To most guys, stretching is about the lamest thing you can do in a gym next to joining an aerobics class. Many guys either rush through it at the end of their workout or skip it entirely. Then there are those who quote studies that say stretching temporarily weakens muscles and should never be done before your workout or between sets (and usually, these guys don't like stretching, either). But what if we told you that one particular stretching technique used during your workout could not only improve your flexibility but actually make you stronger for your next set-and bigger, too?
Now that we have your attention, we want to introduce you to the phenomenon of loaded stretching. This is not your typical touch-your-toes-and-hold-it kind of stretching (called static stretching). Instead, we want you to use weights, and sometimes your own body weight, to achieve an extra-deep stretch, and then follow it up with a lift. The result will be looser muscles that can support more muscle growth, and a neural response that allows for heavier lifting. Stay with us, and you'll learn how to apply loaded stretching for fast results-you can start with the sample workouts that follow, and then use them in your own training down the road. We promise you'll see stretching in a whole new light, and you'll even be eager to do it in your next workout.
A Bigger Bag
The first purpose loaded stretching serves is to expand the sheath of connective tissue that lines your muscles, thereby making more room for them to grow. You see, a muscle is covered with a protective layer of tissue called fascia, and the tightness of this layer determines how much the muscle can expand. Picture a leather water bag that holds about one liter. Now try filling it with one and a half liters of water-you won't be able to unless you stretch the bag. The fascia "bag" over your muscles is not very elastic, and after a few years of making progress in your training, your muscles swell against it. At this point, your body's regulatory system kicks in, slowing growth tremendously in order to prevent any ruptures. Unless you stretch the fascia to accommodate more growth, your results will be disappointing no matter how hard you continue to train. Loaded stretching increases the elasticity of these fascia bags more effectively than static stretching alone, allowing for growth to occur at an optimal rate.
The second purpose of loaded stretching is to yield an immediate increase in strength. It's long been argued that static stretching may have a temporary negative impact on strength, since it sends a message to your brain to relax muscles, when, if you're lifting, you want them to be fired up to exert maximum force. However, stretching a muscle with an additional load between sets has the opposite effect. In fact, it supercharges your central nervous system to lift heavier. In the workout that follows, after you complete a set, you'll immediately perform a loaded stretch that forces your muscles to stretch further than they're used to (or further than you could get stretching statically). Usually, you can accomplish this by simply holding the bottom position of the exercise you've just been doing, or a similar one-such as holding the arms-out position of a fly after a set of dumbbell bench presses. But sometimes you'll get a sufficient stretch from your body weight alone-for example, holding the bottom half of a dip to stretch your shoulders after a set of shoulder presses. (This provides a deeper, fuller stretch than simply holding heavy dumbbells at shoulder level.) Basically, you end up tricking your brain into making your muscles work harder. Holding a heavy weight in that stretched position makes your central nervous system think it needs to recruit more muscle fibers for the effort. It retains this sensation during your next set, allowing you either to increase the weight by 5%-10% or to get a few more reps-and the load will actually feel lighter.
Joel Marion is a former Body-for-LIFE fitness competition grand champion, and the owner of joelmarion.net.