By Jeremey DuVall, M.S., CPT Men's Fitness
The word "stretching" typically brings to mind guys decked out in sweatpants and high socks with their foot up high reaching for their toes. Turns out that isn't the only way to improve flexibility. Your routine in the gym can have a drastic affect on your ability to touch your toes. The exercises in your workout combined with nutrition, hydration, and lifestyle choices can all have an impact on your flexibility.
Improving your bending ability is crucial for more than just preventing injury. In fact, flexibility training is an important aspect of gaining strength and size. The typical lifter spends most of their day outside of the gym hunched forward over a computer further deteriorating any chance at proper posture. Outside of just preventing injury, having better posture helps to show off the muscular physique you worked so hard to build. Proper flexibility also goes hand in hand with full range of motion exercises like squats and deadlifts, which are major muscle builders. Having tight hips and shoulders is a limiting factor for proper form on these exercises and can limit your program.
The Rules of Improving Flexibility
Rather than taking a haphazard approach to improving your flexibility, follow the rules set below to gain new ranges of motion and prevent poor posture.
NUMBER 1: Dynamic warm-up prior to working out
The days of long holds on stretches before exercise is largely over. Research continually demonstrates that static stretching isn't as beneficial prior to working out as dynamic stretching. Before starting your lifting or cardio session, go through some bodyweight movements like squats, lunges, push-ups, side lunges, and jumping jacks. Perform three sets of each movement for 20-30 reps to warm up your entire body. This type of warm-up should leave you in a light sweat ready to tackle your workout.
NUMBER 2: Follow a workout with light static stretching
Dying to hold some stretching positions? Throw some traditional static holds in post-exercise. These longer-duration stretches help to lengthen muscles that were tightened up during the lifting session. Along with any muscles hit hard during the workout, also focus on the chest, lats, and hip flexors, as they tend to be tight on most individuals due to daily posture.
NUMBER 3: Prioritize full range of motion
Although partial ranges of motion can be used in workouts to build insane amounts of strength, make an effort to perform each exercise through a full range of motion to reap major flexibility benefits. Going to full-depth on squats, for example, helps to build hip flexibility. Work at full ranges of motion with lighter weights when learning new moves before loading up a bar and dropping into a heavy working set.
NUMBER 4: Incorporate massage
Stretching and training with full range of motion can work wonders with improving flexibility, but massage adds an extra benefit of helping to break up knots in muscles and tissues that restrict movement. Foam rolling pre-workout can help to prepare the body for movement whereas a post-workout roll out can flush away waste products from exercise and help you recover quicker for your next session. Focus on hitting the main muscles like the calves, quads, IT bands, upper back, and lats. If possible, work with a skilled massage therapist a few times a month to compliment your flexibility routine and get some extra relief.
NUMBER 5: Take time to relax
Stress causes your body to tighten up into one huge ball of knots. Combine the normal stress from work and family with a bunch of hard sessions in the gym a week, and you're looking at a recipe for disaster. Find a few times a week to engage in a relaxing activity to help you unwind. Walking, light yoga, and massage are all great examples, but it could be as simple as heading out on a short walk to unwind from your day. Taking time to de-stress will help to relax your body and prevent muscles from tensing up and restricting movement.
NUMBER 6: Learn to breathe properly
The typical lifter uses their rib cage far too much to breath, which doesn't engage the diaphragm optimally. Instead focus on belly breaths where the belly button moves in and out with each breath. Spend five minutes a day working on improving breathing for a more relaxed and stress-free posture.
NUMBER 7: Stay hydrated
Water forms a large part of our muscle composition. In order for our muscles to respond to flexibility training, they have to be working optimally. That includes proper hydration. Many individuals are walking around in a constantly dehydrated state. Focus on consuming more water, especially during and after hard exercise sessions to keep your muscles working optimally and steer clear of performance declines due to dehydration.
Different Stretches for Different Folks
The traditional method that comes to mind when thinking about stretching is referred to as static stretching - where a lifter bends forward and holds a hamstring stretch for 20-30 seconds. In fact, there are several stretching methods that each has their own unique benefit.
Static stretching consists of the lifter holding a joint in a stretched position for a designated length of time (usually 20-30 seconds) allowing the muscle to slowly adapt to the new range of motion. This is a passive stretch in that the muscle is relaxed throughout the entire exercise.
Dynamic stretching consists of moving the body through an increased range of motion using bodyweight movements like squats and lunges. By moving the body in multiple planes of motion, dynamic stretching helps prepare your body for a hard training session. Dynamic stretching is considered an active stretch since the muscle is contracting and relaxing.
Ballistic stretching involves forcibly moving your body into a greater stretch usually by performing quick, powerful movements. A prime example would be bobbing up and down in an attempt to touch your toes. In general, this type of stretching increases chance of injury and does little to actually improve flexibility. Rather, it can cause muscles to tighten up significantly.
There are various other advanced stretching techniques that combine elements of both passive stretching and active stretching, typically performed with the help of a therapist.