Stretch the active muscles as far as possible on your exercises for better growth. For muscles attached to more than one joint, you must stretch the muscle over multiple joints. For example, this occurs when performing an arm extension overhead for the triceps, stretching the long head through both elbow extension and shoulder flexion.
The greatest mistake I made with this blog was to have no clear goal. I ended up pushing some unified theory of training that was supposed to work well for everyone. This led to a minimalist routine with a few compound exercises that were deemed safe: a push, a pull, and a squat.
Why Do You Train?
When I turned 30, I thought on why I got into training in the first place. Why it has captivated me for a lifetime? Why have I spent countless hours researching and lifting?
I still remember getting my hands on Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding before age 10. I devoured it cover-to-cover and still peruse it today. This has expanded to include visits to university libraries, sifting through research online, and studying the great bodybuilders.
I realized that the pursuit of natural bodybuilding explains why.
With this in mind, I had to admit that my simple routine failed miserably in this regard. I have spent the time disconnected from this blog immersed in bodybuilding. I experimented relentlessly, emerging with my own perspective.
I noticed that countless bodybuilders and myself have had great success with exercises involving a stretch like incline curls and donkey heel raises. I felt a tremendous burn, pump, and soreness on these exercises that resulted in muscle growth and not only transient sensations. Why were these exercises so effective?
I figured that active tension alone must not account for everything when it comes to muscle growth. The latest research on muscle hypertrophy confirmed this along with anecdotal experience. I now understood that stretching the muscle under a load greatly increased the factors responsible for growth.
I went a step further than just relying upon those classic bodybuilding exercises. I understood there was a principle: if a loaded stretch led to more growth for one muscle, it must lead to more growth for all muscles.
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Muscle damage
All three are essential for bodybuilding. Learn why loaded stretching leads to better muscle growth through these factors, along with how to apply this in your own training.
Why Exercises with Long Muscle Lengths Work
- They increase mechanical tension.
I was wrong about mechanical tension.
I believed that mechanical tension was developed, in a way that grew muscle, from active tension alone. Active tension occurs when contracting during an exercise.
I reasoned that overloading the midpoint on exercises, such as on a curl when the weight if furthest away from your elbow, with the arm perpendicular to the ground, had to be best for all muscles. This is not true.
Mechanical tension involves both active and passive tensions, not only active. Passive tension occurs when stretching a muscle, and this can be far greater when stretched from a heavy load. You should maximize both active tension and passive tension to increase mechanical tension.
Exercises where you feel a stretch achieve two goals:
- The passive tension that occurs during a loaded stretch is greater, which increases peak mechanical tension.
- The whole range of motion has a higher mechanical tension, especially for muscles attached to more than one joint. Active tension is does not drop off as with most exercises, like the top of a regular barbell curl. This shortened state at the top is ineffective for muscle growth, leading to a cramping sensation that should be avoided.
To give an example, the incline or supine curl is far greater for muscle growth in the biceps than a typical barbell curl. The passive stretch at the bottom and high active tension when the elbow is fully bent places higher peak and overall mechanical tension upon it.
- They increase metabolic stress.
Mechanical tension alone is not responsible for muscle growth.
Occlusion training or KAATSU, which restricts blood flow to the active muscles and trains them with a low load, is proven to drive growth.
Loaded stretching exercises promote occlusion due to the severe tension, along with constant tension when done properly, to prevent blood from escaping temporarily. This leads to greater metabolic stress, which is represented in part by the burning sensation and subsequent pump, where the muscles swell with blood, that you feel from an exercise.
- They increase muscle damage.
Have you noticed that exercises like stiff-legged dead-lifts for the hamstrings get you the most sore?
The intense stretch you experience with these exercises, along with the negative or lowering phase of the movement, leads to greater micro-tearing of the muscle. This triggers a whole response involving hormones, satellite cells, signaling pathways, and growth factors that create larger muscles.
Soreness nearly represents muscle damage from an exercise. This delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) does improve as the body adapts to the stress, but the principle remains of striving for this damage to gain more muscle.
Loaded Stretching Exercises
The key to these exercises is to achieve a deep stretch for the target muscles. This also means stretching the muscle over more than one joint if one of the active muscles is attached to multiple places. You can even use the antagonists that oppose the movement, such as extending the elbow further with the triceps at the bottom of a curl, to maximize the stretch.
