What should stretching feel like?
Most of you have never really stretched before. Sure, you have mobilized some. Pulling your leg behind you until you feel a strain on your quads, or kicking your leg up on a bench and leaning into it before a run. Real stretching is not part of a warm-up or cool-down though, real stretching is work. Sweaty, dizzying, (occasionally) nauseating work.
Let’s clarify one point before we get too far. When I talk about stretching, I am talking about actively working to increase your range of motion and your flexibility, with the intention of achieve long lasting and even permanent gains in range of motion. For most, athletes this is the biggest hole in their game (I say most because there are always outliers, those who have amazing flexibility without ever needing to work on it, if this is you this article still may hold some value and I encourage you to read on).
A quick note on my background:
As I have talked about a few times in the moveskill podcast, I was never what anyone would consider flexible. I might, after getting really warm in a long workout, be able to touch the ground with my knees locked straight. I have made great gains in the past several years though, because I was lucky enough to find a good coach with a great deal of knowledge and experience in helping adults achieve huge gains in their flexibility. More than the specific exercises, reps, sets, and holds, what I came away with was a deep understanding of the amount of work stretching can be.
Loaded Stretching, Weighted Stretching, PNF Stretching, Isometric Stretching
I am going to skip the particulars of these schools of stretching. If you want to geek out I recommend Thomas Kruz’s Stretching Scientificallyor Kit Laughlin’s work as good places to start. The one thing you will see across these schools of thought is the principal that lack of flexibility is inherently tied to lack of strength. You may be very strong in some positions, but very weak in others, your central nervous system knows this and limits your range of motion so you don’t do something stupid and hurt yourself.
Being weak makes you inflexible!
Need some proof? The next time you finish your warm-up try the following; Grab a chair and place it next to you with the seat facing
away. Put your leg up on the back of the chair with your toes pointing up and knee locked out. Congrats, you have done the “half side splits” and have proven that both your hips have the ability to do the full middle splits (this may not be the case for all you, some people have a deformity known as coxa vara, if you feel a sharp jabbing of bone on bone this may be you). You have also proven that all the muscles in your legs have the length for the middle splits. There is no muscle or ligament that runs from one inner thigh to the other, so why can’t do the splits? Because you are weak and your body knows it! Your central nervous system is preventing you from reaching a range of motion where you will injure yourself.
How should I stretch?
For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on stretching the hamstrings. This tends to be the most common problem area, especially for the functional fitness crowd. I am going to give three exercises programs below based on how bad, or good your hamstring flexibility is. So let us start with a quick test. Start by standing up nice and tall, shoulders back, with a neutral arch in your lower back and knees locked out. Begin to lean forward, piking at the hips making sure not to round your back or protract your shoulder-blades. How far can you reach without rounding your back?
I can hardly get to my knees
Start any stretching session with any warm up that gets your body temp up and your blood flowing. Then do the following:
• 2 rounds of Leg Swings, 10x Side to side, 10x Front and back
• 25ft of Waiter’s Bow without rounding your back (this isn’t the stretch yet, you are just warming up!)
Now for the hard work. You are going to perform 2 full rounds of Band Hamstring Stretch. Be sure to watch the full video. Each Round
will consist of:
- 10 Straight Leg Kicks- Kick high as possible with your knee straight and then drive your leg to the ground working against the tension of the band.
- 10 Second Straight Leg Hold- Again knee locked out, you are going to be pulling your leg towards your head while simultaneously driving our heel back towards the ground DON’T LET YOUR LEG WIN you intention here is to work against the stretch.
- 20 Heel Drives- This is where things get spicy, you are going to attempt to drive your heel up and overhead while pulling the band towards your body. Pull hard! The idea is to momentarily hit a stretch that would otherwise be unbearable. You should always be able to lock your knee, if you can’t – back off just a bit.
- 10 Second Bent Leg Hold- Pull your knee Into your chest with the bottom of your foot facing up or slightly overhead. Choke up on the band to increase the tension and pull in hard towards your chest. Simultaneously try to push the bottom of your foot up and overhead. You should feel a deep stretch in your high hamstring.
- 10 Straight Leg Kicks- Repeat exactly like the first round, notice how much ROM you have gained.
Perform this routine 3-5 times a week for up to 6 weeks. You will begin to see increased range of motion (ROM) within the first few days.
I can almost get to my feet
Start all stretching sessions with any warm up that gets your body temp up and your blood flowing. After you are warm, do the following:
• 2 rounds of Leg Swings 10x Side to side, 10x Front and back
• 1 round of Banded Hamstring Stretch on each leg (read above)
For this Stretch you will be performing the Single Leg Good Morning. This is a loaded stretch, using your own body-weigh, if you are unable to do the stretch with your knee locked out or spine totally neutral then go and perform the routine above.
Perform 3 Sets of 10 Single Leg Good mornings with a 10-15 Second hold on the last rep of each set. Rest 90 seconds between sets.
• Maintain a neutral spine at ALL TIMES
• Keep hips square to the ground, do not turn out to the side as you lower
• Keep your knee locked out
• You may use a wall to assist in balance, but do not push yourself up. This takes away from the contraction in your hamstring.
• Video yourself practicing this stretch the first few times, chances are something is off and seeing yourself will help solve issues that will stall progress.
You should perform this routine 3-5 times a week for up to 6 weeks. You will begin to see increased range of motion (ROM) within the first
I can touch the ground
Your hamstrings are in good shape, but there is always room for improvement! Start all stretching sessions with any warm up that gets your body temp up and your blood flowing. After you are warm, do the following:
• 2 rounds of Leg Swings 10x Side to side, 10x Front and back
• 1 Set of Single Leg Good Mornings 15 Reps with a 15 Second hold on the last rep. (Read the points of performance above)
You will be performing the Jefferson Curl. This Stretch will not only work on hamstring length but also the strength and mobility of your spine, as well as your ability to compress into a pike.
Complete 3 sets of 10 reps with a 15 second hold at the bottom of your last rep. Rest 90 seconds between sets. We recommend super-setting this with the Kneeling Hip Bridge.
- Use a 15-20kg bar. This is not something you need to start heavy with, however having some weight is important. A dumbbell or kettlebell can also be used.Keep knees locked out at all times.
- Don’t neglect your spine! From the top down think about rounding your back one vertebra at a time, delaying hip hinge as long as possible.
- As you fold forward let the weight hang free and pull you down. Never let the weight rest on your feet or the ground (if it hits the ground find something stable to stand on)
- At the bottom REACH not only with your arms, but your back as well feeling your body compress against your legs.
- Return to the top slowly by contracting your hamstrings first THEN allowing your back to realign vertically one vertebra at a time.
Finish with 1 Round of Band Hamstring Stretch on each leg
Perform this routine 3-5 times a week for up to 6 weeks. You will begin to see increased range of motion (ROM) within the first
few days. You may slowly add some weight as you continue, 2-3 kg at a time never going heavier than 30kg.
The best advice I can give is to start a routine and stick with it. You will be amazed at how quickly you can develop strong, flexible hamstrings.
moveSKILL | What should stretching feel like? Hacking Your Tight Hamstrings.