We train ourselves, our kids, dogs, and even sometimes cats, so it isn’t a huge stretch that plants can be trained too. For cannabis plants, low-stress training is all about gently coaxing them to do what they do naturally, albeit in a certain direction. Not much different than any other kind of training, isn’t it?

What does it mean?

Low-stress training is all about techniques that coax plants to grow a certain way without inflicting damage onto the plant. That last part, the no-damage thing, is important. High-stress training also exists. As the name implies this is a more invasive way to achieve the desired result; one that involves deliberately damaging certain parts. Combinations of the two approaches are an option as well.

The motivation behind low-stress training

The motivation behind both these approaches is the same. Normally a plant ends up with one main kola, the top one, which is logical since that’s the most advantageously placed flower. The one part that reaches the furthest and catches the most light.

In playing with angles and orientation, you can create a situation where the side branches and ordinarily smaller kolas gain access to an equal amount of light and space as the top one.

Training is a great way to increase the size and weight of kolas other than the main one, located on the side branches, and as a result, drastically increase the yield of a single plant.

An additional reason for low-stress training is that when growing indoors it keeps the height of pants manageable.

In short, the two main reasons to train a plant are to:

  • Increase yield.
  • Control its size and shape.

How is low stress training done?

Low-stress training is as simple as tying down the stem of a plant in the direction you want it to grow. This tells the plant to grow horizontally and closer to the ground, or in other interesting and practical shapes, instead of following its natural programming to shoot up vertically. As a result, the light hits its entire length and multiple colas can shoot up from along the stem.

You know how in urban areas you’ll often see something green pop up that worked its way through fencing or rubble, and around concrete tiles or other obstacles?

Even in those harsh circumstances a plant can still make it happen, by adapting and going around snags in the road in its continual search for sunlight.

Mind you, in the case of cannabis it’ll be a plant that is pampered and well cared for instead of fighting to survive. Weeds in the city usually show sign of their hard struggle for life, but your cannabis plant will have everything it needs to thrive… while being told to grow in a certain direction. Training does not automatically equal struggle as it does for those weeds pushing through in heavily urbanized areas. But it’s a good example of the idea.

Inside vs. outside & distance to grow lights

A quick word on the distance to one or more grow lights. While you can also do awesome things with low-stress training outside, it is one of the best tools indoor growers have at their disposition to increase yield off a single plant and make things work in small spaces.

The planet we live on is located at a perfect distance to the sun to thrive, in the so-called Goldilocks zone. Anything closer gets burned, and anything further away is too cold.

Under the grow lights, we recreate such an environment on a much smaller scale. Between those knock-off suns with infinitely smaller margins and the limited area you’re working with, the perfect distance to the lights is a relatively small area.

Low-stress training can be the difference between having a plant’s one main kola in the right place to thrive (and all the others in tougher spots somewhere below) or having every single kola on a plant in that most advantageous position. There is room for all of them, as long as they make use of the horizontal space available.

The only way to make sure the largest possible amount of green gets to enjoy this small-scale Goldilocks zone side-by-side is by creating a flat-ish horizontally shaped bush. Some call it a disk, others a star shape, you might even see plants trained in a sort of spiral around the stem.

Low stress training plants outside? With that giant natural light source up in the sky, you don’t have to worry about burning leaves that get too close. There are other challenges, such as less predictability and control of the situation, but managing the distance to the sun isn’t a problem. As long as you can get the plant into a nice sideways position or whichever trained shape you’re going for, all kolas will have it equally good.

On to the practical!

Enough with the what and why already, let’s get into how exactly to do this, do’s and do not’s, and which gadgets to use for an easy process and the best results.

Let plants grow to 4 – 6 knots

When seeds sprout and start to grow, let them do just that. Only once they’ve grown four to six knots are they big enough to be trained. A knot refers to one set of leaves coming from the stem.

How do you count knots? Starting at ground level, find the first leaves followed by some empty space on the stem. That’s the first knot. Where the next set of leaves come out is the second knot, again followed by some empty stem going up.

First action

Gently bend in different directions along a support system once the seedling has grown into a young plant of four to six knots of height. Emphasis on gently because you can always bend a little more the next day. Avoid putting too much strain on the parts closest to the stem, the attachment points. Those are easiest to snap or break. The ends/tips of the growths are much more supple and easy to manipulate.

Tie each growth outward from the stem, somewhat equally spaced, including the top, like roads on a roundabout.

