Stretching and Mobility for Strength Athletes
Imagine yourself at a concert venue, the band is playing and the music is at full blast. Your friend leans over and tries to speak to you at a normal volume. What are the chances you can make out what they are telling you? What does this have to do with mobility? If you are training for a strength or power sport, the intensity of your training is like the band playing with the volume at 11. Your mobility and flexibility work? Probably like your soft spoken friend.
Now let's be honest, you probably won’t decrease the intensity of your strength training, so how do you adapt your mobility work to match the intensity of your strength training? The answer is simple, use strength training to increase your mobility.
Loaded Progressive Stretching
I was introduced to Loaded Progressive Stretching by my teacher Ido Portal. Inspired by the work of Thomas Kurz and others, Ido developed LPS as a way to safely and effectively improve his and his students flexibility. To directly quote Ido:
“Basically - use resistance to fight against, increase training variables such as amount of resistance, time under tension, number of reps and total volume and make sure to progress these variables and your flexibility will progress along side.”
Why does LPS work? As Kurz explains in his book “Stretching Scientifically”, lack of flexibility is not due to lack of muscle length, but instead due to lack of strength. Your nervous system will inhibit range of motion in order to protect the system. Here is a good test you can do at home to see this effect in action; Stand in the widest split you can manage, then touch your inner thighs. What does the muscle feel like? The muscle contracts to prevent further ranges. Next, take a chair and stand next to it. Raise one leg up to the chair while standing upright. How is your range of motion on this side? How does this unilateral range of motion compare to the bilateral range? Why are you unable to mirror this action on the other leg simultaneously? We know there is no tissue that crosses the pelvic floor from leg to leg, so we must conclude that your lack of flexibility is not due to some sort of “stretch” hitting the end range of motion.
What is the load in LPS? The load can be bodyweight or an external weight. Too little weight and the intensity won’t be enough to affect the system. Too much weight and the nervous system might prevent you from achieving deep enough ranges to build more, or worse you could injure yourself. This is where the Progressive part comes into play. The progressive nature can be a change in load, reps, isometric holds, or sets. I’ll explain a good starting place that will work for most people later on in the exercises section. It isn’t too different developing your back squat. Start light enough to focus on technique and range, as you get stronger increase the load or manipulate the reps and sets.
I recommend LPS for strength and power athletes (Honestly, I recommend it to everyone) not just because of its high efficacy and relatively safety, it's because of its utility. Due to the fact you are developing strength to increase range of motion the range will be largely available to you at all times, and is more likely to be integrated into movements with higher complexity. Just like your ability to rep out chin-ups without much fuss; strong, active ranges of motion are there for you to use at your leisure. Say goodbye to the 30 minute hot yoga routine to open up your deep range of motion. The other bonus is time. Initially you will need to commit some regular effort to this type of exercise, but as time goes on and you build capacity you should be able to maintain 80-90% of your range of motion with minimal upkeep. But remember, nothing lasts forever so use it or lose it.
Below are two Loaded Progressive stretches that I find are good places to start. I learned both of these from Ido and have found them immensely helpful for myself and my students.
The Diagonal Stretch - youtube.com/watch?v=WKyKSgSZ8jE
Pick a variation that allows you to do 10-15 repetitions with a 10-15 second hold on the last rep ONLY. Watch the video closely, and read the description provided.
I would recommend doing two to three sets daily.
Horse Stance - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxqrxYC0i70
This will be an isometric hold for 60 seconds, so ignore the other variations in the video. 3-5 sets, with 60 seconds of rest between sets.
Pick a depth that allows you to keep your head and shoulders directly over your hips, no pitching forward. You can stand a few inches from a wall to give yourself an indication of this tilt. If your butt touches the wall, you are trying to go too low.
Play with the pelvic orientation, anterior or posterior tilt will depend on the structure of your hips.
This will be an isometric hold for 60 seconds. 3-5 sets, with 60 seconds of rest between sets.
Like any strength training, consistency is key to achieving results. Try these exercises 5-7 days a week for a month. Track your progress. For the horse stance you may be able to go lower, or hold for longer. Maybe you can do two 2:30 sets, instead of five 1:00 sets.
When should you stretch is always a hotly debated topic. Because these exercises are primarily for the lower body, I would avoid them before any heavy squatting, but maybe one or two sets as a warm up before squats can be beneficial after a week or two of exposure to each drill.
“Where should I feel it?” One of the great things about LPS is its adaptogenic quality. The Diagonal stretch can help one person with low back issues, and another with knee. Searching for a specific response may end up defeating the purpose. For me, it resolved a decade of hip issues.
Zack is a student of the Movement Teacher Ido Portal. A Pacific Northwest native he has been instrumental in developing a movement focused program for CrossFit Seattle, the first CrossFit affiliate, as well as a founding teacher at Crossfit Herzliya, the first affiliate in Israel. Zack co-founded Boulder Movement Collective (now Ape Co Movement School) in 2016, and now runs their second school in Denver Colorado.