Intro: Why do we Stretch?
For those into strength training, flexibility and mobility training are rarely present in ones mind as an important thing to keep up with. This makes sense considering the purpose of strength training is to, well, get stronger. However, if you are training for overall fitness, wellbeing and the longevity of your training practice, being sufficiently mobile is very important. For those interested in Bodyweight fitness, it is especially pertinent, as most advanced calisthenics exercises require a good deal of mobility e.g. the press handstand needs good hip and shoulder mobility, the planche requires great wrist mobility, the pistol squat requires good hip and ankle mobility. As a bodyweight fitness practitioner, if you do not regularly stretch your whole body you will soon find your progress plateauing, though not for lack of strength.
This is going to the first in a series of tutorials I will write on flexibility in general, and in following sections I will cover how to stretch specific parts of your body. This tutorial will focus on general theory, things to bear in mind when stretching and whatnot.
Basics Concepts of Stretching:
Stretches should be held for about 60 seconds. This general guideline is true of almost all stretches. Some can be held for longer (2 minutes, maybe even 3 minutes), but you don’t really want to go for under that if you are trying to gain flexibility. Shorter holds, e.g. for 30 seconds are good in conjunction with joint and muscle warm-ups but that’s about it
If you want to go totally ‘all-in’ then try stretching 3 times a day, but once a day is definitely enough for the average bear. You can stretch as much as you’d like, but listen to your body. If it hurts, you are stretching too hard. Sometimes, just like in strength training, you need a day off stretching in order to give your muscles and nervous system a little rest. You may even find yourself even more flexible after that day. In a similar way to strength training, you can also do ‘sets’ of stretches. Personally I like to do 2 ‘sets’ of each stretch I do every morning and then 3 ‘sets’ of something that is my ‘focus area’ for the month, e.g. my lats or pirformis which are both massively tight so they need more attention. By this I mean doing 2 60 second holds of the stretch with a bit of chill time inbetween or a different stretch in between.
When should I stretch?:
Partly, this is determined by opinion. Some people like stretching in the morning because it wakes them up and makes them feel limber and ready to attack the day, some people prefer stretching in the evening because it relaxes them and makes it easier to fall asleep. Others find either option better due to time constraints. Stretching at either point in the day isn’t necessarily ‘better’ (although you may not have to warm-up as much in the evening if you live an active life because you will have already warmed up through the day) but there are a few things to consider.
One of the most important things is that when you wake up, a significant amount of liquid will have diffused into your spine, between your vertebrae and all up in your discs and whatnot (very scientific language). What this means is that any manipulation of the vertebrae or force put upon the spine due to spinal flexion or extension will be massively amplified. In practical terms, this means for about an hour of being upright after waking up, it is much more dangerous for your back to do any back flexibility exercises or anything else that involves excessive spinal flexion (bridges, toe touching, etc.). This is because you are putting a lot of shear force on your discs and vertebrae which is amplified by them being full of fluid, making it more likely for bad things involving your spine to happen.
If you imagined between each of your vertebrae was a half filled water balloon, those are basically your discs. When you flex your spine by rounding your back to touch your toes, your vertebrae move accordingly, putting pressure on the discs but they have the capacity to adjust their shape to accomodate the change in over-all spine position. However, in the morning these balloons are as full as possible and if vertebrae put pressure on them from flexing the spine, they will explode and get tiny pieces of balloon all over your organs. This will not happen with your discs, you will just injure them more likely or ‘slip’ a disc, but I think it is a good way to visualise the problem.
The solution obviously for this is to not perform any massive spinal stretches until at least an hour after you’ve gotten up. And I mean stood up, not woken up but stayed in bed. For some stretches such as the forward fold, or standing pike, this is not so much of a problem if you are doing it with good form, by hinging at the hips, maintaining a ‘tall’ spine (thoracic extension) and not compensating with your back for flexibility your hamstrings don’t have.
How does Stretching work?:
For a long time people thought stretching was actively lengthening your tendons and ligaments, because they were naturally just ‘too short’. However, your degree of flexibility/mobility is determined more by your nervous system than physiological limitations. Your nervous system determines specific limits to your mobility where it believes it has reached the furthest you can move and yet still be able to safely return to your original position without damage, given your strength in that range of motion. Beyond this limitation, it causes the muscles facilitating the movement to contract to stop you from moving any further. Any person no matter how inflexible, when they are sedated on an operating table, can be moved and manipulated into positions much further than they would ever be able to when awake due to that nervous system control.
