If you look around any commercial gym, you’re likely to see a wide variety of activities taking place: strength training, aerobics, simulated bicycle riding, people doing god-knows-what on a vibrating stability platform, and of course, good ol’ stretching. Most gyms even have a designated stretch area. Though you sometimes see serious-minded folk in these rooms, the stretching area in many fitness facilities seems to be primarily for people who want to screw around, be seen at the gym and feel like they accomplished something productive.
For this reason (as well as others), a lot of serious strength training enthusiasts are quick to overlook or even decry flexibility training. Some even argue that static stretching will actually hinder your strength gains and athletic performance. Though I believe stretching is generally more helpful than harmful, there is some truth to these claims. Prolonged static stretching immediately prior to intense dynamic movement can be a recipe for injury. For example, performing ten minutes of static hamstring stretches right before a set of plyometric jump squats may relax your legs too much, temporarily reducing their ability to explosively contract. When you suddenly go into that jump, you may pull a muscle or land poorly.
This does not mean that all static stretching is a waste of time! Everything has its time and place. It’s usually a bad idea to eat right before swimming, but eating is generally pretty important – and so is stretching! In fact, it’s possible that a lack of mobility may be holding you back from reaching your strength potential. Without a full range of motion, fundamental exercises like squats, bridges and even push-ups can’t be fully utilized. Focusing on mobility may ultimately improve your strength in the long run.
Though primitive humans were unlikely to have participated in any sort of formal mobility routine (or formal exercise for that matter), people have mindfully practiced stretching for thousands of years. It’s been a part of various cultures and societies all over the world since the earliest human civilizations. Even animals stretch; since the dawn of movement, stretching has been a part of living.
While a few folks may naturally be tight, the cause of most peoples’ stiffness is simply years of neglect. Your body adapts to your actions (or inactions). If you move often, you will get good at moving, but if you’ve spent most of your life sitting in a chair, chances are your hips, hamstrings, shoulders and upper back have tightened up as a result. It takes a long time for this to happen, and it can take just as long to undo. Many of us could benefit from giving extra time and attention to improving our mobility, as well as making a point to avoid activities that can make matters worse.
Genetics also play an undeniable role in everything related to how our bodies look and move, including our flexibility potential. Some people are just naturally flexible and really don’t need to stretch much at all, but they are the outliers. If you’re one of these lucky few, don’t take it for granted. Mobility tends to be a “use it or lose it” sort of thing and while some folks are naturally more “bendy” than others, your genetics don’t give you an excuse to be inflexible. Though the spectrum of mobility is quite large, we all have the potential to achieve a full, healthy range of motion in all of our joints. There are certain minimum standards that one should aim to meet in order to possess the basic foundation of mobility that is required for healthy, functional movement patterns. Any healthy, able-bodied person should be perform the following:
1. Bend over and touch your toes with your knees locked.
2. Get into a deep squat position with both heels flat on the floor and your calves and hamstrings in contact with one another.
3. Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and lower back in contact with the ground. Reach your arms overhead with both wrists flat on the floor behind you with minimal flexion at the elbows.
4. From a standing position, pick up one leg and place the outside of your ankle on a bench, bar or other object that is just below waist height. Now rotate your hip to touch your knee to the object as well (your shin should be perpendicular to your body.)
5. Reach both arms behind your back – one from above, one from below – and touch the tips of your middle fingers together.
Nowadays, most adults are unlikely to pass all of these requirements, so don’t feel bad if you’ve failed at one or more of these tests. Instead, use these standards as a template to gauge which areas you need to work on. Once you identify your tight areas, you can work toward gradually improving your range of motion.