Get Flexible FAST — The Synergistic Method

In this article, I’m going to break down one powerful approach of my stretching method. I don’t use a single method, as I have found that the effect is much more potent when combining methods, so bear with me.

First…What is the point of stretching?

In a nutshell: Stretching is the act of increasing the capacity of your muscles to lengthen more than they could before. That’s it.

And why should we care about stretching in the first place? Let’s break it down into two categories:

1. Essential / basic range

Category one is the basic range of motion (ROM) that is needed for the ability to move and be functional as a human being, without having to compensate when doing daily tasks/movements due to lack of length in the muscles (stretching capacity). An example of this would be to be able to touch the ground with your knees locked.

2. Extended Range

Category two is the more advanced ROM that allows for more expression and freedom of movement. An example of this would be to be able to perform a front split.

When approaching this, we must look at how and why the nervous system would facilitate more range in a muscle. As such, stretching can be trained in 2 manners: passively and actively.

•Passive stretching / Aka relaxed stretching: The act of lengthening the muscles in a relaxed state, while they are not actively working (muscles relaxed). Think of the sit and reach test.

•Active stretching / Aka loaded stretching: The act of lengthening your muscles while actively controlling the range (muscles active). Think of Van Damme doing the splits between two chairs, or an olympic weightlifter in a deep squat.

This important distinction of stretching methods, results in two very different outcomes. The body is an adaptation machine, depending on the stimulus we give it, it will have a response and become more adapted/capable in that. This means that if I stretch passively I will improve my capacity to enter passive (muscles relaxed) range, and if I stretch actively I will have more active range. Which brings us to the next key distinction: Flexibility vs mobility.

Relaxed stretching mostly translated into:

•Flexibility: the ROM your body has. It might be with little or no control over it.

Loaded stretching translates into:

•Mobility: The ROM you can actively enter and control. I like to call this also: “Range of Strength”, as it is the range throughout which you can actually display and express strength.

The beauty of loaded mobility lays in the fact that, if you can actively control the range, entering it in a relaxed state will rarely be a problem and you will find little, to no limitations when doing so (provided you don’t rely on external load to enter a position, but that’s a topic for another day)

A case against passive stretching (why I think it’s a huge waste of time).

1. Range of motion may increase after hard stretching, as in over two minutes, but this is only temporary.

Depending on the amount of stretching, range returns to baseline within about 10 minutes after two minutes of stretching; or 20 minutes after 4 minutes of stretching; or 30 minutes after 8 minutes of stretching (1).

2. Most of the neural adaptation is simply an increase in pain tolerance, not a lengthening of the muscles (2). You are not becoming more flexible, you are becoming more comfortable and skillful in lengthening your muscles passively.

3. Stretching doesn’t reduce risk of injury, and actually may increase it (3).

4. As it is a factor of getting “comfortable” and not really an increase in capacity of the body, a huge downfall is that you might be flexible when stretching and relaxed, but once you put yourself under load, you will become tight and limited again.

5. From my experience, long lasting improvements in posture are minimal, if any, through passive stretching.

We can see why passive stretching might not be the smartest idea.

(As a side note, the only situation I find beneficial to use passive stretching is to relax an overly excited muscle — but not to improve flexibility!)

Enter the alternative: Loaded stretching.

For the real world, be it athletics, reaching for something on the ground, playing with your children, 99% of movements use active mobility, and not passive flexibility. The reason is because we are always fighting gravity. As such, when entering extended ranges of motion, in most scenarios the stretched muscles will need to withstand the resistance against gravity.

How you train is how you move.”

Therefore, if you want to improve your capacity and moving ability in the real world, your efforts should be aimed at active stretching, not relaxed stretching. And Loaded stretching is your best bet to make the best results.

Simplistically speaking, the way loaded stretching works is that we practice and spend time in an active muscular contraction at the end ROM of our muscles. Hence, we train our Nervous system to acquire capacity and become stronger at that end ROM. As we become stronger and our body has more control over the end ROM of our mobility, we progressively (both intrasession, and from session to session) perform muscular contraction deeper and deeper in the stretch and gain more active range.

A great way to start with loaded stretching is performing 2–3 sets of 5–8 repetitions, holding the position briefly (3–5 sec) at the end ROM of every rep.

The synergistic method

Ok, so loaded stretching is great, and for beginners it’s a good way to start with loaded stretching, but I’m going to introduce a second component for more advanced practitioners that will synergistically work with the active stretching to induce a more potent and increased effect of the stretch.

In almost every muscular contraction there is an agonist and an antagonist (the tongue is an exception, for example). The agonist is the muscle that performs the work and contracts, while the antagonist usually helps in stabilization and lengthens to allow for the agonist to contract. When you contract the agonist, by default you stretch the antagonist.

The way this method works is that, by performing a muscular contraction of the agonist, you’ll prime those muscles to pull you deeper and you neurologically prepare the nervous system for stretching of the antagonist. Thanks to this you will be able to enter a deeper position than before.

Let’s illustrate this with the pancake stretch as an example:

The pancake stretch is when you sit in a straddle position on the floor and bring your chest, with a straight back, towards the ground. Loading with a 15kg barbell is a great example of a loaded stretching movement.

Now, taking it further with the synergistic method, we would perform a straddle hip flexor compression drill right before performing our loaded pancake stretch. This way we would prime the muscles to pull us deeper and we will neurologically prepare the nervous system for the stretching of the antagonists (which are the muscles we want to stretch). The result of this is that we will be able to access a deeper stretch, train in that range, and make faster progress or break plateaus.

If you are a beginner, give loaded stretching a try (albeit with low weights to begin with). If you already have experience with loaded stretching, the synergistic method might be just what you need to break plateaus and take your mobility to the next level!

Train mindfully, not habitually.

Jon

(1) Ryan ED, Beck TW, Herda TJ, Hull HR, Hartman MJ, Stout JR, Cramer JT. Do practical durations of stretching alter muscle strength? A dose-response study. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Aug;40(8):1529–37. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31817242eb. PMID: 18614936.

(2) Weppler CH, Magnusson SP. Increasing muscle extensibility: a matter of increasing length or modifying sensation? Phys Ther. 2010 Mar;90(3):438–49. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20090012. Epub 2010 Jan 14. PMID: 20075147.

(3) Witvrouw E, Mahieu N, Danneels L, McNair P. Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Sports Med. 2004;34(7):443–9. doi: 10.2165/00007256–200434070–00003. PMID: 15233597.

I'm a handbalancing coach and a self-mastery teacher. The focus of my life and work has been an on-going search into the development of the human body.