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Can Stretching Really Make you a Better Athlete? The Truth Behind Static Stretching and Power Development

“Alright guys! Take a lap and stretch for 10 minutes before we start practice!”

How many of us have heard this one before?  I did pretty much every day before basketball practice, and although warm up and static stretching research has come a long way since the 1990’s, we still have a long way to go when considering the optimal use of static stretching for athletic performance.  Can it actually make you any better of an athlete?  We’ll find out.

Static stretching is one of the most hotly debated topics in sport, and is one that coaches and athletes either rigidly support or fight.  There is a lot of black and white mentality when it comes to the topic, not to mention hair-splitting, so the goal of this article is to clarify the big picture as much as possible.  We’ll also give some basic recommendations. Here is a quick summary to let you know what we’ll be covering.

  • Having rigid muscles is a factor of a few different things, but the majority reason is muscle weakness elsewhere in the body. This shortening as a result of weakness or faulty patterning elsewhere can be referred to as tightness.
  • Stretching is only a part of the mobility equation, and has a useful, but not completely necessary role for athletes. Some forms of stretching are more useful than others, depending on the situation.
  • Activation is one of the most powerful ways to restore mobility, while keeping the body in balance.
  • Static stretching is particularly useful in its forms of weighted stretching, or ELDOA for fascial length and re-alignment.

So here is the million-dollar question:  What’s the deal with static stretching and its relationship to strength, speed, and power?  Is it something I need to be doing?  Is it counterproductive, or a waste of time?

First, we need to understand why we might need to stretch, and what a “tight” muscle even is.  The truth is, that there are two different types of muscle states that contribute to a limited range of motion:

  • Muscle shortness
  • Muscle tightness

Basically, muscle shortness (the sarcomere length is actually mechanically shorter) is due to things like chronic holding of a position, such as in cases of joint immobility due to injury.  We could also group things like sitting all day into this category in a more minor scenario.  The shortness and rigidity of the fascia is also a factor here, which we’ll get into in a bit.

Muscle tightness is the more common mobility affliction to athletes, and this is when the body will subconsciously tighten muscles to protectively guard against the effects of weak muscles, or faulty movement patterning.  More on this in a bit.  Dr. Quinn Henoch has a great video on this topic that I would highly recommend checking out.

Unfortunately, we as an athletic community have so tightly equated stretching and mobility, we think that if we have range of motion restrictions, the cause is inherently “shortened muscles”.

In athletes without significantly disabling injury and joint immobilization, the result of joint range limitation is typically tightness, rather than shortness!  So where does tightness come from then?  The answer is muscle weakness, and protective mechanisms.  Tightness is the result of the body protecting itself, due to muscle fatigue, weakness, injury, stress, or chronic postural issues.   Having limited range of motion is more in your brain than it is in your muscles.  There, I said it.

For a visual, imagine a tent with 4 posts.  If you were to break one of the posts, the other three posts would have to work much harder to keep the roof of the tent up, or the system will collapse inwards.  The same principle exists with muscles.  If one muscle becomes dysfunctional, other muscles need to compensate.  When this happens, the compensating muscles become tired and hypertonic, performance drops, and injury risk rises.

Canopy

Imagine a canopy where one post was removed.  The only way that the tent could stay up was if the other three posts were anchored and stiffened down harder than they were before.

Barring structural issues (joint immobilization due to injury, or genetic joint issues such as deep hip sockets) athletes should have nearly unlimited range of motion in any stretch position, so long as their brain allows it.  “Tight” muscles aren’t structurally shorter than “loose” muscles, but rather, they are tight because they are trying to compensate for a weak muscle.

Recent research by Weppler (2010)  showed that stretching protocols of up to 8 weeks in length could only produce only transient, or short-term, increases in flexibility.   In other words, a stretching program could only temporarily improve flexibility.  The muscles got “tight” again not long after the stretching bout.  The mobility that was gained was deemed to be due to the “sensation”, or neuromuscular tone of the muscle, rather than the actual biomechanical length of the muscle!

This would make perfect sense, as the athletes in the study likely had tightness issues rather than shortness issues.  The brain had kept the muscles tight for a reason, so manually stretching them could temporarily desensitize the muscle and CNS feedback loop, but given a few hours, the brain will restore muscle length to its normal level, especially if you aren’t fixing the problem, which is muscle weakness.

