Dynamic stretching, a tool used by performance athletes everywhere, is a cornerstone of Lightness Training in the Weightlessness method. It occupies an exclusive locale as one of only four key pillars for good reason - it bulletproofs the body and allows the mind-body athlete to fully express explosive power cultivated through the other pillars. But…
Most people do it wrong.
From clumsy football players swinging their legs maladroitly to hip height with bent knees, to graceful dancers doing swing-throughs on a bar, to warrior monks exploding through full dynamic range, dynamic stretching takes many forms and preps many an athlete for high levels of performance to follow. Let’s get into this.
Strength is Needed to Make Length Safe
First, while dynamic stretching - the swinging of leg or limb through full range of movement at increasing speeds - can be performed at any level of training, it shouldn’t be considered basic training. Meaning that even if a white belt is practicing it in martial arts class, it should be considered long term technical development that sits atop ever improving static stretching / flexibility and structural development.
Static flexibility is what first generates the relaxation potential and mind-muscle connection to convert the brute leg lifts of football players into the poetic expression of elite dancers. And for static stretching to deliver what it can, one must be strong.
One of the biggest qualms I have with modern physiotherapy is the prioritization of mobility, in most cases, over and above strength. This isn’t a universal problem, but it crops up frequently, and I’ve even witnessed it among family members returning from a physio with new bands and stretching exercises.
Mobility matters, yes. But strength is what holds the body together. Accessing length without structural balance and integrity can be a liability - an old, loose rubber band stretched to extension without that tensile strength it came out of the box with.
Five vector theory (the strength training model) in the Weightlessness method is essentially a model for balancing one’s tensional forces in three dimensional space. Lacking the tensional forces of prime movers (the agonist muscles responsible for any movement, like deltoids when throwing a ball) is a leading cause of injury when a joint is tested against (in the opposite direction of) that force vector - on the retraction of the arm before a throw.
Similarly, the counter force of any movement (by the antagonist muscles) is what prevents limbs from carrying on forward and flowing into space. When kicking a ball, the hip flexors and quads are prime movers, but its the hamstrings that keep your knee from snapping in two at extension. When these forces (the strength of agonist and antagonist muscles) are balanced, then progressive levels of range and mobility can be explored without the risk of exacerbating an injury, or weakening joints further.
Uttanasana & Antagonistic Forces at Play
The yoga forward bend - Uttanasana - is the gold standard of bending, and the single best posture for elongating the rear training. This pose has a couple of key insights we need to borrow that will make incredible sense once we start dynamic stretching a la Lightness Training, and especially once we begin adding weight to the exercise for sustainable, effortless, dynamic flexibility.
From the outside looking in, the posture doesn’t seem to be more involved than bending forward, and to an extreme. But two of the internal mechanisms that make this a life-giving exercise are 1) extension before compression and 2) engaging the agonist to relax the antagonist. These are both critical technical elements of Uttanasana that must be applied to all stretching exercises, or overlooked at your peril.
Isn't this topic sexy? I hope you find this sexy.
Extension Before Compression
Perhaps most obviously expressed in the Shaolin stretching technique - pull, press, hold - extension is max lengthening of the musculotendinous unit (the muscle-tendon complex that connects two bones). This requires intentional straightening - full straightening gentleman! - prior to any bend, pull, or fold.
Shaolin stretching, even statically, generally contains a dynamic springing rhythm that would make most doctors cringe. In that springing rhythm is exactly the same mechanic playing out as seen in Uttanasana - the pull and press function fully lengthens the muscle-tendon complex and locks it in place. (In Shaolin training this is done by placing one foot on a bar and pressing down on the elevated knee with both hands, while bending forward at the hip until... you can put your shoe in your mouth.)
Once this is achieved, the forward bend or folding pattern can be activated in a way that provides global extension, rather than isolated stretching of one muscle (the hamstrings or cringe... the lower back).
Here’s the critical caveat - a forward bend isn’t a collapsing of structure over one’s legs, but rather an initial lift, carrying torso up and away from the hip, then a bending at the hips, which introduces a pulling and pressing function to the muscles/tendons of the lower body and locks the knees out, and only when that complex has reached its limit does the torso fall, abandoning neutral spine for spinal flexion, and the back rounds.
