Most people know that stretching improves flexibility, but a lot of people don’t realize that it can also be an effective way to build muscle.
That’s not to say all forms of stretching will add significant slabs of muscle, but one method in particular stands out. Stretching under load, aka loaded stretching, works on a number of physiological processes that makes it a powerful tool not only for gaining muscle, but also gaining functional strength and mobility, as well as having its place in a rehabilitation setting.
Let’s take a look at how it works and how to implement it.
How it works
In order for these stretches to be effective the muscle must be in a stretched position and contracting hard under tension. When a muscle is stretched or when it’s contracting hard, blood flow to that muscle is restricted.
This effect is increased when it’s both stretched and contracting hard. This not only stimulates the body to produce anabolic hormones but also pumps more blood to the stretched muscle when the stretch is released.
This helps the muscle receive more nutrients that are carried in the blood. The stretched contraction also helps to recruit larger muscle fibers relatively quickly compared to other contractions.
To top it off, this type of contraction is possibly the most effective in stimulating protein synthesis which is how muscle is built.
Aside from being a powerful stimulus for hypertrophy, loaded stretching is arguably the fastest way to build active flexibility. It’s also a widely used tool for injury prevention and rehabilitation.
Lowering under control into a stretch, and then holding it for time while under high levels of tension will train the nervous system to recognize the position as one that you have control over.
Most limitations in flexibility are due to signals from the nervous system that going further into a stretch may cause potential harm. Since there is a lack of active control in that range, the nervous system deems it as unsafe.
When the nervous system recognizes the ability to exert strength in the stretched position it allows for accessibility to a greater range. It also has its place in physical therapy settings where eccentric loaded stretching is used to build resilience in the tendons due to a decrease in tendon stiffness.
Applying Loaded Stretching to Workouts
There are a few ways where loaded stretching can be applied to workouts. The first way is to load an actual stretch.
This is done by eccentrically lowering into the stretch under control and then holding it for time. Typically you want the entire set to last under a minute while at maximum effort for fastest results.
If you are able to hold for longer than a minute than you may need to go deeper into the stretch or increase load. The second method is to hold a stretched position of an exercise you are already doing.
You can do this either at the end of the set, or trying to go into a stretched position during every repetition. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Take 15 seconds to walk or slide your feet out into the deepest part of a split that you can actively hold. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Hold onto something for support with your arms so you can exit out of the stretch safely.
For side splits this will help build muscles in the adductors. For front splits this will build muscle in the hip flexors and hamstrings.
Hang from a pull-up bar or anything you can hold onto for an extended amount of time. Think about making your body as long as possible and get your arms in as straight of a line with your body as you can.
Make sure you keep strong active tension to protect the shoulders and provide stimulus for muscle growth. If strong enough, see if you can free hang for a full minute. If this is too difficult keep your feet on the floor and make them as light as possible.
Likewise if you can hold for a minute and want to maximize muscle growth, you can wear a weight vest or hold a weight in between the legs so the minute hold is maximal.
This will build some serious muscle in the lats, posterior shoulder complex, and forearms. Hanging with proper load, frequency, and duration can also be a great tool to keep the shoulders and spine healthy.
As mentioned loaded stretching can be applied into exercises you may already be doing. You can take advantage of this with pushups by elevating your hands so at the bottom position the chest is in a deep stretch.
One way to integrate this is to go into a stretch on every repetition by lowering slowly into the deepest position you can before pushing back up.
The other way is to end the set by lowering slowly into the deepest position and holding for time. For maximum efficiency combine both methods by going deep on every rep and then holding the last rep in a stretch for time when hitting failure.
Just like with pushups there are two ways that the loaded stretch can be applied here. The first way is lower to the most stretched hanging position possible before pulling back up on every repetition.
The second way is to end the set by hanging for time in the most stretched position. Again for maximum efficiency, combine both methods by going to a maximum stretch on every repetition and then hang at the bottom after reaching failure for time.
This method can be applied to most exercises and stretches that let you support a load. The load can be the weight of your body or an external weight.
You can use the same methods mentioned above on flys, dips, squats, tricep extensions, pullovers, and many more. As always the important part is to stay safe and listen to your body.
Back off if something is overtly painful or doesn’t feel right. As with most training methods, it’s best to start light and slowly build up in intensity after getting more familiar with the movements and methods.
Give these methods a shot and enjoy the results!