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Excerpt from the book ‘Being Fit' by J. Hoffman, PT.

Essay Eight: On Dog Stretches and Human Functional Movements

Human movements are infinite. The body is so versatile, no one person can master all the possible postures or movements. Movements related to the everyday function, or ‘functional movements’, are basic tasks like walking or squatting. ‘Functional training’ uses exercises with elements of functional movements. This essay presents insights on functional human movements and subsequent functional training. As with the rest of the essays, it uses only observable, repeatable and sustainable natural phenomena as arguments.

There are controversies concerning the scientific (and popular) debate about the significance of stretching. Science has dwelled a lot on the significance of stretching as it relates to athletic performance, with a special interest in discovering the optimal stretch. However, the result of years of scientific experiments and debates remain inconclusive and confusing (1,2). Recent studies have even documented that pre-exercise stretching may actually decrease body power and be counterproductive (3,4).

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This essay finds more conclusive answers to this important question in nature. When observing dogs, for example, the answer is a definite yes to stretches. They even show us how. A dog’s natural, distinct stretch routine repeats itself several times a day, every day of the week. Even though dogs are different to humans, much can still be learned from their natural behavior.

As discussed in Essay Seven, dogs use a symmetric flexion/extension strategy to run, while humans use an upright asymmetric rotational strategy. When a dog runs, there is a simultaneous action of bilateral hip extension and bilateral shoulder flexion during the mid 'flight' phase.

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To maintain this significant combination of movements, two stretches are popular amongst dogs: bilateral hip extension and bilateral shoulder flexion. One stretch combines stabilizing the scapula thoracic region in a neutral position and stretching the hips into extension, while the other combines stabilizing the pelvic area and stretching the shoulders into flexion. The frequent practice of this routine maintains the body in a post-stretch status, keeping dogs ready for the expected and unexpected movement challenges of life.

Because dogs have a different body design and movement strategies than humans, they also have different ‘maintenance’ requirements. For example, upright exercises involving rotation are functionally significant for humans but not for dogs. However, as a readily available reminder of unspoiled natural behavior, much can be applied to humans from observing dogs:

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  • The dog stretch is self-propelled, more like a yoga or Pilates exercise, rather than a passive stretch popular to modern athletes that might require external assistance.

  • The stretch comes at the tail end of a harmonious movement. It is therefore better to call it a routine rather than a stretch.

  • During the routine, dogs separate movement components. These re-connect later during automated functional movements like running.

  • The dog stretch involves mobility to the stretched limbs but also active stability of the spine and other limbs. The ‘exercise’ is therefore considered functional because the subsystems (identified in Essay Five) are not trained in isolation.

  • The movements and stretches of this routine look (and probably feel) comfortable.

  • Each stretch lasts for about one second.

  • How many days a week? Every day.

  • When? After getting up from a rest and just before going for a walk.

  • How many times a day? As many as needed.

As a bridge between the ancient natural dog stretch routine and modern functional exercises for humans, five phases of movement are defined. This method of sequencing stages within each repetition is shared by many current Foundation training exercises. As a visual example, a Foundation stage exercise involving a combination of shoulder-mobility (towards extension) and trunk-stability (while tilting backwards) is used:

Starting position

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Before the movements begin, the body prepares mentally and physically. The starting position is usually an energy-efficient basic functional posture in the line of gravity, like standing. The objective is to maintain proper posture and to gear up the body mentally and physically for the impending challenge. This procedure is significant because thinking about the physical challenge can help movements to become more harmonious. Physical and mental preparations for movements before they begin provide many advantages and are well worth practicing.


Movement phase

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This is the process the body undergoes from the starting position to the stretch. Harmonious movements are created by using the correct blend and timing of stability and mobility joints, muscles and neural circuits, throughout the body. The goal is to time the body parts as they move until they reach the limit of harmonious movements.

Stretch phase

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This is the process the body undergoes from the starting position to the stretch. Harmonious movements are created by using the correct blend and timing of stability and mobility joints, muscles and neural circuits, throughout the body. The goal is to time the body parts as they move until they reach the limit of harmonious movements.

Stretch phase

This phase is at the limit of the body's ability to stabilize what needs to be stabilized and mobilize what needs to be mobilized for movements. This combined effort should produce a pleasing sensation, lasting for about one second, like a dog stretch. Then the body should ease out of the stretch and start returning to the starting position. Pain or discomfort interfere with the quality of movement and therefore should not be allowed during exercise. If postural corrections or exercise variations do not result in a good sensation during this or any other stage, the exercise should be abandoned. In this case, a Fix stage intervention (as described in Essay Four) might be required.


Return phase

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This phase consists of the movements phase in reverse order, bringing the body back harmoniously from the stretch phase to the starting position. This phase trains the important ability to continuously find the midline and maintain harmonious postures.


Relax phase

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The ability to tone down the muscles efficiently after a movement challenge is related to levels of fitness. For example, during rest, a fit person can relax his or her muscles more efficiently than a person with back pain. This ability is important because it allows the body to feel good and gear up harmoniously for the next repetition. It is therefore just as important to train the muscles to relax after movements as it is to practice the movements. Perhaps for this purpose, a dog wiggles its body after stretches.



  1. Ryan ED, Herda TJ, Costa PB, et al. Determining the minimum number of passive stretches necessary to alter musculotendinous stiffness.

  2. Fasen JM, O'Connor AM, Schwartz SL, et al. A randomized controlled trial of hamstring stretching: comparison of four techniques. J Strength Cond Res. 2009; 23(2): 660-667

  3. Gergley JC. Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2013; 27: 973-977.

  4. Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G. Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013; 23: 131-48.

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