Many people can touch their toes in a standing forward bend. Very few can do so with strict adherence to the mechanics just mention. And I need to say this one more time - it’s an absolutely critical mechanism of stretching that must be mastered BEFORE dynamic stretching not only becomes less risky, but also the vehicle of maximum, explosive expression.
Extend before you compress. And then we can engage the agonist.
Engaging the Agonist
The second principle here is overlooked by EVERYBODY in dynamic stretching, and I’m proud to say Lightness Training get’s the gold star for this quintessential hack. I’ll come back to the Lightness application of this principle shortly, but in looking at it’s static application through Uttanasana training, we’re essentially looking to tighten the muscles at cross-purposes with those being stretched.
When bending forward, assuming you’ve sorted your alignment and the extension before compression problem above, everyone hits a sticking point - the point at which the stretch reflex is triggered, and the muscle you’re aiming to stretch resists and tightens. This, as should seem obvious, is counterproductive.
As we discussed in Long-Hold Stretching, this resistance can be waited out, but that may take some time. Another option, one implemented in Uttanasana, is the tensing of the agonist muscles (the muscles drawing you into the stretch, not those being stretched). In the forward bend, this means tensing the quadriceps isometrically. This is not easy to do at first, but is a technical detail of the stretch that makes it a core mind-body metric in Weightlessness Training.
This technique capitalizes on a fascinating function of muscular coordination called reciprocal inhibition, which means the tensing of a prime mover signals to your nervous system to relax it’s antagonist, so as to produce seamless movement. Imagine kicking a ball without this function, and your hamstring tightening along with your quad. You’d be swinging a slow, heavy, lump of flesh, rather than a fluid, precise kick.
This technique - active stretching - can be applied to any push/pull (flexion/extension) joint complex - the biceps/triceps, the quads/hams, the lats/traps. And it's an essential components of coordinating dynamic stretching techniques that deliver your desired outcome - dynamic and sustainable flexibility.
Translating Static Flexibility into Dynamic Range
We’re going to stick here to the most literal translation of Uttanasana into dynamic stretching - the front rising kick, or the forward / upward leg swing. These have dozens of names depending on the art practiced, so bear with me. Basically, stranding straight, and swinging one of your legs straight in front, vertically, without bending the knees or opening the hips.
Those two caveats matter, and they’re two of the biggest faults in practicing the front rising kick, along with the holy grail of faults - rounding the lower back to add additional height.
Many athletes and martial artists (particularly martial arts) cheat this movement by doing all three, adding a bend to the base (supporting) knee, opening the hips so the leg raise is slightly off-center, and bending the lower back. Someone with average flexibility can manage a head high kick this way, albeit with ALOT of risk. But it doesn't actually train or improve dynamic flexibility.
Proper practice in this category takes time, and a prerequisite for it is full static range - full forward bend using the mechanics above, and full front splits with the hips closed. Compromising on these technical elements destroys alignment, and rather than facilitating an effective and safe stretch, distributes the strain across the whole frame, jeopardizing an array of muscles, tendons, and ligaments, not just those being targeted.
I mention this because it can be very frustrating for those with years to decades in the game being held accountability to this standard, and realizing it means their true dynamic range is maybe half of what they’ve been demonstrating.
Ugh… how embarrassing.
Enlivening the Spring
The doorway into aggressive, dynamic flexibility lies in activating elastic energy throughout the front myofascial lines of the body (in the case of the front rising kick). This too is a technical detail overlooked by most, but properly executed in Shaolin kung fu, and standardized in Lightness-Level Flexibility Training.
As we also discussed in Long-Hold Stretching, your body isn’t merely a series of independent parts, but a complex of tensional forces that integrate and connect from head to toe. There’s a living conversation between all fascia in the body, both as strain distributors as well as elastic regulators. When tissues of the body are kept hydrated and treated with stretching and relaxation practices, they retain a high degree of elasticity, and a strong composition of elastin.
To activate and include this critical mechanism in the front rising kick, the kick must be momentarily preceded by, you guessed it, fascial extension - the very same principle we master in Uttanasana prior to folding (compression).
This means that the torso elongates and moves away from the hips, and the legs straighten BEFORE compressing as the leg rises. That extension pre-stretches the fascia on the front line of the body - throughout the core, the hip flexors, and the quads - which generates an elastic spring that allows you to remain relaxed and fluid as the rear train of the body (hamstrings and glutes in particular) are stretched through the kick.
