I personally find stretching to be an interesting topic, because it seems as though everybody knows all about it, yet the truth is that most people get it wrong, and may actually put themselves in unsafe positions. This week’s article is about stretching. In order to keep the size of the article reasonable, I will only focus on a few critical areas.
If you grew up in the 1950’s – 1980’s, and pursued any type of athletic endeavors, then you are familiar with the common thought process that you must stretch before exercising. And the “right” way to stretch was static stretching. Static stretching is all about lengthening the muscles and tendons, generally in a maximal range of motion. However, research that started in the 1990’s and continues today shows that static stretching, before exercise, has NO benefits at best, and at worst can actually degrade performance or be a pre-cursor to injury.
Enter Dynamic stretching. For warming up, dynamic exercises are far superior to static stretching. Not only do they loosen things up without harming performance, but the right combination can also activate muscles, improve mobility, and enhance performance.
Dynamic Warm-up Exercises
Below are 3 good general exercises that anybody can use to get ready for athletic endeavors. Obviously, there may be key sport-specific dynamic exercises that are important to do as well, but since that could fill a whole book; I’ll leave that to you to figure out.
1. Active Deep Squats
Deep bodyweight squats should be a part of everybody’s daily routine. Technically it’s a static stretch, but it’s the one static stretch that will have the potential to change your life. Simply squat down like a 2 year old, ass to grass, and hold that position. Start with 5 seconds and progress up to 25-30 seconds. 1-2 reps per day. This works wonders for hip, knee and ankle mobility. It helps to activate the glutes and all of the small core and stabilizer muscles and tendons around the hip complex. It’s simply awesome.
2. Low Back Lunge
Since most of us sit for extended periods of time every day, it is extremely important to stretch out the hip flexors every day (in my humble opinion). Sitting causes the hip flexors to get really tight and this can easily lead to low back problems, because the low back tends to compensate. The low back lunge stretches the hip flexor if the back leg is kept straight, in addition to stretching the glutes and quads. Elevate 1 foot up on a coffee table or couch, get your shins vertical, and then come up into a kneeling position with your other leg. Keep you back straight and love it!
3. Crab Rolls
This movement sequence is fantastic for tight necks and shoulders, and also helps to loosen up the hip complex and activate the glutes. Starting on the floor in a seated position, roll back and bring your legs over your head and as far back toward the floor as you can, then roll forward with legs wide and reach out in front of you. 3-5 rolls will do. The key is keeping your palms down and fingers pointing forward while getting your crotch as close to your face as possible on the roll back, with full extension of the hips.
When is Static Stretching Appropriate?
Static stretching is appropriate post-exercise when your muscles, tendons, ligaments are already warm and supple and there is a much reduced risk of injury from maximal stretching. Unfortunately, a lot of people mess up some of the static stretches and put themselves at risk for orthopedic health issues.
Common Static Stretching Issues & Corrections
1. Standing Hamstring Stretch
This is the stretch where you see people kicking their foot up onto an elevated surface and round their spine to reach over and grab their toe, thinking they are doing the “best ever” hammie stretch. What they are really doing is predisposing themselves to low back orthopedic problems. It tends to feel good when stretching the hamstrings in this manner but when you jeopardize spinal and distal joint integrity; it’s not really a good idea.
A Better Way
The supine 90-90 active hamstring stretch. Lie on the ground, which means that you are stabilizing your spine and pelvis in a neutral position against the floor. In this position, you are able to engage the hams and quads without compromising your health. One leg should be flat on the floor with feet pointing up and take the other leg and bring your knee up so that it is at 90 degrees to your torso. Then put your hands behind that knee and extend your leg up to the sky, keeping it as straight as possible. Hold for 15 -30 seconds. Make sure not to arch your back and make sure to keep the integrity of the non-stretched leg flat on the floor.
2. Low Back Lunge
This stretch was addressed above as a dynamic exercise but it can also be used for post-exercise static stretching. The point that I want to make, however, is that it is critical to do it properly. If you don’t have the flexibility and range of motion to perform the stretch with vertical shins and low back arching, then you need an alternate version.
An Alternate Method
The low back lunge will stretch the hip flexor if the back leg is kept straight, but it’s just not as intense. However, if you have the issues aforementioned, then this is for. Rather than elevating your back foot on a surface, extend it behind you and get up on your toes (i.e. dorsiflexion). Remember; keep the low back neutral and hold.
3. Manual Pec Stretch
This is a common problem seen in gyms where bros are benching. Basically, they have their training partner grab their arms and drive them upward behind the body in a painful way. When it comes to the bench press, or frankly any type of pressing movement, people will do damn near anything to be able to continue adding weight to the bar while keeping their shoulders healthy. However, this manual stretch is butchered most of the time, and generally sets you up for injury. A manual stretch like this needs to be executed with the utmost caution due to its passive nature and the direction of stress.
The only time that I would ever advocate this stretch is if it is being performed by a Doctorate level rehab professional trained in biomechanics and arthrokinematics. You can trust these individuals to properly target and stretch muscles without over-stressing the non-contractile structures of such a mobile joint.
A Better Way – Dynamic Oscillatory Pec Stretch, from Dr. John Rusin
In order to execute you need to get into the low back lunge position discussed above with your rear toes on the ground. You should be facing a door entrance or pole or something like that so that you can gain some leverage. Bring the arm that is closest to the side of the door entrance up at a slightly upward angle (120 degrees is optimal, not 90 degrees), with your palm open and touching the wall. Keep your back neutral, tighten your core and glutes and then oscillate by rocking back and forth slowly. You should feel a good stretch in your pectorals the entire time. Do 10 slow reps per side.