really can’t force.
Take your time, if you can’t hold a stretch for very long without discomfort, build it up bit by bit.