Should you static stretch to improve flexibility?
The answer will depend on which expert you ask.
The debate about static stretching and the potential pros and cons is still hotly contested among coaches and rehab experts today. Some will swear by it, such as those who practice yoga. While there are others such as sport performance coaches who will avoid static stretching like the plague because of fear that it will reduce power output and potentially lead to injuries. I tend to take the middle of the road approach and feel there is a place for static stretching but like most things related to training it largely depends on the individual.
If stability is your issue then static stretching isn’t for you until you address that first. There are two types of individuals that should put heavy static stretching on the back burner, at least temporarily. One case is someone who has mobility restrictions. Dean Somerset talks about how stability can affect your flexibility in his article Stretching Doesn’t Work. He goes over why stretching a tight muscle doesn’t work and the relationship between stability and mobility. I can relate to this with my myriad of hip mobility issues. I would stretch my hips with countless figure four stretch variations, groin (adductor) stretches, hip flexor variations and hold them for 30 secs to as long as 5 minutes. While I definitely noticed more range of motion after, it was always short-lived never lasting more than a couple of hours. I would get into a cycle of stretching, feeling good and then feeling tight again.
I figured something was going on and it was related to other issues such as how I was moving and how my nervous system chose to “protect” my body by tightening up certain muscle tissues. And here’s the deal, no amount of static stretching will change this. Going back to Dean’s article the reason this is happening is because there is probably an underlying stability issue which is not allowing the CNS to release that muscle tension.
Think about someone who has an anterior tilted pelvis. Typically this is associated with tight hip flexors and the hamstrings may feel tight as well. Most people will stretch what feels “tight” so they add a few runner/lunge stretches and hamstring stretches but nothing changes. However, if you address the issue of the anterior tilt by strengthening the glutes, hamstrings and obliques which helps the client/athlete control lumbar extension, the hips will be in a more neutral position and that chronic tension/tightness in the hamstrings should lessen based on the change of the pelvic position.
There’s another group who should hold off on static stretching and they are the hyper mobile clients such dancers and yoga instructors. Many times these folks already have extreme ranges of motion as they keep pushing the end ranges of the muscle to “feel” a stretch. They need to control that excessive range of motion and have their stability “catch up” with their flexibility. Once they can resume static stretching. Essentially, it is about creating a balance between stability and mobility as the inability to control excessive flexibility is a recipe for an injury down the road.
How do you know if you need stability?
There are a few ways to address stability issues to help improve your mobility. The functional movement screen is great way to gather information on what the client needs and is something we use with our athletes. Tests like the overhead squat, hip lift variations and a plank hold with a dowel will give clues about someone’s stabilization patterns.
Postural Restoration Institute has tests to check hip positioning with more complicated issues such as anatomical restrictions like hip capsular stuff. They also assess breathing which can be associated with muscular tension especially in the neck and upper back. The assessments don’t have to be complicated but they can help with getting answers regarding how you move which will help to determine your programming needs.
Once you address any underlying causes of stability and hip positioning you will get much more out of your static stretching sessions. Basically, the more balanced you are with regards to stability and mobility around given joints, you can stretch to your heart’s content and see better progress with improvements in flexibility.
Make sure to add mobility sessions before workouts or on recovery days which are different from static stretches. While there is a correlation between passive flexibility and mobility, mobility will always be more important for athletes and individuals because it is demonstrated through movement.
Mike Robertson goes through a good warm up circuit here.
So, is static stretching for you? If you don’t have major stability needs and if you plan on hitting the splits or just feeling good, you need to add static stretching into your daily routine. However, if stability is lacking in the core or hips, you need to address that first before adding a ton of static stretching.
Leave your comments below and let me know what you think.