One should not be using/relying on muscular force to lift or accelerate the leg, which generates tension and makes the movement heavy. One should stretch and spring throughout the whole body in the same way a baseball player recoils before a pitch. This is done particularly well in a few traditional/classic martial arts, like Shaolin from China, or Tae Kyon (precursor to Tae Kwon Do) from Korea, but is butchered by several systems of Karate and Tae Kwon Do.
Is muscular force used? Yes. But consider it icing on the cake, and not the prime mechanism. Most pitchers are wiry, and no body builders, despite being far stronger, can compete for pitching speed. Different source of power.
The Problem of Speed
Dynamic stretching, if done properly, should be a panacea for removing tension and pain in the body. It goes well beyond muscular relaxation and fascia molding/length, and actually trains your nervous system to tolerate high tensional forces without panicking, resisting, and tensing up.
I’ve talked about the stretch reflex across many other letters, in Long-Hold Stretching mentioned above and that on Ballistic Weight Training, so I’m keeping this section brief. Suffice it to say, exploring new range, and doing it quickly, can trigger the exact OPPOSITE effect of that desired.
The reason we stretch is to be more flexible, but many, through improper alignment, technique, and breathwork, signal to their nervous systems that they’re about to break in half. As a final, desperate act of self-preservation, your nervous system shuts you down.
The muscles you’re aiming to elongate literally contract and tighten up, and this not only risks injury, but it leaves you tighter after the session than you were before you trained.
This is a critical point: dynamic stretching should leave you more limber, and effortlessly flexible OUTSIDE of training. If you feel tighter post training, or the following day, than you’re doing it wrong. And it’s most likely the byproduct of accelerating into the stretch at speeds and ranges you aren’t prepared for.
Let’s tie it all together.
The Lightness Method | Invert Your Effort
In Lightness Training (advanced Weightlessness Training), training approach shifts from progressive skill development based on objective metrics to qualitative, experience-based training that prioritizes conscious awareness. To make this transition, training volume must decline, intensity must increase, and frequency of training will likely go up.
I say this to help frame the right way to practice dynamic stretching for long-lasting dynamic flexibility. Dynamic stretching shouldn’t be trained with both high volume AND high intensity. This is a surefire way to elicit a stress response that leads to a tighter, not looser body.
So the first contibution here is that one shouldn’t do many at one time, but it’s ok to do them often (daily) if desired. The second contribution is the shift from structured workouts to sub-limit protocols - where the same series of skills are trained daily, and are augmented by adding weight to the extremities.
So yes, we practice dynamic stretching weighted.
But there’s magic in this, and I’m going to break down just one facet of it that ties this letter together for you.
Most people aggressively swing the leg to peak, accelerating into full extension (of the hamstring/glutes in the case of front rising kicks). This WILL lead to a tightening of the very muscles you're trying to relax and stretch.
Something magical happens, however, when we both add weight AND slow the concentric phase of the kick, and it come back to Uttanasana practice. When weight is added AND momentum slows, the agonists - hip flexors, quads, and even abs - engage to lift the leg. As we learned above through the principle of reciprocal inhibition, this tension tricks your nervous system into releasing/relaxing the antagonists - the hamstrings and glutes - the very muscles we want to stretch.
The is the one step back to achieve two forward that I mention to all pre-Lightness trainees, who are worried they’re not doing enough when they see the protocol structure. You must do less work, and often use less exertion, to accelerate performance potential. This is one of several mechanisms that unlocks deep performance potential within Lightness protocols.
Furthermore, the weight strengthens the agonists through full range, so when the weight is removed, the leg feels lighter, looser, and accelerates faster through full range.
Now the second adjustment comes at the peak, where you ought to then apply a modicum of force, contract the stretched muscles, and accelerate into descent. This has overlap with strength-at-length or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching techniques, where muscles are tensed and/or force is applied at the point of greatest length. This has a remarkable way of solidifying that peak range as not only strong, but safe. And it’s this combination of lighter ascent and faster retrace that generates long-lasting flexibility and effortless range well beyond training.
For remember, it isn’t about the training - that hour in the gym. It’s about the other 23. The point is to be fast, flexible, and fluid throughout the day, not merely after a substantial warmup and focused flexibility work. That must be reframed from exercise to performance catalyst, where the new standard for training is life.