What should stretching feel like?
Most of you have never really stretched before. Sure, you have mobilized some. Pulling your leg behind you until you feel a strain on your quads, or kicking your leg up on a bench and leaning into it before a run. Real stretching is not part of a warm-up or cool-down though, real stretching is work. Sweaty, dizzying, (occasionally) nauseating work.
Let’s clarify one point before we get too far. When I talk about stretching, I am talking about actively working to increase your range of motion and your flexibility, with the intention of achieving long lasting and even permanent gains in range of motion. For most athletes this is the biggest hole in their game. (I say most because there are always outliers; those who have amazing flexibility without ever needing to work on it. If this is you this article still may hold some value and I encourage you to read on).
A quick note on my background:
As I have talked about a few times in the moveskill podcast, I was never what anyone would consider flexible. I might, after getting really warm in a long workout, be able to touch the ground with my knees locked straight. I have made great gains in the past several years though, because I was lucky enough to find a good coach with a great deal of knowledge and experience in helping adults achieve huge gains in their flexibility. What I came away with was much more than just the specific exercises, reps, sets, and holds. What I came away with was a deep understanding of the amount of work stretching can be.
Loaded Stretching, Weighted Stretching, PNF Stretching, Isometric Stretching
I am going to skip the particulars of these schools of stretching. If you want to geek out I recommend Thomas Kruz’s Stretching Scientifically or Kit Laughlin’s work as good places to start. The one thing you will see across these schools of thought is the principal that lack of flexibility is inherently tied to lack of strength. You may be very strong in some positions, but very weak in others. Your central nervous system knows this and limits your range of motion so you don’t do something stupid and hurt yourself.
Being weak makes you inflexible!
Need some proof? The next time you finish your warm-up try the following; grab a chair and place it next to you with the seat facing away. Put your leg up on the back of the chair with your toes pointing up and knee locked out. Congrats, you have done the “half side splits” and have proven that both your hips have the ability to do the full middle splits. (This may not be the case for all you. Some people have a deformity known as coxa vara. If you feel a sharp jabbing of bone on bone this may be you). You have also proven that all the muscles in your legs have the length for the middle splits. There is no muscle or ligament that runs from one inner thigh to the other so why can’t you do the splits? Because you are weak and your body knows it! Your central nervous system is preventing you from reaching a range of motion where you will injure yourself.
How should I stretch?
For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on stretching the hamstrings. This tends to be the most common problem area, especially for the functional fitness crowd. I am going to give three exercise programs below based on how bad, or good your hamstring flexibility is. So let us start with a quick test. Start by standing up nice and tall, shoulders back, with a neutral arch in your lower back and knees locked out. Begin to lean forward, piking at the hips making sure not to round your back or protract your shoulder-blades. How far can you reach without rounding your back?
I can hardly get to my knees
Start any stretching session with any warm up that gets your body temp up and your blood flowing. Then do the following:
Now for the hard work. You are going to perform 2 full rounds of Band Hamstring Stretch. Be sure to watch the full video. Each Round
will consist of:
Perform this routine 3-5 times a week for up to 6 weeks. You will begin to see an increased range of motion (ROM) within the first few days.
I can almost get to my feet
Start all stretching sessions with any warm up that gets your body temp up and your blood flowing. After you are warm, do the following:
For this Stretch you will be performing the Single Leg Good Morning. This is a loaded stretch, using your own body-weigh, if you are unable to do the stretch with your knee locked out or spine totally neutral then go and perform the routine above.
Perform 3 Sets of 10 Single Leg Good mornings with a 10-15 Second hold on the last rep of each set. Rest 90 seconds between sets.
You should perform this routine 3-5 times a week for up to 6 weeks. You will begin to see an increased range of motion (ROM) within the first
I can touch the ground
Your hamstrings are in good shape, but there is always room for improvement! Start all stretching sessions with any warm up that gets your body temp up and your blood flowing. After you are warm, do the following:
You will be performing the Jefferson Curl. This Stretch will not only work on hamstring length but also on the strength and mobility of your spine, as well as your ability to compress into a pike.
Complete 3 sets of 10 reps with a 15 second hold at the bottom of your last rep. Rest 90 seconds between sets. We recommend super-setting this with the Kneeling Hip Bridge.
Finish with 1 Round of Band Hamstring Stretch on each leg
Perform this routine 3-5 times a week for up to 6 weeks. You will begin to see an increased range of motion (ROM) within the first
few days. You may slowly add some weight as you continue, 2-3 kg at a time never going heavier than 30kg.
The best advice I can give is to start a routine and stick with it. You will be amazed at how quickly you can develop strong, flexible hamstrings.
Zack Finer has been a Strength and Conditioning coach since 2008. He was a founding member of Israel’s first CrossFit gym, and is a co-owner of moveSKILL.com. Recently Zack has shifted his focus to gymnastic strength training under the tutelage of Ido Portal in an effort to better understand human movement development.