Start Stretching To Build Muscle & Unlock Mobility Simultaneously
If you’ve been left frustrated after trying to “fix” your mobility by slaving over the foam roller and religiously stretching each day, here’s the reality. If soft tissue work and stretching didn’t work the first hundred times you’ve tried it, it’s not going to work the 101st. It’s time to stop thinking the same old ritualistic methods that has never worked for you in the past are somehow going to magically make a difference tomorrow. They’re not, and you need to move on to more effective methods to break through these types of movement plateaus and save your sanity.
But before you give up on “stretching” to develop better mobility and function, there’s a technique that has the ability to unlock your mobility potential while simultaneously developing muscle and strength in the process.
It’s called loaded stretching, and it’s one of the single most effective “mobility” tools that I’ve used with my athletes and clients to finally make notable progress towards improving mobility by unlocking the neural tension that is likely the cause of dysfunction through the system.
If improving your mobility isn’t enough, did I mention that loading stretching also has the ability to pack on muscle mass in a way that is both safe to the joints and effective for increasing relative intensities of sets without ever adding another sloppy rep into the mix. Before we deep dive into using loaded stretching for four of the most chronically “tight” areas of the body, lets review how we will be executing these stretches for perfect pain-free gains.
How To Execute & Program Loaded Stretching
Implementing loaded stretching into your strength and conditioning programming doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be strategic. After a set of any movement when clean reps can no longer be completed, a loaded stretch can be tacked on to the tail end of the set by maintaining the loaded stretched position.
Lets use the example of a dumbbell bench press. If you press for 10 reps, and can no longer complete another, you’ll slowly lower the dumbbells down into a stretched position at the pecs while maintaining full stability and tension through the chest. Simply hold this position for as long as you can without losing stability or hanging out passively on the ligaments of joint capsules.
Let me say this again, when executing a loaded stretch, it is absolutely imperative to maintain proper tension, alignment and stability at the joint or region you are stretching along with the core and pillar (consisting of the hips, shoulders and core working synergistically together).
Loaded stretching is considered an intensity technique, not in the sense of a percentage of a 1RM, but rather an “effort” type intensity and relative “hardness” of a set. Depending on the load used in a movement, you should be able to hold strong out of a stretched position for a specific duration of time. Of course, the heavier you go and fewer reps you can complete with a given load, the more challenging the loaded stretch will become just based on simply physics.
But taking loading out of the equation for a second, here are some relative goals to shoot for in your duration of loaded stretching:
Poor : 10-15 seconds
Average: 15-45 seconds
Good : 45-75 seconds
Great: 75+ seconds
Since loaded stretching will take every ounce of mental and physical effort to maintain proper position and alignment of a movement isometrically, we use this intensity technique sparingly, and only for one last challenge set on a movement, not all working sets of an exercise.
As you’ll quickly realize, using 1-2 loaded stretches per training session will be challenging enough, so don’t go overboard on the stretches. We are training one big challenge set with high quality and maximal duration, not multiple half-assed efforts. Keep this in mind as you start using this technique.
While this technique can technically be used for just about any muscle or region, the best effects for mobility enhancement are found at the “posture dependent” muscles that are chronically shortened over time due to the seated position, handheld technologies and general sedentary living.
To start implementing loaded stretching into your routine right away, we’ll be focusing on more joint friendly loaded stretching variations for the chest, lats, hip flexors and calves that will test your limits, build muscle in these areas, while unlocking mobility potential. Check out my four favorite setups below:
Loaded Stretching For The Chest
One of the most effective stretch based movements for training the pecs and anterior delt through an accentuated range of motion is the dumbbell fly. This movement is also notorious for causing front sided shoulder pain, especially when form gets sloppy and loading is driven up with ego instead of intelligence.
These factors are the reason why our athletes use the Hybrid Fly Press which involves more of a bend at the elbows in the bottom stretched position of a movement which decreases the stress at the anterior gleno-humeral (true shoulder) joint, while also allowing authentic muscular stretching to happen, which is what we are targeting with this exercise.
After a prescribed number of reps with a strategic load, simply allow the dumbbells to move down into a chest stretched position and hold this position for as long as you can maintain proper shoulder stability. Also, note the change in hand position between the neutral grip during the fly and the more traditional pronated grip during the stretch. This will ensure that the pecs are lined up to be stretched more directly.
If you want to add a little more intensity to the stretch, simply have your training partner lightly press down on the dumbbells to “force” the stretch. Usually it only takes the weight of a partners hands to exponentiate the challenge of a stretch, so a little goes a long way.
And to make sure that you stay safe with this movement, I highly recommend using this Shoulder Specific Dynamic Warm Up before you jump into any loaded stretching for the chest.