In addition to this, there is a limit to how much extra length would even be helpful.  Realize that more flexible doesn’t always mean better.  There is absolutely a point of diminishing returns, and athletes don’t need to be, and shouldn’t be gymnast or dancer level in many cases.  There are a few athletes out there who are incredibly explosive jumpers and sprinters who also have ridiculous flexibility, but a big number of great jumpers are actually pretty tight! (this has more to do with their muscle-tendon stiffness as far as movement is concerned than their actual muscle length)  You don’t need to emulate Kadour Ziani’s mobility to get his jumping ability.

Bottom line, most stretching protocols that athletes utilize don’t actually make muscles longer, but rather decrease the muscle tonus and thus, the immediate power and reactivity of a muscle.  Still, static stretching does have a place.  Let’s explore further.

Phasic and Tonic

What muscles go tight and which go weak?

We can generally classify muscles into two basic types, those that are “phasic” or responsible for big, fast movements, and those that are “tonic” or more responsible for posture.  Muscles don’t always fit completely cleanly into these two categories (such as the hamstrings), but this is a close generalization.  Phasic muscles, when injured, over-trained, or stressed will get weaker, and lose “contractility”.  Contractility can be referred to the ability to fire rapidly and reflexively when needed.  Tonic muscles, which are the postural muscles, will respond in turn to the phasic muscles weakening by getting tighter to pick up the slack.  Overtraining will generally cause the phasic muscles to lose contractility, and the tonic muscles will get tighter, which causes the body to “go back into the fetal position” during heavy training beat-downs.

Chart of Various Phasic and Tonic Muscles

Phasic MusclesTonic Muscles
Vastus Medialis/Vastus LateralisRectus Femoris
Gluteus Maximus, Medius, MinimusHamstrings
Mid and Lower TrapeziusIliopsoas
Tibialis AnteriorSoleus
PeronealsGroin/Leg Adductors
TricepsBiceps

The muscles that are most prone to shortness (as usually caused by sitting and poor posture), or a possible need for static stretching are the tonic flexors, such as rectus femoris, iliopsoas, or the leg adductors.  Although these muscles may find themselves in shortened states, I would always recommend checking if they can be fixed through activating phasic muscles before stretching those tonic muscles into oblivion!

The easiest example of the relationship of the phasic and tonic muscles are the glutes (phasic) going weak due to stress, overtraining, injury, etc., and the hamstrings (tonic) tightening up to compensate for lack of muscle tone and reflexive firing in the glutes.  If the glutes went weak, and the hamstrings and lumbar spine didn’t tighten up, then athletes would be constantly falling forwards during any sort of ballistic movement.

If you activate the glute, you will gain length in the hamstring, because tightness is no longer needed to maintain the integrity of the superficial back line of muscles.  I’ve seen anywhere from 20 to 40 degrees of range increase in the hamstring from simply activating the glute with an athlete in a parasympathetic state, brought on by proper breathing.   Since improving the feedback loops and responsiveness of muscles via activation methods is an important part of the balance and mobility equation, we’ll cover that territory next.

The Truth Behind Static Stretching and Power Development

Stretching vs. Activation

Applied kinesiology and its influence on athletic performance.

In the 1960’s Dr. George Goodheart started the field of Applied Kinesiology, which has sprawled out into several philosophies or organizations as to the best ways to restore the feedback loop function of weakened phasic muscles.  (Applied Kinesiology is not just a muscle activation system, but rather a system that integrates the biochemical, muscular, and mental organisms of the body).   Of these branches, my favorite is by far, Douglas Heel’s “Be Activated” system, and I am continually amazed by with each experience I have with it.   I also am a certified MAT Jumpstart practitioner, which uses a series of low intensity isometric exercises to assess and restore the contractility of weakened muscles throughout the body.  These two systems have given me a nice toolbox for a variety of weakness issues which lead to instant mobility and performance improvements.

When you restore contractility to a phasic muscle, the tonic muscles that were tightened up to compensate can suddenly loosen, to dramatic improvements in mobility.  I had one athlete recently who had been static stretching after practice for years, to little mobility improvement, and was able to touch his toes for the first time within a few activation protocols.  Now that’s powerful stuff.  Personally, I have really tight hip flexors, and I’ve come up with all sorts of static stretching protocols for them, but I’ve found that I can get even better length and joint mobility improvements from simply doing a series of MAT isometrics for my glutes and hip rotators, which will stabilize the joint, and allow my hip flexors to loosen their hold.

Outside of the activation systems, there are simple isometrics and low-weight isometric holds in the particular muscle group and pattern you are hoping to restore.  These do work, although not as instantaneously as what the more potent activation methods are capable of. 

So what good is stretching then, if simply activating muscles can do the job more effectively, and keep the body in balance?  Well, that’s a good question.

