In general, we have to reevaluate how we use stretching.
The traditional static stretch, where one isolates pulls on a muscle into an end range of motion and holds it there for a period of time, has its place, but it’s usually in last place. It’s not that stretching is bad, rather traditional stretching is rarely the best choice.
Why? Several studies have shown that traditional static stretching does not improve flexibility. Tight Hamstrings? There is a good chance that your abdominals, glutes, and adductors aren’t doing their job of stabilizing your core.
When you go to bend over and touch your toes, the tiny sensory organs in our muscles give warning signals to our central nervous system saying, “These muscles aren’t doing their job!
If we keep bending, things are going to get damaged.
Somebody stop this from happening!” Enter the hamstrings. They get tight because they have to do the work of all the other muscles that aren’t showing up to work today! They are trying to keep us from hurting ourselves. So if you are stretching without strengthening and waking up the surrounding musculature, you’re forcing a potential injury.
“So don’t stretch? Ever?”
No. You absolutely should stretch but when you do, you should make sure your core is engaged, and that you are contracting the antagonistic muscles (the opposite muscles of the muscle you are stretching). This will help reinforce stability which will allow those tiny receptors to relax and allow for more motion.
Another great mobilization is banded distractions. A banded distraction uses a thick resistance band to help activate the antagonist muscle (the opposite muscle that is not doing its job in the postural tug of war) and it also inhibits the overactive muscle that is pulling to much.
In addition to this, it can help to reposition the a bone in a joint socket that may not be fitting movements (such as a lunge during the banded hip stretch.) The banded hip stretch and the banded shoulder capsule stretch from Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett are terrific options.
You must always strive to provide stability to a stretch, otherwise the stretch is not nearly as effective. One of the best ways to improve stability is to challenge unstable muscles at a low intensity (below 50% of your 1 rep max) over anywhere from 2-3 minutes. Tempo should be slow, with static holds at the most challenging position will help facilitate correct muscle activation, which leads to stability. Something as simple as a glute bridge, for example, to help re-activate sleepy hip muscles and give over-worked hamstrings a break.
For someone with weak and tight hamstrings and a glute muscles that won’t turn on, try the dowel rod deadlift. The client is instructed to engage the core muscles and squeeze their glutes. Using the dowel rod to make sure their spine maintains proper position, they are instructed to go lower to the lowest position they can handle while maintaining perfect form.
The client is then instructed to hold position for 4-10 seconds. This does two things: one, it provides a stretch to the hamstrings while also putting them into a functional position, and two, keeping the glutes and the abdominals activated. It also allows the body to become more mobile because the body knows now it is supported and secure. Ta-da! You’ve just stabilized your body and increased mobility at the same time.
In conclusion, we need to balance stability with mobility.
Focus on making your posture both static and dynamic. If it’s not, try to determine what is impeding your posture. If you free up tight muscles, make sure you have a game plan to engage the other muscles needed to stabilize. Know that your stability and mobility needs are going to fluctuate depending upon the demands you place on your body. This is a constantly evolving game you will play with your body, so make sure you take inventory with your workouts.