In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I still have a long way to go when it comes to developing my own flexibility. I’ve spent a large portion of my training career chasing higher poundage on the bar with the bare minimum time put into stretching. While I did make sure that I worked towards having optimal range of motion in my lifts, I never sought to increase my range beyond that, and I tended to always prioritize strength over flexibility. Many of you are probably in the same boat.
When I took a step back to look at my training as a whole, I realized a few important things were holding back my progress:
- All of my training injuries, some of which took months to recover from, could have been avoided. In training, as opposed to competition, I control all of the variables. Most of my training injuries were the result of a poor length-tension balance throughout the skeletal muscle and fascia in my body.
- Having tunnel vision when it comes to chasing maximal strength without regard to maintaining or improving flexibility actually results in slower progress in the long run. You will quickly find yourself injured if you try to force strength gains, rather than taking a slow and steady well-rounded approach in developing different physical qualities.
- Making significant, lasting changes to your flexibility after years of neglect requires that you prioritize it over all of your other types of training. You will make faster progress by working on your weak points than you will hammering away at the areas that are already strong.
I could no longer use the excuse of “hard training” being the cause of my injuries. While there are many other factors besides flexibility, when it comes to avoiding injury (appropriate intensity, volume, recovery, and nutrition), it is definitely the factor that is the most neglected by the average gym rat or strength/power athlete.
Below I’ll outline the strategies that have gotten me back on the right track and have allowed me to see the best progress in flexibility that I’ve ever had.
Your state of mind is as important as the stretches you perform.
1. Learn to Love Static Stretching
Good ol’ static stretching has gotten a bad rap over the years. When the studies came out proving that long-duration static stretches temporarily decrease muscular strength, a lot of people threw it out of their programs entirely, despite the multitude of positive benefits. When static stretches are utilized, they are seen as somewhat of an afterthought.
Over time, athletes tend to develop chronic injuries when the body is out of balance, and when they reach a point where the pain starts hindering their performance or affecting their daily life, they will start looking for solutions. Initially I had an aversion to static stretching because I thought it would take too much time. However, the first time I took it seriously and loosened up my chronically tight hip flexors, the instant relief I felt in my hips and lower back was enough to change my mind. If you are looking to introduce some serious stretching into your routine, keep the stretches basic, only use a moderate intensity, and warm up the area ahead of time with light exercise.
2. Prioritize Flexibility Workouts Over Strength Workouts
I’ve found it easy to become enamored with chasing strength gains as opposed to maintaining balance throughout my body, even though I knew better. This led to many injuries that could have easily been avoided if I had put more time into stretching and increasing my healthy range of motion.
It wasn’t until I made stretching a priority that I started to bring my body back into balance. In my stretching workouts, I like to include some traditional strength training movements, but they are there more as a means to assess my mobility in between stretches, and they are performed with moderate to light weights only. Remember, strength can be regained much faster than the time it takes to develop flexibility, so don’t worry if some of your lifts drop temporarily. Besides, your long-term progress will be greater once you have addressed your flexibility deficits.
3. Understand Stretching to Loosen Up vs. Deep Stretching
Short duration stretches (less than 15 seconds) and mobility drills (hip circles, arm circles, windmills) can be used during a warm up routine to increase range of motion and loosen up before training, but this type of stretching is primarily meant to help you reach your current maximum range of motion, not increase it beyond that. If you want to make lasting changes to your flexibility, long duration deep stretching where you take the time to relax as much as possible will have a greater benefit.
Deep stretching takes time and patience and can be performed after these shorter duration stretches and exercises, or after a brief workout where you are not particularly fatigued. I generally spend 45-60 minutes (including warm up) in sessions like these before I feel like I’ve hit my limit for the day. Trying to cover all of the joints in the body would take hours, so I generally choose to spend most of my session on a particular region of the body like hips/glutes/adductors or shoulders/arms/spine. Experiment and see what feels good for your body.
4. Relaxation (Mental and Physical) Is Key for Deep Stretching
When you are stretching to create lasting changes in flexibility, your state of mind is at least as important, if not more, as the stretches you are doing. If you feel stressed, impatient, or irritable, you’ll have to clear your mind before you can reap the benefits of the stretch.
But don’t let stress be an excuse to skip your stretching sessions. Sometimes the best way to get rid of stress is to just get started, focus on the sensations you are feeling, and how the feel of the stretch changes as you adjust your posture.
5. Don’t Let Poor Workplace Posture Reverse Your Progress
Consider how much time you spend each week sitting at your desk at work, sitting on a couch, staring down at a cell phone screen, or commuting. This can easily amount to eight or more hours per day, or 56+ hours a week. Even if you perform some type of manual labor at your job, you are still susceptible to chronic injuries and tightness from these sedentary habits.
Now think about how much time you dedicate to training, stretching, and working out the imbalances in your posture. If you are the typical recreational athlete, you are probably allotting between 4-12 hours a week to focused training or sport. Even if you are at the top end of that range, you probably spend about five times more time being sedentary in postures that are having a negative effect on your flexibility.
You need to mitigate the damage. Take breaks at work at least once an hour to stand up and stretch to avoid some of that stiffness by the end of your workday. You’ll feel better, reduce your mental fatigue, and be more productive. The hip flexors, quads, glutes, adductors, pecs, and shoulders are the areas to focus on as they tend to get especially tight from spending an extended time sitting. Adjustable desks that can be used as either a standing or seated desk are great options for reducing stiffness and taking pressure off of the lower back.
Dynamic stretching and deep stretching both play a role in developing flexibility.
6. Use a Different Stretching Sequence
If you ever experience a pinching pain in or around the joints while stretching, stop. You should never experience pain, especially sharp pain, while stretching. If the affected area is injured or inflamed, it’s probably a good idea to lay off stretching the area for the time being.
Stretching in a different sequence might be all you need to do to alleviate the pain. For example, if you experience pain in the front of the shoulder while performing a lat stretch that brings the arm overhead, try stretching the biceps first, and then return to the lat stretch and see if you have improved. Stretch the hip flexors and rectus femoris before targeting the glutes, adductors, and hamstrings, if you experience a pinching sensation in the front of the hip.
Other benefits of varying the sequence is being able to get a deeper stretch on the areas that are last in the sequence. Working from the extremities to the center by stretching the calves before the hamstrings, or the forearms before the elbow flexors can help you to achieve a deeper stretch on the areas targeted second.
7. Put in the Work
I have benefited from therapies like acupuncture, foam rolling, massage, and ART at one point or another. However, my main attraction was the belief that I could see someone for an hour and they could fix my issues so I could get right back to training. The reality was that while these therapies did provide some relief and increased range, without working to build on the improvements on my own time, I would quickly revert back to my original condition.
If you have access to a quality therapist, seek treatment and follow up with a stretching program as a way to accelerate your progress.
Make Your Flexibility Gains Stick
Flexibility is a critical component to a well-rounded training program, and is essential for maintaining quality of life as we age. Once you treat your flexibility gains with the same seriousness as you do your strength gains, the freedom of movement, decreased pain, and lessened tension throughout the body will have you hooked. Now that you have these strategies, it’s time to get to work!
You’ll Also Enjoy:
- Flexibility Is Like Any Other Discipline – It Takes Discipline
- 5 Stretches to Regain Hip Mobility and Flexibility
- Cell Phone Ergonomics: How to Avoid the “Smart Phone Slump”
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Emperical.