First off, based on research, we do know that a basic static stretching program has the likelihood of improving performance as a stand-alone method.  There is also some evidence that suggests that static stretching may be positively linked with strength and performance.  Shrier (2004) found that 7 out of 9 studies concluded that static stretching has positive chronic  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15377965 (long term) effects on speed, strength and power.  (The same study found that short term stretching basically does nothing as far as performance is concerned, and can even be detrimental in the short term).  We obviously know that stretching yields a temporary decrease in things like speed and vertical jump, but then again, so do things like weight training.

Activation may negate the need for stretching in a great many athletes, so if you have good activation protocols, you might not want to spend as much, or any time doing static stretching.

Static stretching can work hand-in-hand with activation methods, and is a great way to temporarily “deaden” the neural drive to any muscle.  Although this seems like a poor decision in terms of creating a better athlete, it actually has some ramifications in terms of loosening the neural hold that antagonistic muscles have on athletic movements.

The easiest and most well known of this is the effect that static stretching the rectus femoris/iliopsoas acutely has on vertical jump.  Research has confirmed that static stretching these muscles prior to a vertical jump can yield an immediate inch or two gain on one’s standing jump.  When the neural tone of the hip flexors are reduced, the glutes can fire harder, and an athlete’s jump is increased.  This can be true for any muscle pairing.

A common therapy practice is to couple glute activation exercises with stretches for the lumbar erectors and hip flexors.  Stretch the antagonist, and activate the antagonist.  Is this a better idea than stand-alone activation?  I’m not sure, but if your primary armament for activation is isometrics and corrective exercises, then adding stretching in the equation can be a useful venture.

Weighted and Fascial Stretching

Building better mousetraps. 

Using basic bodyweight holds is the most accepted and used stretching practice, but is there another, better way?  Let’s quickly cover two new concepts in the world of stretching: Weighted stretching, and fascial stretching techniques.

There is a huge rabbit hole when it comes to things like weighted stretching, which has been shown to yield massive strength and size gains in animal studies, and has begun to make an impact in human athletic training.  Weighted stretching of substantial loads has been shown to have a muscle size advantage over holding loads in a non-stretch position, which aside from the mobility factor is just a great bonus.

Outside of the strength aspect however, long duration, weighted stretch holds has a positive effect on the fascial trains of the body.  Check out this video below of Wisconsin coach Jim Snyder, one of the most intelligent strength and performance coaches I know, talking about his GPP system for UW Hockey, which features fascial re-education via long weighted stretch holds.  He aims to improve the pliability and resiliency of fascial tissue through a series of weighted stretch holds in the GPP period.

Some of the best stretches are those that replicate athletic positions, sport movement, and that use the force of bodyweight, or more, to overload the stretch, and thus the fascia.   As Jim mentions in the video above, the fascia related to areas of the body used in repetitive athletic motions becomes jagged with use, rather than it’s optimal state which is smooth and linear in nature.

In my mind, the best of these loaded stretches is the isometric split squat hold, but the possibilities are endless.  This loaded stretch is demonstrated by the legendary Kelly Baggett in the video below (this exercise could easily be weighted as well).

We also have the weighted pushup for a great upper body stretch and strengthen of the often tonic pectoral group.  These can be held at the bottom for a short, or long duration.

Fascial stretches are becoming wildly popular amongst performance professionals in the track and field realm.  Fascia is an awesome and often overlooked component of human movement.  It has a tensile strength of 2-8x that of muscle, is energy efficient, and a significant contributor to human movement.   Fascial stretching is stretching that is specifically designed to target the various fascial lines and sling systems of the body.   There are a few theories out there on the usefulness of fascial stretching and muscle growth (and it probably works in a similar way to weighted stretching), but it has been theorized that stretching the fascia can allow it to loosen enough to allow more muscle to grow.

One of the most popular fascial stretching systems is the ELDOA system created by osteopath Guy Voyer.  This is stretching specifically designed for fasical re-education.   Some of the best track coaches in the world are loving the ELDOA system.  Below are two of my favorite stretches from the ELDOA world.

L5-S1 Low Back

Hip Flexor Stretching (Video starts 3:00 in)

Between weighted and fascial stretching, you have two great tools to improve the quality of this vital movement structure of the body.

So how to implement all of this? 

Now that you know the what, let’s get to the how!  What is the best way to implement a variety of stretching means and methods into a training protocol?

Pre-Workout Stretching

First off, realize that unless you have had a significant injury, most of your range of motion limitations are going to be a result of weakness, rather than actually shortened muscles, so activating those weak phasic muscles is priority number one to build the proper mobility in balance and to restore the proper function of the body.  A warmup that features a combination of activation routines, along with specific dynamic mobility work is a great method here.  One of my favorite dynamic stretches, that can also help improve the muscle feedback loops in the hip flexors and glutes is the scorpion stretch.

