Stretching is a classic athletic tradition dating back thousands of generations. Or at least as long as there’s been such things as a high school gym class. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if our Paleolithic ancestors did some form of stretching before venturing out on their wooly mammoth hunts (but don’t quote me on that).
Alas, stretching is one of the most controversial and misunderstood subjects in the fitness industry. Experts often disagree on when to stretch, how to stretch, and if stretching is even necessary. Pick up a copy of Runner’s World and you’ll learn the “5 Best Stretches for Runners.” Later online you see a study that says stretching actually makes you weaker and more injury prone.
Madness! So what to believe?
Not to worry, I’ve got some experience in this realm, so I’ll try to clear up any confusion and give you my best suggestions. I’m a Certified Fascial Stretch Therapist (FST for short), which is a manual therapy that uses specific assisted stretching techniques for assessment, tissue release, and joint mobilization. I was trained by its creators, Ann and Chris Frederick. These two have been in the stretching game for over 20 years, and have been the go-to flexibility specialists for Charles Barkley, Larry Fitzgerald, Donovan McNabb, and many, many more. They literally wrote the book on stretching. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients and used FST to improve their lives, either by getting them out of pain, or helping them regain mobility. So I know firsthand flexibility training can benefit just about anybody. When done the right way.
First let’s some answer some basic questions.
What is stretching?
Seems like a simple question, right? You’ve probably been stretching for years and doing the same exact moves you learned in gym class. The truth is, there are a lot of different ways to stretch: static, dynamic, active, passive, active-isolated, assisted, and PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation). In my opinion, this is where much of the confusion lies.
We’re all familiar with static stretching because it’s the most heavily researched. You’ve probably seen a news article that says it’s a bad idea to stretch before exercise because it doesn’t actually benefit performance. To that, most experienced and educated coaches will say, “Well duh.” Static stretching hasn’t been used as a way to improve athletic performance in a very long time.
But that shouldn’t fool you into thinking that ALL stretching is a bad idea before training. Or that static stretching should never be done. In fact the right kind of stretching can immediately improve athletic performance and help keep some injuries at bay. Also static stretching absolutely has its place when used appropriately. The key is knowing what to do and when. I’ll get into that later.
Who needs to stretch?
Everyone. Of course I may be a little biased. Flexibility is a lot more than just stretching muscles. It’s about your joints and your body system as a whole. Every notice how you stretch over and over again, but everything always feels tight? Especially those pesky hammies.
Tight muscles alter the way you move, slowing you down and making you more cautious. In the case of the hamstrings, the real issue often lies with the hips. Weak, tight hips may result in cramped hamstrings, and even worse, muscle tears. Focus on stretching the hip flexor complex in the front and the glutes in the back to ease the stress and strain placed on the back of the leg.
Stretching & Aging
Flexibility becomes a major concern as we age. Inability to move with ease into new positions and a lack of joint motion range can cause pain and dysfunction as we get older. But losing flexibility as you age doesn’t have to be an inevitable thing. You can keep the joints healthy and happy at any age by keeping your body moving. I’ve seen 60 year olds with better flexibility than some 30 year olds. Why? Because those 60-year-olds stayed fit and active.
However, stretching isn’t the end-all be-all of movement. Some people have joint hypermobility, which means their joints go past a “normal” range of motion, causing instability. These individuals require more stability work to strengthen those muscles around the joints to make up for the laxity in the connective tissues. Get with a physical therapist or experienced trainer to find out if you’re hypermobile, and be sure to ask them for some specific exercises to improve your joint stability. You can also check here for an easy hypermobility assessment.
This is just the beginning. Next, I talk about HOW to stretch, WHEN to stretch, and even offer you a super cool secret tip to improve your flexibility.
Till then, stay active my friends.0