3 Stretches That Make Things Worse

by Dr. John Rusin

And Some Much Better Alternatives

Everyone does these three stretches... and just about everyone is screwing them up. Are you?

Stretching Gone Wrong

Stretching: It's a ritualistic torture session for many lifters. But does it even help? Not when it's butchered. Screwing these three stretches up will screw up your orthopedic health. Here are the most common problems and how to fix them.

1. The Standing Hamstring Stretch

Nothing is more predictable than the sloppy bent-over standing hamstring stretch. People kick their foot up onto an elevated surface and round their spine to reach over and grab their toe, thinking they're doing something healthy. In reality, they're predisposing themselves to several orthopedic problems, mainly lower back flare-ups or even injury.

People are drawn to the standing hamstring stretch because of the "feel-good" effect triggered by the muscle stretch response. There's nothing wrong with feeling good during a stretch, but when your positions jeopardize spinal and distal joint integrity you're stretching your way toward injury.

The average person perceives a sensation of "tight" hamstrings due to the oldest orthopedic test in the books – the toe touch. The thought is that if you can't touch your toes, your hamstrings must be tight. Sounds reasonable, right? Not quite.

Why It Sucks

The ability to touch your toes depends on the functional length of the hamstring complex and a host of other factors. Here are two:

  1. The ability to control and stabilize pelvic position into anterior and posterior tilting.
  2. The active and controllable range of motion at the segments of the spine that'll allow you to achieve a forward flexed curvature that doesn't look like you're going to break your midsection in half.

If you suck at the toe touch, and have focused on your standing hamstring stretching every day for months with no results, then drop it. Be smarter about the methods you're using. Don't worry, you can still get your stretch on, but change your methods.

Do This Instead: 90-90 Active Hamstring Stretch

Use the supine 90-90 active hamstring stretch. You'll have the ability to stabilize the spine and pelvis in a neutral position against the floor. This will let you engage the hams and quads so you can take the neural parking brake off your body's functional range of motion by facilitating motor control enhancement.

2. The Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Chronic sitting will turn the front side of your body into a functionally shortened mess – never a good thing when it comes to performance or injury prevention. The region that suffers the most? Hip flexors, both the superficial and deep muscular layers.

Most people know they sit too much during the day, and they know their hips are tight as a result. So they think if something has become "short" over time, the most effective way to increase length is to stretch it, right? Nope, sorry.

Why It Sucks

Functional trainers love the half-kneeling position. It fits nicely into their system of developmental sequencing and it forces people to get primitive on the floor which, admittedly, most people need.

But you know what's not good? Forcing the hip into ultra-terminal extension with your shin lodged up against a wall while your spine is smashing itself into hyperextension. Not only does this position hurt like a son of a bitch (which most people perceive as a good thing), but it's ineffective at best and injurious at worst.

While putting tissues through a full range of motion and achieving terminal end range is the goal for transferable mobility, extending terminal ranges of motion by the use of spinal, joint, and ligamentous compensation patterns is dangerous when you do it repetitively.

Do This Instead: Rear Foot Elevated Hip Flexor Stretch

When you stretch you should achieve and maintain a neutral position in the joints and spine in order to isolate the tissues you're targeting. The half-kneeling position should make you achieve centrated and neutralized joint positions at the shoulders, hips, and spine.

It should also transfer these positions into useful strategies to improve the response of your rectus femoris and deep ilio-psoas group, not only a mechanical standpoint but also to "release" neurological based tone and tightness.

3. The Manual Pec Stretch

If you've never had your training partner grab your arms and drive them upward behind your body in a painful but strangely intimate way, you can't consider yourself a meathead. It's the pec stretch you'll see most on bench day.

When it comes to the bench press, people will do damn near anything to add iron to the bar while trying to keep their shoulders healthy, but this manual stretch takes the cake for being the most butchered. If you're doing this to improve your shoulder mobility, or to rid your wings of that gnarly front-sided shoulder pain, you may be setting yourself up for injury.

This stretch is potentially injurious for many reasons. First, a manual stretch like this needs to be executed with the utmost caution due to its passive nature and the direction of stress. Many times, it's not. Someone else – who's not a professional in manual stretching – is doing it to you.

Doctorate level rehab pros are trained in biomechanics and arthrokinematics. You can trust them to properly target and stretch muscles without overstressing the non-contractile structures of such a mobile joint. The feel and skill of getting a positive response from a manual stretch in such a vulnerable joint takes experience and an understanding of the risks. It isn't something that's developed overnight.

And it doesn't just stop with your bros. Misinformed trainers and coaches shouldn't be going to town on manual stretching either. Skill acquisition of passive-based stretching weeds out 99% of the fitness industry. Don't trust the guy with a basic personal training certification to force your joints into risky positions.

Why It Sucks

The shoulders are forced into a position that poses huge potential problems. If the goal is to stretch the pecs, it's important that you take into account both the primary and secondary actions of the pec so you can achieve an authentic stretch to terminal end range without pissing off the periphery.

When doing it, your pecs can be taken to full stretch with a combination of shoulder horizontal abduction, elevation, and external rotation. The partner-forced pec stretch absolutely targets horizontal abduction, no argument there. The problem arises when the shoulders fall into internal rotation and extension. This creates some pretty nasty joint stress through the front side of the shoulder.

In this position, the muscular fibers of the pec lose the ability to be targeted directly with end range stretch, and the anterior structures of the shoulders – mainly the capsule – will get the head of the humerus jammed into it. This position is great if your goal is to irritate weak spots and elicit pain.

Finally, this partner-forced pec stretch begs the question: should you even be stretching your shoulder if it's in pain? While lifters love the idea of stretching yourself back to pain-free training, that's usually not how it works. That's not how any of this works.

Do This Instead: Dynamic Oscillatory Pec Stretch

The risk-benefit ratio for end-range passive stretching of the shoulder doesn't usually add up, so that's why I depend on dynamic oscillatory stretching for the pecs. These are meant to be done with a specific setup, perfect execution, and caution.

Please, tell your training buddy to stay the hell away from you the next time he wants to stretch your pecs.