Stretching and Strength! The Real Reasons Heavy Lifters Can’t Stretch
After reading Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Relax into the Stretch” I have gained serious insight on what really causes the muscle stiffness, lack of mobility and inability to stretch past our comfort zones; which is most common with Strongmen/(women), Powerlifters and Olympic Weightlifters. And no it is not that you’re too yolked or jacked that you can’t stretch, or have trouble stretching, because I am sure you have no problem flexing, although chances are you can’t touch your elbows together. (Try this at home, if you elbows still touch and you’re a man, go cry in the corner and chug gallons of milk until you grow into a man).
Oh I know what you’re thinking, “So wait you’re telling me that my inability to touch my toes IS NOT because my quads and hammies are the size of tree trunks!?” And to which I respond, yep. It’s the C.N.S. – think about it.
Pavel reasons that the causes for this inability to stretch has little to do with “short muscles and connective tissues”, and is rather caused by THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM!* (This is excluding the stretching of things that should not stretch such as ligaments and such, DO NOT STRETCH LIGAMENTS!) Finally we have found our culprit.
In layman’s terms (my specialty), the sports specific exercises and/or lifting disciplines we engage in each day determine the length that our muscles stretch, as well as the tenseness and tightness they exhibit. We as lifters train not only our muscles, but we also train our nervous system when to contract, so that we can lift the heaviest amounts of weight.
So it is no surprise that for us heavy deadlifters that our hamstrings and hips get tight beyond belief. Or that we heavy power (parallel) squatters have a hard time making the switch back to butt to ground squats. If we are so used to exploding out of the hole, or griping and ripping it, is it any real surprise when we try to try our shoes, we rise back up before we ever reach the shoe laces? But is intensively stretching the correct remedy for the problem?
So now we get down to the classic, and much heated argument; will stretching affect my strength? And will stretching perhaps even cause more likelihood and vulnerability towards injury? The answer is not as simple as you think.
If you’re feeling stiff and tense, intense stretching is not always the best thing for you. The truth depends on many factors, age, experience, lifestyle, etc… I personally preach practicality, and progression. Foam rolling, light stretching, GPP, dynamic warm-ups – these are all good in my book, opposed to becoming a yoga guru over night and trying out sadomasochistic torture devices by day. That is a bit over the line for me.
But rather than voice my own opinion on the issue, I will cite Pavel, and let you be the judge.
*NOTE FROM AUTHOR: Just to get things straight, I am not advocating being lazy and not stretching, nor am I condoning being a moron and not warming up either; I am merely arguing that overstretching is just a bad as not stretching and that radical reactions. yield risky results. My solution is to do no more than what is needed to be good at what you do and still be healthy in the process.*
Overstretching can cause adverse effects! Pavel makes reference to a classic Soviet text, “The Theory and Methodology of Physical Education” and warns that “One must remember that in some cases excessive flexibility not only does not help the athlete’s technique, but interferes with it by ‘dispersing’ the acting forces (for example, a very flexible spine and a relaxed torso when taking off for a jump).”
Pavel on flexibility and Strongman Training
“Old school strongmen instinctively avoided stretching. They felt they could lift more weight if they stayed ‘tight’. They were right. The stretch reflex fired sooner, making them more prone to an injury, but helping them to move more iron.”
Pavel on flexibility and Olympic Weightlifting
“Russian Olympic weightlifters avoid full range movements of the muscles surrounding the hip and knee joints. Too much flexibility in that area makes the lifter sink too deep when he is getting under the barbell. The same is true for powerlifting.”
Pavel on flexibility and Powerlifting
“Fortunately, powerlifters, as a group, are least influenced by the pop fitness culture’s deification of relaxed stretching, high carb/low fat/low protein diet, and other stupid ideas. That is not to say that powerlifters do not need flexibility. They do—but no more than necessary to lift in good form. For example, tight hamstrings ‘tuck your butt under’. As a result, back strength is wasted on fighting against your own hams, rather than the weight, in the squat and deadlift.”
So, is it alright to be flexible and lift heavy weights?
Pavel in his book, Relax into the Stretch references Soviet researcher, weightlifting champion, and coach Robert Roman. Coach Roman determined that “an athlete loses 15% of his pulling strength when he lifts with a rounded, rather than a flat back. That could mean the difference between first and last place. Also, your hamstrings or back are likely to get injured. Hamstrings take forever to heal, but it is not the end of the world.
The back is a more serious matter. A properly arched spine can support ten times more weight than a straight one*(good lifting tip), and even more than a rounded one. Ever heard a disk blow out? Sounds like a high tension cable going boink! The lesson is not to stretch your hams until you can tie your shoes with your teeth, but just enough to maintain a tight arch in the ‘hole’, the bottom of the squat.”
The Bottom Line
“Whatever your sport, pay careful attention to the effect more flexibility has on your performance. Up to a point, your game will improve through increased efficiency of movement and less frequent injuries. Beyond that point you are in the red.”
“To sum up: develop some flexibility reserve beyond the demands of your sport and lifestyle, then keep on going as long as more mobility does not start having an adverse effect on your game.” Pavel Tsastsouline.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Just keep in mind the man is not saying don’t stretch and don’t stay flexible, just don’t try and over do it.
Bonus: Pavel’s own K.I.S.S. method on Rehab
R.I.C.E. Method: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Stay tuned for my more extensive article and book review on Comrade Pavel Tsatsouline’s Relax into the Stretch, along with some tips and tricks on how to stretch, different types of stretching, and a little description on the book and why I think everyone should own it and read it.