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Stretching Through Plateaus


by Josh Hodnik

You spend time preparing all of your meals, while others will decide to eat fast food. You are at the gym pushing through pain, while some people are hitting their snooze button. You have made sure your hormones are in prime range for muscle growth and you have done your homework on your supplements. Everything should be in line, but you seem to be stuck. There may be something missing, but hold on before you go trying to reinvent your whole training program.

When you think of gaining muscle and strength, stretching is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Some bodybuilders may think spending time stretching and staying flexible is often looked at as a waste of time, but there are a number of health benefits from stretching. The biggest benefit is incorporating stretching to increase strength, pumps, vascularity, and muscle separation.

Surrounding every muscle in the body is a fibrous tissue containing very tightly packed bundles of collagen. This is known as fascia. It is very similar in structure to other connective tissue such as tendons and ligaments. Fascia is important for holding muscles in the proper place, but when it is too tight, muscle growth can be limited. A great example of this is the calf muscle. The lower leg has tremendous weight bearing duties in the body, so it is heavily lined with fascia. This is the reason the calf muscle is a lagging body part for so many. The way to prevent fascia from limiting muscle growth is by stretching it.

A study published in the “Journal of Applied Physiology” in 1993 revealed that stretching does enhance muscle growth. In the study performed at the University of Texas, 26 adult quails had their wings stretched over the course of 38 days with weights ranging from 10 to 35 percent of their body weight. After the experiment, the birds were dissected, revealing as much as 318 percent increase in muscle mass after 28 days compared to a non-stretched wing.

Stretching during a workout has shown to decrease workload capacity, so this obviously needs to be avoided when attempting to get bigger and stronger. Stretching before a workout, when muscles are cold can result in injury such as muscle strains and tears. These two problems have caused many people to ditch stretching altogether when weight training.

To be effective for muscle growth, fascial stretching must be done a certain way. After all, fascia is fibrous collagen and not muscle, so stretching cannot be approached in the traditional way that muscles are stretched to be effective in loosening up. Basic isometric or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching doesn’t apply enough tension to stretch beyond the muscle and to the fascia. A more aggressive approach is required to really stretch the muscle fascia, and this would be in the form of static stretching. Static stretching is a stretch and hold where there is no motion placed on the muscle being stretched. This type of stretching is performed after a body part is trained when it is full of blood and warm. Stretching at this time is the most effective because there is simply more tension on the fascia when the muscle is pumped and full of blood. Fascia can be compared to a balloon, when it is stretched after a workout on a regular basis, it will become less constricting.

Static stretching that is performed to stretch the fascia, usually involves a weighted stretch, which can be very taxing and quite painful. Below are static stretches that will stretch the fascia so more muscle growth can occur.

Calves: As discussed previously, the fascia surrounding the calves seem to be tougher and much more resistant to stretching that other body parts. Because of this, calves will be the only body part that is stretched during a training process. At the bottom of the negative portion of the last rep of each set, hold for 15 seconds.

Chest: While lying on a flat incline or bench, take two dumbbells into the negative position of a dumbbell flye. Hold the stretch for 60 seconds, while eventually working up to 180 seconds.

Triceps: Stretching the triceps is done by sitting at the bottom of the negative portion of a seated overhead triceps extension with a dumbbell. Hold for 60 seconds, while working up to 180 seconds.

Back: The backstretch requires just a pull-up bar. Grab onto the pull-up bar and hang. Focus on relaxing the lats while performing this stretch. The goal for this stretch is 60 seconds, eventually working up to 180 seconds. The forearms will usually fatigue before 60 seconds is up since the back was just trained. In this case, it is OK to use straps. The ultimate goal is stretching the lats and not grip work.

Shoulders: Put a barbell in a squat rack at shoulder height. While facing away from it, reach back and grab a hold of the barbells with palms facing up. Walk yourself outward until the stretch gets painful, and roll your shoulders downward and hold for 60 seconds. The goal is to eventually hold this stretch for 180 seconds.

Biceps: As with the shoulders, this stretch will be performed with a barbell in a squat rack at shoulder height, but palms facing up. Sink down until the stretch in the biceps becomes uncomfortable and hold for 60 seconds, eventually working up to 180 seconds.

Quads: Face a barbell in a squat rack about hip height. Grab a hold of the bar and sink down while positioning your knees under the barbell. You will go up on your toes while mimicking a sissy squat. Straighten your arms and lean back as far as you can for 60 seconds, eventually working up to 180 seconds.

Hamstrings: Place one leg at a time on a barbell in a squat rack. The position of the bar should be just high enough to where you can still straighten your leg out all the way. Grab your toes and lean forward for 60 seconds, eventually working up to 180 seconds.

It takes dedication to perform this type of stretching after an already taxing and painful training session, but those who follow through with it, will definitely break past plateaus. Visible changes in muscle fullness, vascularity and muscle separation often occurs when this type of stretching is added to an already disciplined program.

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