When most people think of stretching, they think of passive stretching, or holding a relaxed position. . Active mobility is another form of stretching that can have tremendous benefits for those who are interested in athleticism beyond simply becoming as flexible as possible.
There are other aspects of stretching, but for our purposes, let’s take a look at two main categories: passive and active stretching.
When you hold a gentle stretch and breathe smoothly and deeply, your CNS will identify the stretched position as safe. Once your brain recognizes the stretch as acceptable, it signals the body to relax. This feeling of loosening can be very soothing to both the mind and the body and is a great way to relax at the end of the day.
Another benefit of passive stretching is through the fascial system. Fascia can be thought of as a spider web-like structure throughout your body that gives strength to your muscles like a flexible skeletal system. This tissue can become tight and dehydrated. When you hold a passive stretch, the fascia loosens and rehydrates, restoring range of motion to your body.
This combination of loosening muscles and restoring fascia is fantastic for relaxing and calming down. However, these effects are not the best before exercise. When warming up before training, you want to prime your muscles to fire quickly and in the correct patterns. When one area of your body is too relaxed, this can cause problems and is the main reason why stretching before exercise is often cited as being dangerous.
This is what you should do before exercise, and it should match what your activity is going to be for the day. If you are doing heavy squats, then it makes sense to start by doing slightly wider than usual squats with a light weight first. You can also target areas that are limiters for you. For instance, if you spend all day at work sitting in a chair, you may want to use lunges and split squats consistently in your warm up to open your tight hips before training.
This may simply sound like exercise, but all movement requires a coordinated lengthening and shortening of the involved muscles to perform the given task. By moving through coordinated patterns, we connect our brain to our body, and the range used becomes strong. To build greater range of motion, you can simply use a longer lunge stance or an even wider squat stance.
A final consideration with active stretching is to recognize that new range is weak range. If you use an exercise like a wide stance good morning to stretch your hips and hamstrings, you will notice that after just a few sets, your range of motion will increase dramatically. Because this new range is not often used, it will become sore and fatigued quite quickly. For this reason, you should explore new ranges carefully and gradually to minimize excessive strain until you are confident you can handle it safely. By developing control and strength in extended range of motion, your body will become bulletproof and resilient against the demands of training.
As a bonus, you can extend the idea of active stretching into your movement. The kettlebell windmill and cossack squat are two fantastic movements that are commonly used in warm ups, and can also provide amazing benefits when trained as consistently as squats and deadlifts. Compression strength is another area skill worth exploring - this can lead to skills such as the straddle press to handstand.
Regardless of your passion and athletic endeavors, your training should include a combination of passive and active mobility. No single program is going to be just right for everyone, but the underlying concepts provide a framework that everyone can use to discover what is most effective for them. Do some easy stretching before bed, warm up with active mobility, and utilize it for developing strength and control in new ranges. Get creative and apply your mobility to challenging ranges. Find where you fail and work there, and you will have a strong body that is prepared for anything you throw at it.