Though I'm not the biggest fan of traditional static stretching when it comes to actually improving the qualities that we're concerned with (namely, safely achieving deep ROMs), there is one kind of stretching that is a cut above the rest...
If the name didn’t give it away, loaded stretching is simply the act of taking a muscle to its most fully lengthened state while under load and for a specified time.
Clearly, us meatheads had no desire to confuse ourselves with this one.
But there are a few things that make this technique special when compared to more traditional forms of stretching like active (think the sit-and-reach test), passive (think lying on your back with a partner pushing your leg to lengthen your hamstring), and PNF (this one is a topic for another day):
Before ever even attempting to get into the stretch, the target muscle(s) MUST be warm. This isn’t meant to be a “light walk on the treadmill” type of warm…No, those muscles better be damn near annihilated and bursting at their seams with blood and metabolites. And it's going to hurt. Bad. This creates an environment in which the next features can truly exert their full power.
While other methods have varying degrees of resistance being applied, loaded stretching immediately turns that dial up to 100. We’re not going to be throwing our leg up on a bench while scrolling instagram here…No, these are meant to be done with heavy loads turning the “stretch” into more of a struggle for survival. Under normal circumstances, this would be a huge no-no due to the injury risk created by forcing your tissues into unfamiliar positions with real weight. But the conditions above are actually what make this not only possible but also so effective.
Ok so this might be the one place where nomenclature is deceiving…We’re not only aiming for increased mobility and reduced muscle tone when we implement these stretches but also the direct stimulation of hypertrophy! I know this may seem a bit strange on the surface. How could stretching make us more muscular? Well, it turns out that the process of lengthening out muscle fibers under load is actually an independent mechanism of muscle growth. It’s definitely weaker than traditional progressive overload training. Even metabolic work is going to be more significant for hypertrophy. But the notion that we can simultaneously improve our mobility while getting more jacked is nonetheless pretty damn cool!
Loaded stretches (at least, in the manner that we’re talking about here) aren’t a method to be taken lightly. While they have the ability to be somewhat revolutionary when added into a stagnant program, there are also multiple considerations that should make us all pause for a moment before throwing these in after every set. As noted above, there is a pretty significant risk of straining or even tearing a muscle if not done properly. Additionally, this technique can create a TON of muscle damage and local fatigue even under optimal circumstances. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
Before implementing, make sure you clearly understand the nuanced preconditions, intensities and goals as well as how to navigate the unavoidable drawbacks. If the stars happen to align and you get everything just right, loaded stretches could be just the thing that take your potential to the stratosphere!