When I was young and thought about flexibility, it would conjure up images in my mind of Jean-Claude Van Damme doing center splits between two chairs. I was obsessed with that, so I practiced that version of flexibility until I was able to actually do the Van Damme splits between two chairs. That was long time ago. There is no way I can come close to that feat, or at least with the expectation of ever walking again. As I aged, not only did I lose my once impressive range of motion (ROM), I also learned that flexibility is so much more than the ability to be incredibly “bendy.” I also had my share of partners assisting me with my stretching. Between my brothers who would push me into the splits with me feet elevated on school textbooks and my martial arts brothers putting me into a stretch called the “row boat,” there is little I would recommend from my early experience in partner assisted stretching.
I often teach workshops on partner assisted stretching with no resemblance to the stretches I experienced growing up. In these workshops, we discuss muscles to stretch, legality, hand position, optimal ROM, common compensations, end feel, resistance barriers, and show the nuance of how to preferentially stretch specific muscles. We also practice three different versions of partner assisted stretching: static stretching, neuromuscular contract-relax, and neuromuscular contract-relax with antagonistic contraction.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) defines flexibility as the ability of the human movement system (HMS) to have optimum ROM as well as neuromuscular control throughout ROM in order to prevent injury and enhance functional efficiency (efficient movement with minimal HMS stress). As a young martial artist, I was able to use my ROM to show off, but it did not necessarily have neuromuscular control throughout that ROM. Once you move beyond the ROM that you can control the joint is in a position for increased injury. For our clients, we use assessments to objectively identify tight muscles before implementing partner assisted static or neuromuscular stretching and I do not recommend stretching muscles that are not identified as short and tight.
I live in the state of New York, where stretching is considered exercise. So, as a personal trainer, I can legally stretch my clients here. I have not checked all states, but this seems to be the case for many. My suggestion is to find out if stretching falls under the category of exercise or therapy in your state. Anytime a trainer puts their hands on a client it can increase liability if the client gets injured. With that said, I rarely stretch the muscles of the upper body like the pecs, lats, and even more rarely the neck. As a general safety rule, I often only teach students how to stretch their clients’ legs.
Hand position is important for comfort of the client and how you portray yourself as a professional. The goal is not to spend time on what is right or wrong when it comes to misconduct. I want trainers to be aware that hand positions do not have to be inappropriate to be perceived as inappropriate. This may have less to do with how the client feels and more to do with how others see you. I can only suggest doing what needs to be done to get the best stretch while always being aware that misconduct is a liability even if there is no misconduct. Stretchers beware!
When we take a client’s joint through a ROM it is important to have an idea of what that joint’s ideal ROM is. I do not think it is necessary for trainers to pull out a goniometer and measure the exact degrees, but they should have an idea and a reference for what is actually tight. Once you take the joint to an end range there will be a resistance barrier. It does not need to even provide that much of a stretch for the client for it to be a halting point. Clients may often say, “Keep pushing, it can go farther,” yet there is a shift in the hips during an assisted hamstring stretch. It is important to keep the position strictly limited to the muscle being stretched and not focus on getting the foot farther away. It is also important to move slowly into the stretch as some people will be easy to move through ROM, but they will feel an intensity from the stretch that was unexcepted.
When I present the workshop, we explore how to perform partner assisted static stretching, which is taking the joint to its first resistance barrier without compensation and holding it there for a minimum of 30 seconds. For increasing ROM you would then move the joint passively into a new range and end feel. This can be done three times before a break may be needed (and appreciated by the client). This is a good form of corrective flexibility and is relatively simple to implement and still get positive outcomes. Another form of partner assisted stretching is a type of neuromuscular stretching called contract-relax. This is similar to static stretching in that you take the joint to the first resistance barrier without compensation and hold it. You would then ask the client to very gently (25% or less intensity) push against the stretch for 7 – 15 seconds. For instance, if you are stretching their calves you would have them use the calf muscle being stretched to gently push back against the stretch. Once they release the pressure, you will passively take them into a new ROM. The third type of partner assisted stretching we explore is contract-relax with antagonistic contraction. The only difference here is once the client pushes against you, instead of passively moving them into a new ROM, you would ask their assistance in actively moving into the new ROM.
It is very important to teach your clients how to stretch on their own, so they do not depend on you as their only means of flexibility. Partner assisted stretching is not necessary, but ultimately clients enjoy it and they can get benefit from it. It can be a nice and welcomed treat after a well-crafted and executed workout. There are not many quality courses on partner assisted stretching, so I encourage you to look for them to help you with the practical application. This way you can offer your clients a safe, effective, and enjoyable stretching routine.
If you are interested in learning more about assisted stretching, check out NASM's course on stretching and flexibility.