In some ways, “no pain, no gain” is an accurate description when it comes to effective training. You don’t have to heave your guts out every time you train for it to work, but triggering growth takes a lot of effort, especially if you’ve been training consistently for a few years. Unfortunately, putting in effort isn’t without discomfort. With loaded stretching, you get as much as you can handle.
We know how utilising isometrics can increase intromuscular tension in the muscle, activating satellite cells and therefore providing a greater stimulus for growth. Loaded stretching follows the same pricinple in that the load is held in a position with the muscles in a stretched position for an extended period of time. How long, you ask? Try between 45 and 60 seconds.
Yup, you heard right – after a set of an exercise you immediately follow it up with a stretch without releasing the weight for up to a minute. While loaded stretching is considered to be an intensity technique, it shouldn’t be approached the same you would do with a percentage of a 1RM. Loaded stretches have to be performed with proper technique while maintaining maximum tension for it be effective. For this reason, it’s best paired with hypertrophy protocols, where the weight falls within 65% and 80% of a 1RM and repetitions are done at a higer volume.
The beauty of loaded stretching is that it doesn’t just work wonders for muscle growth; it improves mobility as well. Say your lats aren’t exactly the most mobile joint in your body. Doing a set of 10 pull-ups and finishing it by holding the stretched position at the bottom puts your shoulder joint in a position of internal rotation and forces you to maintain that position. Doing so causes a large amount of blood to flush towards the area and pumping the surrounding musculature, which makes it easier to unlock any neural tension that might be inhibiting a full range of motion. Remember how your much better your shoulders move after a couple of sets of shoulder dislocates? Same principle.
Maintaining proper alignment and stability is crucial to loaded stretching, so don’t do them when you’re at a point where you’re struggling to stay conscious. Perform them at the tail-end of a set, when you reach a point of techinal failure (no more clean repetitions left in the tank). Simply lower the weight to a point where your target muscles are fully stretched and hold the position. A good time to shoot for is 60 seconds, so if you fall short you’ll know what to work towards. As with all intensity-extending techniques, use them sparingly – only for the last set of a movement and no more than two loaded stretches per training session.
While loaded stretching can be used for isolation movements, they work best with compound movements due to better muscle endurance. For a greater challenge, you can have a partner push down slightly when you’re in the stretched positions. Just a little bit of pressure is more than enough to get your muscles to light up!