Keep on keeping on

This isn’t rocket science, and there’s not that much more to it. Just keep in mind the flat shape you want the plant to grow into and the distance to the light.

A flat shape can have many forms. Whichever shape you aim for, whether it is a disk/circular bush or to neatly fill the square of a small growing space, you’ll be weaving the branches slowly but gradually into their final positions over the course of a few weeks or a couple of months.

Equipment/Tools

The low-stress training toolbox consists of very few things. (I’m going to assume that you have all the other growing supplies figured out and are just here for the training piece.) It’s a very short shopping list, with some other basics thrown in for good fun as we touch upon different options and tying techniques.

Ties: twist ties, soft wire ties

Garden plant twist ties, soft wire ties, or a combination of both. The first kind is good enough for less heavy plants, the second are well suited to heavier ones, and with both you’ll be well equipped to work some tying magic.

Alternatives

While the soft wire ties are my favorite, there are many alternatives for both ties mentioned above. For example pipe cleaners (yup, indeed), straps of fabric, large flat rubber bands (cut open, use smaller pieces of it and staple the ends together around the plant stem). It depends on how scrappy you want to go, but the options are endless.

Nothing beats working with the soft wire ties, though. They are safe and won’t damage the plant and are hard to beat when it comes to form-flexibility and bend-ability. About eight bucks make those fancy ties a very affordable luxury.

Support: tomato rings, sticks, bamboo

A tomato ring is an excellent tool to create shape that can be use in combination with standalone sticks or other attaching points.

If you have sitting around any of those support sticks typically found in orchid pots, those can work too, at least in the beginning. Bamboo is great as well, but perhaps harder to come by depending on where you live.

For emergency repairs: plant tape

Plant tape. If a branch snaps, it’ll be in need of immediate mending to ensure proper healing. Electrical tape can do the trick. Some even use duct tape. Any tape is better than no tape, I suppose, but as with the ties I’m not sure why you would deny yourself some proper gear – the kind that’s meant for taping plant stems in this case – when it is dirt cheap.

To cut the top or not, that’s the question

[Personal opinion alert.] There is something nice about leaving a plant intact and working with it as an undamaged whole. Call me an overly sensitive hippie if you wish. With that said, while topping technically falls under high-stress training, it is a popular thing to prep a plant for further low-stress training also. Here’s why.

Apical dominance

The term for changing the cannabis plant’s natural impulse to put most of its energy toward the top is called breaking the apical dominance. This is where some like to bring a high-stress training technique to the table and cut off the main, top shoot. That’ll break the pre-programmed tendency. Quite literally so, we might add.

Two sides

There are different schools of thought on the need to top when low-stress training. Those in favor say it helps the remaining side branches turn into bigger colas. Those opposed say it isn’t really necessary, and you can just bend over the top stem with the others and treat it the same way. 

Things to watch out for & avoid

Watch for sharp-edged ties. Even though you don’t need to use “official” ties, don’t use anything that can cut into the stem and damage the plant. This is low stress training, remember? We’re all about the soft approach here, nice and gentle. Rounded corners, friendly tools and an easy going attitude. 😉 Cutting, trimming, invasive tactics and the likes are part of high stress training.

Don’t do anything past the late flowering stage. While cannabis plants are very good at rebounding, they need to be trained during vegetative state, otherwise, there simply isn’t enough time left for them to adapt, grow and achieve the desired shape. The stems also get stiffer as they mature, so they’ll be harder to work with and harder not to break accidentally. If you’ve kind of missed the window and the plant is starting to flower it might be better to wait for the next round, although most agree that low-stress training can be done well into the early flowering.

Slack and neglect. This one’s probably obvious, and the term training definitely divulges that there’s going to be some action involved in the process. Not just on behalf of the plant, but also the caretaker. Best not to leave the plants alone without checking on them regularly. Once a week is an absolute minimum, every few days is better. This to avoid missing opportunities in the form of windows for adjustment of young stems and of course to keep tabs on the plant’s general well-being.

Troubleshooting

Oops, snapped a stem? No panic. With some TLC the break is usually able to regenerate.

To avoid accidental breakage, don’t bend too drastically, but start gently and come back the next day. Also, don’t try to bend close to a knot! That’s where the stem most easily breaks. Focus on the outer parts of the offshoots, which are thinner and the most flexible.

Training Autoflowering Seeds

Autoflowering cannabis plants can be trained like any others, although there is less room for error. Since their progression from vegetative state to flowering doesn’t depend on light, the risk is that there may not be enough time for the plant to recoup and grow into its new shapes.