By Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S. Men's Health
Unless you need to build your tolerance for boredom, most stretching is a waste of time. After all, when you review the research, it's clear that the most widely held principles of flexibility training simply don't work. Which is why few guys ever stick with it and even regular practitioners struggle to touch their toes. Worse, follow those age-old rules closely, and studies show that you'll actually be more likely to suffer a pulled muscle than if you hadn't stretched at all.
That's why it's time we rewrite the book on stretching and provide you with a flexibility plan that's not only effective, but also simple, fast, and painless. Your first order of business is to forget everything your high-school gym coach, workout partner, or yoga-loving girlfriend ever told you about stretching. Then memorize the new rules that follow. The benefit? You'll reduce your risk of injuries, improve your overall athleticism, and have an easier time tying your shoes. (If you do get injured, you won't be sidelined for long if your follow the secrets doctors know in The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies.)
Before we get to the rules, it's important to understand the basic—but typically misunderstood—science of stretching. First, a couple of definitions. There are two major types of stretching: static and dynamic.
You're probably more familiar with the former. For instance, a static stretch for your hamstrings is what you think it is—a movement in which you lean forward until you feel a slight discomfort in the target muscle, then stretch the muscle by holding that position for a few seconds.
Although it's often prescribed as an injury-prevention measure, static stretching before a workout might be the worst of all strategies. Because it forces the target muscle to relax, it temporarily makes it weaker. As a result, a strength imbalance can occur between opposing muscle groups. For example, stretching your hamstrings causes them to become significantly weaker than your quadriceps. And that may make you more susceptible to muscle strains, pulls, and tears in the short term.
Static stretching also reduces bloodflow to your muscles and decreases the activity of your central nervous system—meaning it inhibits your brain's ability to communicate with your muscles, which limits your capacity to generate force. The bottom line: Never perform static stretching before you work out or play sports.
Now, before you abandon static stretching for good, realize that it does have value. That's because improving your "passive" flexibility through static stretches is beneficial in the nonathletic endeavors of everyday life—such as bending, kneeling, and squatting. All you have to know is the right stretch for the right time.
The Rules of Static Stretching
When: Any time of day, except before a workout
Why: To improve general flexibility
How: Apply these guidelines:
Stretch twice a day, every day. Any less frequently and you won't maintain your gains in flexibility—which is why most flexibility plans don't work. Twice a day may seem like a lot, but each "session" will require as little as 4 minutes of your time. Also, there's no need to "warm" your muscles before stretching; that's a myth. So you can stretch at work, while you're watching TV, or while you're grilling burgers.
Keep in mind that duration matters. You can increase passive flexibility with a static stretch that's held for as little as 5 seconds, but you get optimal gains by holding it between 15 and 30 seconds, the point of diminishing returns.
Finally, do just one stretch for each tight muscle. Because most of the improvements in flexibility are made on the first stretch, repeating the same movement provides little benefit.
What: Use these movements to stretch your entire body. Do as shown and, for all but number 2, switch sides and repeat the stretch with the opposite arm or leg.
Place your left hand on your head as shown and position your right arm behind your back. Gently pull your head toward your shoulder.
Position your body as shown, then push your arms into the Swiss ball and your chest toward the floor.
Position your body in front of a wall as shown and lean forward to stretch.
Position your body as shown and push your hips forward while keeping your torso upright.
Place your arm against a door frame or wall as shown, then move your shoulder forward.
Place your foot on a sturdy box or bench as shown, then lean forward from the hips until you feel a stretch.
A dynamic stretch is the opposite of a static stretch. In this version, you quickly move a muscle in and out of a stretched position. Example: A body-weight lunge is a dynamic stretch for your quadriceps and hips.
Here's why the difference matters: Improvements in flexibility are specific to your body position and speed of movement. So if you do only static stretching—as most guys are advised—you'll primarily boost your flexibility in that exact posture while moving at a slow speed. While certainly effective if you're a contortionist, it has limited carryover to the flexibility you need in sports and weight training, which require your muscles to stretch at fast speeds in various body positions. That's why dynamic stretching is a necessary component of any program: It improves your "active" flexibility, the kind you need in every type of athletic endeavor, like the one you would find in Martin Rooney's intense Warrior Cardio training program.
Dynamic stretching also excites your central nervous system, and increases bloodflow, and strength and power production. So it's the ideal warmup for any activity. And when you regularly perform both dynamic and static stretches, some of the flexibility improvements from one will transfer to the other.
The Rules of Dynamic Stretching
When: As a warmup before any type of workout or sport
Why: To improve performance and reduce injury risk
How: Perform five to eight body-weight exercises or calisthenics at a slow tempo and in a comfortable range of motion. Increase your range and speed with each repetition, until you're performing the movement quickly from start to finish. Do one set of 10 repetitions of each exercise, one after the other.
What: Try this sample routine of movements that are probably already familiar to you: jumping jacks, arm circles, trunk rotations, front lunges, side lunges, high knees, and body-weight squats.