Time is money.
Money is scarce these days, everywhere but D.C. You want to be stronger, so you go to the gym. The best use of your time there is the simple progressive barbell training program we have discussed before, one that drives an upward strength adaptation with a programmed increase in load over a full range of motion using as much of your muscle mass as possible. This approach allows you to lift a gradually increasing amount of weight, thus making you stronger. Stronger means only one thing: you can apply more force with your muscles. The process of getting stronger improves the capacity of every aspect of your physical existence. So, getting stronger in the gym is the best reason to go there.
But it is incredibly easy to waste precious time once you’re inside.
Here are the top three ways:
Long regarded as the first thing you should always do inside the gym, stretching — for most people, and by “most” I mean you, probably — is not only unnecessary, it may be counterproductive.
What a way to start an essay, eh? The most fashionable aspect of modern fitness is the newly rechristened “mobility.” Same thing as “flexibility,” except that it sounds more Californian.
And here I go again, pooping on the most popular thing in the gym. It is a part of every trendy approach to fitness in existence, from CrossFit and “functional training” to Pilates and yoga. In fact, Pilates and yoga are mobility/flexibility/stretching, and that’s about all.
It has been assumed by almost everybody for the past 40 years that every workout should begin with the physical preparation known as “stretching.” Stretching is an attempt to increase the range of motion (ROM) around a joint, like the knee, hip, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or around a group of joints like the spinal column. The common method used is to force the joint into a position of tolerable discomfort and hold it there for a while, thus hopefully increasing the ROM.
More recent approaches to increased flexibility have used techniques that affect the muscles themselves, which actually control the ROM around the joints. Massage, Active Release Therapy, “foam rolling,” and other techniques applied to the muscle bellies themselves are actually much more effective for increasing a tight ROM than stretching. The Hip Bone’s Connected to the Thigh Bone, the Thigh Bone’s Connected to the Knee Bone, etc. So stretching is really all about the muscles, anyway. Every operating room professional knows the truth here: perfect “mobility” is obtained only under general anesthesia.
The assumption is always that your current ROM needs to be increased. Here are some Facts, cheerfully provided without citations, so that you can look them up if you want to:
1. Hypermobility is a medical condition – a Pathology, in fact – that often involves defects in the proteins that form the ligaments, the connective tissues that connect the bones to each other at the joints. The problem with being too flexible is that it results in unstable joints, which can assume positions they are not anatomically designed to occupy. A subsequently injured joint is not healthy: it is injured. This is not good. And here you are, trying to become hypermobile.
2. Tendons and ligaments do not “stretch out.” You cannot make them longer, and it would not improve their function if you could. Their function is to transmit force; in the case of tendons, which connect muscles to bones, the force of muscular contraction is transmitted to the bone it’s attached to, thus moving the bone. Tendons are indeed elastic, in that a sudden dynamic load causes a very small temporary change in length and a subsequent rebound, seen typically in the Achilles tendon complex. But during normal muscle contraction, if the tendon stretched excessively not all of the force would move the bone — some would be lost as the tendon changed length. Like a chain, a tendon pulls the bone with all the force of the contracting muscle because it does not stretch during the contraction.
Ligaments behave likewise. They anchor the joint as it moves, so that the bones which articulate at the joint change their relationship only with respect to their angle. This allows the joint to serve as a fulcrum in a system of levers. When ligaments move enough to allow the joint to change from its normal inter-articular arrangement, it is said to be “dislocated.” You’ve heard of that, right? When tendons and ligaments are stretched excessively, they rupture.
Most importantly, you cannot change the length of either a tendon or a ligament with stretching of any type, massage of any type, or therapy of any type. And why would you want to? Tendons and ligaments are force transmission components. They are very very tough, and they cannot be permanently lengthened by non-invasive means. The only connective tissues that you can affect with stretching are the fascias, the thin “silverskin” that covers the muscle bellies. If they become a problem, usually caused by tiny scars called “adhesions” that form between them and their underlying muscle or between adjacent fascias, they can be stretched with the previously-mentioned forms of therapy.
3. Since neither ligaments or tendons are designed to stretch, an increase in flexibility primarily involves the muscles that control the position of the skeletal components they operate. Sometimes, but not that often, the muscles behave in a way that requires you to teach them to lengthen more readily. And the best way to do this is with the aforementioned Full Range of Motion Barbell Exercise. Since full ROM is, by definition, all you need to do, anything beyond that is either a simple waste of time, or a counterproductive waste of time.
4. Stretching does nothing to a.) prevent soreness, b.) alleviate soreness, c.) or improve strength or any other measure of fitness. In fact, the vast majority of the studies done on stretching not only support this summary, but also indicate that stretching prior to either training or performance produces a significant decrease in power production. That’s right: tighter muscles can contract harder and faster, and even you can see the application for this in performance athletics.
The upshot is this: if you are already flexible (okay, “mobile”) enough to operate efficiently within the ROM of your required training and performance movements, you are flexible enough (your “mobility” is sufficient). And you don’t need to stretch. If you want to, go ahead and enjoy yourself, but you are not using your time wisely.