This is Part 3 in my series on warm ups. You might want to check out Part 1: Purpose and Part 2: SMR/Foam Rolling before reading on. Or not. You do you.
What is stretching?
Stretching is when you move one or more joints to an end range of motion in order to lengthen a muscle that’s attached to the joint(s). For example, if you lift your arm up over your head and bend your elbow to reach your hand down toward your shoulder blades, you’ll stretch your triceps muscle, which is attached to your fully extended shoulder joint and your fully flexed elbow joint.
For purposes of your warm up, you stretch to reset the length-tension relationships in your muscles in order to increase range of motion at a joint and to better recruit and use your muscles. (See Part 2: SMR/Foam Rolling for a more in-depth explanation of length-tension relationships.) Imagine that you sit at a computer for 8 hours a day and then you go home and kill bird-shaped pixels on your phone for another 3 hours while marathoning The Handmaid’s Tale. This position keeps your shoulders crunched in, shortening your chest muscles.
Images by the incomparable Eduardo Espada.
It also makes the muscles in your upper back long, because your back is constantly rounded (this often makes your upper back feel “tight” because it’s always stretched taut). So, if your chest muscles are shortened and your upper back muscles are lengthened, it’s going to be hard to get your shoulders back and use either of those muscle groups very efficiently. Plus, it’s going to be hard to even feel your upper back muscles working. Foam rolling and stretching your chest can help you recruit your upper back muscles more easily by loosening the vice-grip your chest has on your shoulders.
Everything is connected, guys! Aren’t bodies awesome?!?!
What’s the difference between static and dynamic stretching?
Quite simply, in a static stretch you just hold your joint(s) at a complete range of motion. A dynamic stretch takes your joint(s) through a full range of motion over and over again. If you’re statically stretching your chest, you might do a 90:90 doorway stretch where your shoulder and elbow are bent at a 90-degree angle and you’re pressing your body through a doorway to pull your shoulder back. If you’re dynamically stretching your chest, you might use a TRX lunge with chest stretch. Here, you would step forward and back, allowing the TRX straps to pull your arms back over and over, stretching out your chest muscles. Watch the video below for examples of both of these stretches.
Static stretching, like foam rolling/SMR, should only be used for muscles that you know are tight and that are inhibiting your performance (more on this below). For the most part in a warm up you’ll use dynamic stretching, which can also get your blood flowing and raise your body temperature. As we learned in Part 1 of this warm up series, one of the main purposes of a warm up is to increase blood flow to your muscles, so dynamic stretching serves multiple purposes (to increase joint range of motion and increase blood flow/temperature) whereas static stretching only serves one purpose (to increase joint range of motion).
Will stretching hurt my performance?
When people talk about stretching inhibiting performance, they are most likely talking about static stretching. Just like with SMR/Foam Rolling, static stretching can deaden a muscle’s firing capacity for a time. So, if you’re about to do some heavy bench presses, which need your chest muscles to work at their full capacity, you wouldn’t necessarily want to hold a static chest stretch. But, if your shortened chest is preventing your lengthened upper back muscles from working at their full capacity you might not be able to control the barbell path and you might hurt yourself, so you should obviously address that before you lift. Wait, so do you stretch your chest and deaden your chest muscles? Or do you not stretch your chest and risk injury? A conundrum!
It’s like trying to figure out if he’s the kind of guy who would put the poison in his own glass or yours.
Let’s look at some research. According to a 2015 review of 125 static-stretching studies performed between 1989 and 2014, researchers found that static stretching was more likely to impede performance if the stretches were held for longer than 60 seconds, but that performance was not (or was barely) impeded if stretches were held for less than 60 seconds. Researchers also found that performance was impeded more often in strength exercises than in speed and power exercises. However, they also concluded that if the stretches were performed more than 10 minutes before the exercise was performed, the negative effects became negligible. Ultimately, they found that the benefits of stretching (increase in joint range of motion) outweighed the risks (a slightly slower sprint or fewer reps of an exercise) unless you were in a position where performance really mattered (a race or a powerlifting meet).
What does all that mean?
It means that it’s probably not going to hurt you to do both static and dynamic stretching before your workouts. However, in terms of time and training volume, you can get more done with dynamic stretching than you can with static stretching. Static stretching simply takes longer. For example, 30 seconds of forward and backward leg swings will stretch your hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. If you statically stretched those 4 muscle groups at 30 seconds each, it would take 2 minutes just to do one side. So save the static stretching for your prohibitively tight muscles and dynamically stretch everything else.
How far should I stretch?
You should only stretch to the point of discomfort, not pain. If you’re not able to get your heel to your butt for a quad stretch, don’t force it. Use a yoga strap or a towel to get as far as you can that day. Over time, if you’re stretching regularly, your flexibility should improve.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t stretch?
Anyone can stretch, but those of you who are hypermobile (meaning your joints go beyond what is considered a normal range of motion) will need to be more careful. If you’re hypermobile and you can’t feel your muscles when you stretch, you'll just keep pulling and pulling on your joints and you'll eventually stretch out your ligaments and make your joints less stable.
How can I tell if I’m hypermobile?
There’s a quick test, called the Beighton score, that you can do to find out if you’re hypermobile. You’ll test whether or not you can: bend your thumb forward to your wrist, bend your pinkie back beyond 90 degrees, hyperextend your elbows, hyperextend your knees, and touch the floor with flat palms with your knees straight.
Check out Mike Reinold’s video for a demonstration of the Breighton assessment on a hypermobile person.
What if I’m hypermobile?
One day, I’ll write entire posts on hypermobility. For now, don’t panic. You might want to prioritize SMR/foam rolling over static stretching and move slowly and with control through your dynamic stretches (and all of your strength training exercises — do not drop it like it’s hot).
Want to try static and dynamic stretching?
Watch the video below for some examples of static and dynamic stretches that are designed to help a desk-jockey prepare for a full-body workout. This is only a tiny sample of what is possible in terms of static and dynamic stretches, but it's a start!