Loaded Stretching For The Lats
The lats get a ton of work, especially in the active population that hammers deadlifts, rows and pull ups routinely in their programming. This training emphasis combined with the fact that the lats are internal rotators of the shoulders make this broad muscle one of the most common “tight” spots in the body.
Since I’m a big believer that vertical pulling volume and loading intensity needs to be closely monitored for the maintenance of shoulder health and function, throwing more reps into the equation on vertical pulling variations like the pull up and chin up isn’t usually the smartest choice, and can even end up in chronic injuries and dysfunction.
This is the reason why vertical pulling variations provide a hugely advantageous way to add a challenge to the pull while working to improve the mobility and dynamic stability in the overhead position.
Using either the traditional pronated pull up grip, the supinated chin up grip, or the palms facing one another neutral grip, we can implement a loaded stretch after the last rep of a set in the hang position.
Again, we want to ensure that we have proper shoulder stability, but also place an emphasis on full body tension in this position. The anterior core and hip flexors are huge stabilizing muscles during the vertical pull, so bringing them into play with an isolated hold at the core and hips during the loaded stretch is a must.
To achieve this strong and stable position, bring the legs out in front of the body in the “hollow body” position. This will help engage the abs and and hip flexors, providing stability through the entire body and helping the shoulders maintain proper positions.
Hold strong, and remember… grip hard!
Loaded Stretching For The Hip Flexors
The hip flexors are another group of muscles that are in dire need of some mobility enhancement, but really show limited results at best from stand alone traditional foam rolling and stretching. While using smart strategies like Bi-Phasic Hip Flexor Stretching and targeted trigger point work in your dynamic warm ups can be helpful, loaded stretching for the hip flexors out of the split stance position has allowed my athletes to not only display, but maintain sound hip extension and transfer it into movement.
Since everyone needs more single leg work in their programming to clean up weak links and provide a sensory rich environment for stability and coordination, the addition of loaded stretching into the mix on this movement pattern provides huge opportunity to unlock mobility, and do it in an expedited manner.
Because a vast majority of our single leg work is programmed in non-alternating fashion, we’ll be focusing on adding a loaded stretch to the lunge one side at a time. Simply complete the prescribed amount of reps in the reverse lunge, and on the last rep, maintain the lunge position with a static hold hovering your back knee above the ground.
Many athletes that try this split stance loaded stretch for the first time will instantly get the shakes in their legs and core. This is your central nervous system firing off and being challenged, which is a good thing. To ensure you maintain proper neutral alignment at the hips, knees, shoulders and core, try dropping the dumbbells used for the reverse lunge as soon as your loaded stretch starts. Over time, you’ll be able to extend out your holds while keeping dumbbells in your hands in the process.
And if you are wondering why I choose to program the Reverse Lunge instead of it’s more popular counterpart, the Forward Lunge, check out THIS article.
Loaded Stretching For The Calves
If you’ve had limited results from smart soft tissue and strength work at the calves, chances are you have that neural parking brake on your ankle mobility. Before you jump into loaded stretching, I highly recommend you clean up your lower leg maintenance work by reading THIS article that provides all the tools to regain ankle mobility and clean up nasty trigger points in the calves. But if you’ve covered all your bases with proper soft tissue work in these chronically tight areas of the lower leg, it’s time to implement some loaded stretching into your routine.
I often get asked how to improve ankle mobility before squatting or athletic activity. The answer is usually not one that many people want to hear… Do your direct calf training first in your workout, and implement loaded stretching into your last set.
The setup of the calf raise isn’t as important as your proper execution. Because the two heads of the gastrocnemius muscles are more chronically shortened from activities like standing, sitting and walking, we want to make sure we are targeting them directly in direct calf work, especially first in a lower body training day. We can isolate these muscles by ensuring that we have a straight knee angle into lockout.
The straight knee allows the gastrocs to be fully stretched, as these muscles are dual joint movers and can manipulate positions of the knee and ankle both. The deeper muscle, the soleus also attaches to the Achilles tendon, but does NOT cross the knee joint. This is the biggest differentiator when targeting the lower legs with stretching or soft tissue work.
Simply crank out some higher rep calf raises with a focus on peaking each contraction for a full second at the top of a rep, and controlling down with a full range of motion into a second hold at the bottom. After you can no longer complete another rep, control all he way down and stretch under the load for as long as you can tolerate!
For more on loaded stretching, check out THIS article from fellow coach and training expert Christian Thibaudeau.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Along with his impressive coaching accolades, Dr. John and his innovative methods have been regularly featured in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Shape Magazine, Testosterone Nation, and Bodybuilding.com to name a few.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in smart pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Programthat combines the very best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative physical therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.