Why You Should be Actively Stretching for a Better Workout
By: John Jones
You know you’re supposed to stretch both before and after workouts, but you were running late for your appointment with your trainer or to meet your workout partner. You’ve gotta head out to an early meeting at work or don’t want to be late for dinner. Once again, stretching goes out the window. “I’ll foam roll while I’m watching The Masked Singer,” you tell yourself.
Don’t worry too much — you’re probably doing it wrong anyway.
To really understand proper stretching, we talked with fitness expert Will Torres of New York City’s Will Space, an elite movement studio.
“We are constantly researching fitness methods,” says Torres. “But we’re finding that no matter how fit our clients were, they were still getting injured from time to time. They’d tweak this or that and we’d send them to a physical therapist.”
Every year around the holidays, Torres would get a nice bag of oranges from the therapist for all those referrals. Torres developed his current training method and “now I don’t get oranges anymore.”
WHY YOU SHOULD BE STRETCHING
Torres found that people have injuries like golf or tennis elbow, but don’t even play those sports. Clients would resist stretching or rely on the same stretches they’ve been doing since high school, like grabbing one foot behind you to stretch the hamstrings or pushing an arm held at a right angle against a door frame. Neither are particularly effective.
“Stretching has all sorts of connotations for men … they usually think it has to be about yoga. We actually don’t recommend yoga. It doesn’t provide active flexibility. For guys especially, you’re also at the mercy of an instructor who, more often than not, is focused on women and women’s bodies,” says Torres. “We encourage a direct, focused strategy to open up muscles, emphasizing active flexibility. Every strength movement should be complemented with a counter stretch. Stretching should also be done between sets to allow more blood flow, not left for the end. What’s most important is that stretching strengthens connective tissue, cutting down on the strain and tear of tendons. It’s about education; informing and inspiring movement. There are benefits to a properly executed handstand that you’ll never get from an overhead barbell press where you don’t straighten your arms.”
Torres points out that many of us put in time at the gym — growing bigger, getting more fit — but, in the end, we have no flexibility. How do we achieve that?
“We encourage a direct, focused strategy to open up muscles, emphasizing active flexibility. Every strength movement should be complemented with a counter stretch.”
“First, we take the weight away. Master your body first, then build as we open the body up. Cut out some of the repetitive and insert the relevant,” says Torres.
This method requires more time and patience to start. Torres suggests adding three to five repetitions of each counter-stretch to your routine. Then each stretch must be held for 90 to 120 seconds to make an impact. “The pain you’ll start to feel about 30 seconds into a stretch triggers our fight or flight instincts. The job here is to wait. Once you’ve gotten used to the stretch, then we may add weight or assist you with pushing further after you’ve gotten used to it,” he explains. Torres compares it to football players who take ballet or Pilates classes to add flexibility.
With perseverance, these stretches will make muscles longer, more mobile, and perform better.
One of Torres’s coaches, Jorge Reyes, was a bodybuilder before joining the Will Space team. “I was in great shape, but my chest was so tight it pulled my shoulders forward so I was curled up,” says Reyes. “I knew all these other guys who were jacked, but couldn’t even bend over to pick up a pencil.”
The most commonly targeted areas for men are their shoulders, biceps, hips, hamstrings, and thighs, according to Torres. He recommends some specific stretches (see below) to work into your routine. To really go deeper into the program, however, you will need to get some one-on-one time in with a coach. Torres will also experiment with an open class forum later this summer and launch a new studio in July. The site GymFit TV by Gymnastic Bodies offers guidance in bodyweight training, carrying an endorsement from “Four Hour” success guru Tim Ferriss.
Before we get into the stretches, a personal note from the author: I had the opportunity to try a couple of introductory workouts to Torres’s method, and it was a lot more challenging than I expected. I’m in pretty decent shape for my age and found that, although my strength certainly helped, I was absolutely working up a sweat before long from a workout that was supposed to be “just stretching.” It was also pretty humbling to attempt some of the stretches in a mirror and — although I’ve never claimed to be much of a dancer — realize how much more graceful a body can look once muscles are being pulled in the right direction. If I have any one piece of advice for anybody considering this, remember to actively engage muscles while stretching. Honestly, I’d also recommend working with a certified trainer on any of these to start, too. Watching videos is one thing, but a trainer can keep an eye out for problem areas you may not recognize…