For some athletes with serious mobility limitations, some static stretching pre-workout can be an option for those who don’t have activation means, or who need just a little extra range in a particular joint movement.  If doing any static stretching before, keep the holds fairly short (less than 10 seconds), and do it early enough that the negative stretch-shortening effects will have worn off by the time you get to more significant speed and power work.

During-Workout Stretching

 I wouldn’t recommend static stretching during the course of a workout involving speed or power.  The only exception would be in between sets of a barbell, or general, slower speed workout, and these are typically going to be static calf, groin, or hip rotator stretches that help an athlete to get into a deeper squat position.  Most other stretches, outside of weighted stretches for the purpose of muscle growth, are rather impractical here.  Obviously, if you have activation methods in your toolkit, you are going to want to be using these types of activities within a workout rather than stretching.

My number 1 workout pet peeve of all time, and possibly yours too, is athletes who MID-WORKOUT will run to the trainer saying their hamstring is tight, and needs to be stretched.  GAH!!!  If your hamstring tightens up mid-workout, it is NOT because of short muscles, but rather neurological tightness that is there for a reason (your body is likely protecting itself due to things like poor workout planning), so by stretching mid-workout, you are throwing the body out of balance, and setting yourself up for injury and reduced performance.

Post-Workout Stretching

Post workout is the best time for either static or weighted stretching protocols.  Weighted stretching is just plain awesome on the tail end of a barbell workout.  Doing ISO-holds on Bulgarian split squats (or a combination of ISO-holds and full reps) with light weight is one of the best finishers I know for speed and power athletes.  If you are doing a lot of weighted stretching, such as for multiple muscle groups, you may want to do the majority of this in the GPP, as it has a higher potential to grow muscle size.

A variety of static stretches can be used post-workout.  I would recommend using at least a few ELDOA or other fascial stretches in this sequence.   At worst, post-workout stretching is simply a waste of time (the results are fairly transient anyway).  At best, it can offer some performance gains for some athletes.  Personally,

I would rather spend my time doing other restorative activities such as hydrotherapy or visualization/meditation than a bunch of stretching.  As I’ve progressed as an athlete, I’ve gotten farther and farther away from stretching simply for the sake of stretching, but I’ll specifically prescribe it to cover what activation means can’t take care of, or for athletes who can’t hit some needed squat positions in the weightroom.  Too much static stretching post-workout can be counter-productive.  Some of my most un-explosive days have been those following the occasional yoga class I would go to with my wife.  The hour of static holds just beats down your reactivity.

If you have a lot of strength training in your program, static stretching post workout may be more relevant.  Strength training increases resting muscle tone, while static stretching can decrease resting muscle tone.  If you are more of a speed, sprint and jump purist, and have lifting at a complimentary minimum, less stretching is required.  There is an optimal muscle tone for speed-strength activities, particularly sprinting.  This is why many track coaches have their sprinters not lift legs for a period of time prior to a championship meet, or even during a whole competitive season!

If you stretch statically, stretch the right muscles.  Quit stretching areas that are already loose.  Nobody is impressed by how far you can stretch anyhow.  Gently stretch tight muscles for 10-30 seconds, and do longer stretches for the fascial trains, trying to total 2 minutes for the fascia.

Finally, post-workout is also a great time to re-check muscle activation levels, as intense workouts can cause muscles that were “activated” prior to the workout to drop back out of the system.

With this knowledge, arm yourself for smarter mobility training, and a new level of athletic performance.

 

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14 comments

  1. Trainen is net als koken , je moet jezelf voordurend afvragen waarom je dat specifieke ingrediënt gebruikt in je recept 😉

  2. Really really good article

  3. Good stuff as usual Joel. Are you familiar with Ido Portal’s “loaded progressive stretching”?

  4. Great as usual. Would Jay Schroeders “Extreme Iso” fit the bill somewhere.
    The thing with Jay is that after 5 minutes of holding you are supposed to get
    all kinds of “bennies”.

    • Brandon,

      Yes, I think so. The fascial benefits are a huge part of that system, and hopefully the science can quantify that for us soon.

      Joel

  5. Great article. Anyone interested in fascist stretching should check out THE PERMANENT PAIN CURE by Ming Chew.
    The book includes lots of pictorial demonstrations and descriptions of Fascial Stretches. Highly recommended.

  6. Sorry- Fascial stretches!

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