You might be thinking, ‘Well gee, that’s a fun fact but why do I care? I just want to be more flexible! It doesn’t really matter HOW it works.’. Well it is actually incredibly relevant. Knowing this has opened up numerous techniques for improving mobility that focus on improving strength in the end ranges of motion and learning how to relax the muscles when the natural inclination is to tense for ‘safety’. Specific techniques such as these will not be covered in this introduction to stretching, but the same tenets can be applied to normal stretching in terms of how you stretch, how often you stretch, etc.
Passive and Active Flexibility/Mobility:
Within the realm of stretching, you are aiming to improve two things. Sometimes its called Flexibility and Mobility, other times its called Passive and Active flexibility.
Passive flexibility is essentially a term used to describe the furthest you can safely contort your body while completely relaxed, regardless of resistance. Mobility (Active Flexibility) is a term used to describe the furthest you can move naturally on your own without external assistance from any kind of band, bar, or gravity that could be assisting you in a passive stretch.
Think about it this way, if you can do a single leg forward bend and get your trunk parallel to the floor/perpendicular to your leg, then you have passive flexibility in your hamstrings. However, having that does not mean that you have good mobility in that same movement. Having mobility looks more like the ability to stand up straight with your leg straight out in front of you at 90 degrees. If you were to to rotate yourself so your body was sideways, this would be the same angle created during the passive mobility stretch, but it is not gravity putting you there, it is your own strength. Another example would be a shoulder opening stretch. You may be able to open your shoulders to or past 180 degrees in the stretch (passive), but you may not be able to actually lift your arms up to that point freely (active). Typically, passive flexibility comes first, and with lots of strengthening mobility drills in the new range of motion, comes active flexibility.
Why you want it:
Not only is being immobile annoying and inconvenient for your training because it stops you from doing the movements you may otherwise have strength for, but it also makes you more prone to injury. This is because there is a larger amount of your bodies’ natural range of motion that you do not have strength in. Thus, it will elicit a panic response if you unexpectedly enter it during a slip or fall that forces your joints and muscles into these ranges, resulting in injury. Having good mobility allows your body to ‘roll with the punches’ in a way. For example if you do not have good shoulder mobility doing a ring swing that forces your shoulder into fairly extreme flexion each out-swing may cause injury because your body will tense and rip at that end range it is forced into. Conversely if you have good mobility, your body will respond at the end range of motion as it would at any other point in the range and you will not get injured.
Mobility vs. Stability:
After now reading about mobility you may be inclined to go excitedly stretch 50 times a day in the pursuit of being the most injury free person on earth. However, mobility is not a magic potion, and more of it is not always better. In your body you need a balance of mobility and stability. The problem most people have is they are too ‘stable’ in that they are so tightly held together by their knotted muscles and unconditioned nervous system, nothing is gonna just fall out of place, and nothing bad will happen if they stay within that comfortable range. However their stability is limited to a small range and moving out of that range massively increases the chance of injury. Conversly, if you are super mobile but do not have a lot of musculature to hold you together, you have a fairly high but consistent risk of injury in any range of motion. Being immobile and being instable are arguably equally bad. Do not stretch every day if you are not going to do some form of strengthening as well, just in the same way that you should not do strength training without some degree of mobility work. To find a balance between these things means a consistently low risk of injury throughout the entire range of motion of your body, so no little to no chronic pain and longer and safer training through your whole life.
Whole Body Mobility:
Using mobility as a tool for your strength training is potentially hazardous. I imagine this likely scenario. You have just been introduced to the importance of mobility in your training and you’ve been doing calisthenics for a while now. You want to go from an L-sit to a V-sit but your pike flexibility isn’t good enough. Perfect opportunity to start doing mobility! You start stretching your hamstrings and calves every day 3 times per day and see massive gains in your pike flexibility. Awesome, right? Nope. Not at all. This equally makes you more at risk of injury. Why you ask? Because all of your ligaments and muscles attach to important bits of your body, like your pelvis, and your shoulder joint/shoulder girdle, and your knees. The way you’ve been living up til now, your body has found a natural balancing point where all of the muscles attached to your knee, for example, are hopefully exerting roughly equivalent forces on it, so it keeps everything in place. If you suddenly have one bit thats really loose and one bit that’s really tight, then during movements where excessive amounts of torque and shear force is going through the knee, it won’t be held in place and bad things will happen. Conversely, if all of the attachments to your knee are equally mobilised and strengthened at the same time, this problem won’t happen. Be smart about your mobility practice and mobilise your whole body, even if its not useful directly for the movements you want to learn.
Here are the articles I’ve released on stretching, so you can put your knowledge to good use:
If you liked this, like us on Facebook, Follow on Instagram or Sign-up for the Newsletter to be notified weekly of new posts!