Despite popular culture’s obsession with flexibility, stretching may in fact be hindering your progress in the gym.
To be clear, this has less to do with physiology and more to do with priority.
When starting out, I often ask new clients to complete a simple exercise to determine priorities. Pretty simple, really: itemize your top three goals and assign a percentage to each one. To be successful, exercisers should pay particular attention to the goal that occupies the biggest piece of the pie. Nine times out of 10, flexibility gets bumped by fat loss, shaping and strength.
It’s not that I dislike stretching. I do it myself. The problem is, many exercisers default to stretching whenever the going gets tough. On the ‘I don’t want to do this’ scale, stretching anchors one end (‘willing to do’) while hard work stoically sits at the other (‘no thanks’). The appeal of prone comfort beats chin-ups every time.
Stretching has morphed into a sacred cow. Question it in public forums at your own risk. Believe me, I know. When I’ve raised this topic at speaking engagements it’s been met with horrified gasps and hushed whispers — “heretic!”
I get it, flexibility is important. However, while obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes and sarcopenia (muscle wasting) can end your life, touching your toes, relatively speaking, falls under the ‘nice to have’ category.
Again, don’t get me wrong, many of our clients stretch. However, if I only see you a few times a week you can bet we’re going to focus on your top priorities, and stretching doesn’t help you drop pounds, tighten muscle or build strength.
So, when designing your priority profile keep these stretching guidelines in mind to help you stay the course.
1) Warming up and stretching aren’t the same thing. Never stretch a cold muscle, as it can result in injury and hinder progress.
2) Stretching should complement your workout, not overtake it (unless, of course, your goal is flexibility). Assign the appropriate time frame as per your priority profile.
3) Proper weight training challenges muscle through a full range of motion. For exercisers with a plethora of health problems, this adequately addresses flexibility — at least initially.
4) Proper stretching is as complicated as proper weight training — often more so. If you can’t remember how to perform eight weight training exercises, good luck remembering a series of stretches. While they have their limitations, resistance machines (the ones with seats and pins) keep things relatively simple.
5) Poor posture and imbalance require you to stretch tight, offending muscles and strengthen their weak counterparts. For example, proper stretches open an inflexible chest while mid-back exercises strengthen a weak back. Release one side and tighten the other.
6) I repeat, stretching doesn’t strengthen muscle or drop pounds but it does offer comfort to beginners and gym-phobics. If you’re hiding in the stretching area or attending the beginner yoga class — because the weight room is a dark, foreboding place — I get it.
7) Early morning exercisers, seniors, rehab patients and more advanced exercisers may require longer warmups and more advanced stretching than the average rank and file who are simply looking to grab a quick workout.
8) Stretching can offer solitude and reflection. Don’t undervalue the importance of quiet, mindful contemplation.
When designing your exercise program make sure you’re spending the most time and energy on priorities. Value stretching for what it is. In the end, what demands attention gets results.