I'm currently writing a training course for personal trainers on advanced stretching and thought their golden rules might be of benefit to others. So whilst this is aimed primarily at fitness professionals, check if there are any changes worth making to your own programme.
1. Define the purpose of the stretch
Don’t stretch randomly or for the sake of it. First define your objective, then select the most appropriate stretching prescription.
2. Define the type of stretch required
Having determined the purpose of the stretch, options will have reduced, but by no means been eliminated. If an inhibition component is required, is an activation component required as well? Remember, one of the main objectives is to make use of the increased range of movement stretching can produce.
3. Define the duration of the stretch
If the stretching is part of a warm up, the stretches may be shorter in duration but more varied in plane and position. Equally, they may also be longer and more linear in nature, if the focus in more inhibitory or facilitative.
4. If you increase ROM, stabilise it in all planes
One of the greatest crimes in exercise and fitness, is giving a client increased ROM and not making it stable. If the objective of the stretch was to increase range of motion, make sure you perform an exercise that activates the muscles responsible for keeping it. Also, ensure those muscles are stabilised in all planes, as there is no way of predicting which planes will be challenged the most in day to day life.
5. Once ROM is increased, strengthen the new range
Having increased the clients range of motion and stabilised it in all planes, strengthen the client. In most cases imbalances and restrictions are the result of weakness. Take advantage of superior movement patterns by strengthening them, otherwise the normal daily routine will undoubtedly reverse them.
6. Discomfort is good, pain is bad
The focus of flexibility orientated stretching is to improve tissue elasticity, NOT LENGTH!!! If muscle fibres tear, they can become more rigid, not less. Discomfort indicates the muscle fibres are being stretched, pain may indicate tearing or lengthening of a non-muscular tissue.
7. Build foundations first
Don’t jump straight to 3D passive inhibition stretches or dynamic activation drills with everyone. Get the basics first. Assess and determine what issues need addressing. Then work down this list. Just like any good strength programme, progressive overload is the key. Not only that, but give yourself somewhere to go. Otherwise you start with the most advanced option, nail it, and then what? Something easier and less effective? Ensure foundations are solid and lasting, by progressing movements and exercises appropriately.
8. Don’t waste time trying to improve flexibility at the gym
Stretches need to be held for significant periods of time to improve flexibility. That time is better spent away from the gym. If you're in the gym, train. If you're at home, stick the TV on and stretch.
9. Don’t ignore the non-physical benefits of stretching
In spite of all of the above points, some people really benefit from the downtime passive partner assisted stretching can offer. Some people need to wind down after a hard session, some people need the time to re-engage mentally. Some simply want the excuse to take it easy. Whatever the reason, acknowledge there may be non-physical benefits.