The Loaded Stretch - Stretching with a Purpose

By Chris Carlsen

The Loaded Stretch - Stretching With a Purpose

Dynamic stretching, known to many as mobility work,is very beneficial and aids in recovery by counterbalancing heavy weight training (thus settling the nervous system), providing nutrients to the muscles, draining toxins from the body and giving you clues to the proficiency of your lifting technique. The term “stretching” is commonly misunderstood and misused. It is often looked at as something that will relieve a tight muscle or offset one’s weightlifting. But repeatedly cranking and pulling on a chronically tight muscle or joint to loosen it is like scratching a scab; it may feel good but eventually it's going to bleed. The muscle is tight because it's picking up the slack for a weakness or deficiency elsewhere in the body. Even if you temporarily alleviate tight hip flexors or pectoralis muscles via stretching, these changes will never become permanent if your brain fails to adopt a correct firing pattern (e.g. think of someone whose quads and hip flexors are always tight because their glutes do not fire properly).  Once this pattern is practiced yet again during your next workout, tightness often returns (known as the stretch reflex).  Another misconception is that we should feel overly sore or tight after a lifting session and that we should stretch to counteract it.  But if you become extremely tight post-workout, your form was probably off.  Stretching is not a cure-all forpoor exercise technique, but when executed properly, it can compliment strength training in various ways.

Proper stretching also has implications for our posture. Slouching and other postural distortions are caused by muscular imbalances within the kinetic chain. Old injuries, technical flaws, emotional stress and daily poor movement habits (or lack thereof) become imprinted in our nervous system and contribute to chronic tightness and poor posture. However, just as we cannot offset tightness by stretching muscles, we also cannot mitigate poor posture by strengthening weak muscles. We must start to reeducate posture by becoming cognizant of tight muscles, feeling them relax and then finding a balance in tension between synergies (muscles that work together). To balance our bodies, we must know how to relax just as much as we know how to attack.  In an optimal resting state, good posture and form enable our nervous system to keep the muscles half flexed and half relaxed without losing energy, contributing to an optimal resting state.

How do I keep my students and I in an optimal resting state? After using somatics (link) to reeducate posture and to restore length, I connect the stretching pattern to a loaded pattern (strength exercise). As you know from my “Strength Before Power” article, we must strive to achieve muscles that are long and strong. We do this by treating our weight training as loaded stretches. If you look closely at dynamic stretches, you will see they are the unloaded (no weights) version of strength exercises. If we maintain the same form under load, we will achieve optimal resting length. Also, if we think of the stretches as our weight lifting counterpart, we will ingrain that motor pattern. That stretch now has a greater purpose and will more readily transfer over to the squat rack or bench.

Here are two examples of dynamic stretches and their progressions to loaded stretches. Note that activation exercises may be required to promote greater movement control.

Lateral Hamstring stretch progressed to the one-legged deadlift.

Pointers:

1. Pack the hip of the elevated leg into its socket. Lock and load it.

2. Do not rotate from the lumbar spine. Just gently push the hip of the elevated leg out and let your body go with it.

3. The bottom foot is neutral or internally rotated, and so is the top foot. External rotation of either hip is a sign of poor hip mobility. Watch Frank's feet.

4. Take your time setting up.Do not fixform during a set.

5. Feel the stretch as you turn into the leg. That is the loaded position; the string to your bow and arrow.

We then want to carry this feeling over to the one-legged deadlift. Notice how Frank's feet are straight, and that his back leg is slightly turned in. This keeps his pelvis in neutral position and his hips squared. Frank now can feel that loaded stretch, fire his gluteand execute the exercise properly and effectively. He will be searching for the same feeling created by the hamstring stretch, which will give him feedback regarding whether he correctly aligned in the one-legged deadlift. Carrying form from mobility work into the weight room leads to movement consistency.

Adductor rock-back progressed to lateral lunge.

Pointers:

1. As you rock back, keep a neutral and flat spine (no rounding of the lower back).

2. Breathe in and transfer your body weight onto your legs as you PUSH yourself back (rock back). Think of your legs as scissors cutting the floor.

3. Breathe out and transfer your weight up to your armpits as you PULL yourself forward, squeezing your glutes and keeping the core tight.

4. Practice the same pattern when lunging.

With this mindset and practice, my students and I always feel long and strong and do not feel the need to engage in traditional static stretching. 

Interested in learning more about loaded stretches and mobility work? Looking to host a workshop at your facility? Feel free to send our team an email at Info@IronLionPerformance.com, or leave a comment below.