To stretch both the single and multiarticular joint muscles, you must first get the deepest stretch possible through the active joint. This means you should extend the elbow as much as possible on a curl, flex the elbow as much as possible on an arm extension, and bend the knee as much as possible on a squat.
You then stretch the multiarticular muscles through the other joints. This means extending the shoulder on a curl, flexing the shoulder on an arm extension, and flexing the hips on a squat.
Here are some examples:
- Heel Raise
You want to get as deep a stretch as possible with the greatest amount of plantarflexion at the ankle, while also dorsiflexing the ankle. This alone stretches the soleus, the single joint muscle of the ankle, but will not maximally stretch the gastrocnemius, which also attaches to the knee.
The gastrocnemius is stretched by extending or straightening the knee, as occurs on exercises like a donkey calf raise or a heel raise performed on a leg press machine. You may be able to emphasize each head by either inverting the ankle for the inner head, or everting the ankle for the outer head.
To augment this stretch further, you can extend the hip, which stretches the hamstrings to pull further on the tendon of the gastrocnemius. Unless you want less soleus development though, do not maximize this until full plantarflexion at the ankle is reached.
- Sissy Squat
Push the hips forward while bending the knees on this exercise to hit the rectus femoris, the detailed two-headed muscle located in the middle of the thigh, which attaches to both the knee and the hip.
Bending of the knees fully will hit the single joint vasti muscles: the vastus medialis on the inside and vastus lateralis on the outside of the quads.
- Supine Curl
Elevate a flat bench with weight plates so that you can lie back on a flat bench. Ensure the dumbbells do not touch the floor. Straighten the elbows and then extend the shoulder as far as possible before beginning the curl.
This position leads to an even greater stretch than the incline curl, stretching the biceps for more growth.
Do not to spend much time at the top of the motion, which limits constant tension.
Get as deep a stretch as possible at the bottom. The chest is a single joint muscle, so nothing complicated is required.
Since the top of the fly lacks as much tension as the lower range of motion, and this lack of constant tension can reduce metabolic stress, I suggest…
- quickly transitioning back into the lower range of motion from the top if using dumbbells.
- squeezing the dumbbells together at the top, though this never felt right to me.
- trying this motion with cable attachments.
- Overhead Arm Extension
Use a dumbbell or a cable machine by extending the elbow while overhead. This stretches the long head of the triceps. Make sure the elbow is being flexed maximally before going too far behind your head.
Any muscle unstretched will not develop as well as possible, so deep stretching should be applied on all exercises.
This can lead to some odd exercises such as lateral raises across the body and rows with the lower back rounded. (If you ever struggled with feeling the lats, fear no more!)
Despite their unusual nature, all exercises at long muscle lengths are very effective for muscle growth.
Loaded Stretching Exercises for Better Muscle Growth
You don’t need to understand why something works to benefit from it. This is one reason why we should pay attention to the most successful bodybuilders. They may grasp the big picture without fretting over the details; the details can mislead when seen alone.
Science helps us understand why some things work and gives us direction for the future, but legends such as Vince Gironda and Steve Reeves can teach us more than exercise scientists about bodybuilding.
Loaded stretching exercises are more dangerous than conventional ones. The higher mechanical tension can lead to injury if not moving cautiously. Be careful, and consider sticking to basic exercises if your bodybuilding goals are modest.
I recommend asking yourself why you train, and focusing on that.
If your goal is just to look fit yet minimize injury, you should pursue different methods. If you want to be an athlete, you should improve the qualities needed to succeed in your sport. Your training should reflect this goal.
Loaded stretching exercises apply to bodybuilding within the context here, and its consequences for other goals are ignored.
Loaded stretching is unnatural. Multiarticular muscles are not made for girth as we pursue in bodybuilding, but evolved to perform a function. This function is to facilitate movement by transferring force across joints, smoothing out motions, and stabilizing. This does not change the factors for muscle growth though, which are maximized using these exercises.
If your goal is bodybuilding, give loaded stretching exercises a try. You will be impressed by the surge in muscle growth. Let me know how it goes for you.