Coming from a background in various sports like boxing and even dancing, I figured I was going into my exercise science and physical therapy programs with a lot of advanced knowledge of how to best exercise my body to its fullest. What I came across in reality was a lot of “wow, I wish I had known this when I was competing!” We’ve actually already talked about some of this in our functional training blog, learning to optimize your program to target muscles with how they’re used. But beyond strength and power, flexibility and mobility can be HUGE in any given sport. If you’re having some performance issues of your own in daily life or sport, there just might be a little more to look into. So here’s my goal of the day: distill some of the most important things I wish I would have known so you don’t have to wish. They’re little tips, tricks, and myth corrections that have absolutely changed how I train current athletes as well as myself.
- Timing your stretches matters: Like most everyone, I thought that the best time to stretch was right before I started to exercise, part of my warm-up routine! With most patients, athlete or otherwise, I actually stretch after the exercise. This sounds like madness, but hear me out. Those small muscle length changes you get during that warm up stretch are short lived, and odds are partway through your workout, you have lost that range and are back to square one. Your best bet to optimize flexibility is actually by stretching post-workout. You’ve probably heard, or even said yourself, something about “feeling looser” after you get moving. Well that’s exactly how it works! Now that you’ve warmed up and gotten some extra base range, finishing with stretching can push you a little further than normal. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch before your number in the show or event in a competition if you have time. That little extra range will last you through a short period, and if flexibility benefits your activity that can make a lot of difference in your performance. It does mean, however, that stretching is not a “warm up” in and of itself, and your post workout stretch might get you further in the long run.
- Stretching might not be the goal: Take into careful consideration whether or not you really want that short increase in flexibility. For activities that require a lot of initial power, putting extra slack into the muscles can actually decrease your performance. So how do you know? Well, after a good dynamic warm up like jump rope or calisthenics, give it a couple trials without stretching before you do it with. In athletes like sprinters and jumpers, power production is often decreased post stretching, so see if what matters most in your activity changes pre or post stretching. If you have appropriately warmed up, the activity will still be safe without stretching, we have not actually seen good evidence that stretching decreases injury, but your performance may change. Perform a little experiment on yourself and see!
- Stretching isn’t a once a day thing: I remembered my coaches and gym teachers warning me a lot about overworking. Once a day, maybe even every other day, I would hear. Well, that’s not what I tell my patients at all! For patients who need to increase flexibility and mobility, I tell them three times a day is a minimum. “For this, there is never too much extra credit” is a common theme in my home programs regarding stretching. Like we talked about before, your post-stretching changes tend to be short lived, and the carried over range tends to shrink back to close to where it was before relatively quickly. But, if you stack those little changes multiple times throughout the day, you will tend to find more change over a week than people stretching just once.
- Flexibility and mobility are different: This one blew my little mind when I learned it, more because it took me so long to learn than because it was complicated. Obviously muscle length (flexibility) comes into how far I can move through a range of motion. However, obviously the ligaments and joint capsules that hold me together play a big role in that too! With muscle length left out of the equation, how much that joint can move within those restrictions is true mobility. If you have restrictions in a region, determining if it is truly a flexibility or a mobility issue can very much change which exercises you need!
- I am not actually changing my muscle length: While we often call it “muscle length,” we really only use that term because there’s not a better way to describe what we’re doing. All of our muscles have receptors that tell our nervous system a lot- how much strain they are under, how far they have moved one direction or another, if they should be perceiving pain, and how fast they are moving. Those receptors have a very important job in regulating how we move, and part of that job is making sure they stop you from moving your joint “too far” through its range, avoiding risking injury. When we gently stretch a muscle, what we are doing is teaching our nervous system at what length it is safe to move through, and at what length we should be stopping to avoid injury. This sounds like a useless little factoid until you look at the idea of neuromuscular re-education: the idea that we can perform very specific actions to “abuse” our reflexes and trick our muscles into having improved length. Here’s where the rest of our tips come in!
- Hold relax techniques might just be black magic: Sometimes this will require a partner, but this is one of the easiest ways to stretch out a muscle- by activating it! Take a simple partner hamstring stretch while you are on your back. If your partner lifts your legs and pushes, you’ll eventually feel it, obviously. But what if, just before you reach that end range, you push back against your partner for 5 seconds with a little force? Try it, when you relax again you’ll often find that you’ve just made a fairly rapid gain in flexibility! Repeating a few times in a row can sometimes take that change and bring it even further, some of my more elite dancing friends have gone from a very restricted day stuck at 90 degrees to back up touching their heads through their first series of these. All we’re doing here is tricking those nerves, adding extra tension and then removing it, making them think that the safe range requires more and more tension. It’s a neat little trick, but often it really moves you, and can apply to almost every joint and muscle in the body.
- Antagonists are worth learning: Much like hold relax, you can sometimes really take advantage of muscles on the opposite side of the body to benefit the ones that are troubling you. Your body has a neat natural pattern to attempt to relax the muscle opposite the working group to optimize its own loading. For example, when trying to really work your triceps on the back of the arm, the biceps should receive a message to downregulate their own action so your body doesn’t have to fight itself. What that can mean for you in stretching, though, is that you can work those isometric contractions like above to stretch a desired muscle. Tight hip flexors? Try working the extensors! Tight back? Activate that core! Tight hamstrings? Turn on the quads! Similar to your hold relax techniques, you can take advantage of your own nerves and their natural reactions to increase your mobility where static stretching has reached a limit for you.
- Bouncing might be safe: Now let’s be careful with this one. What your teachers and coaches told you is right- heavy ballistic stretching puts a lot of load into the local tissues and can increase your risk. Gentle, low grade oscillations at or just before end range, however, can again downregulate your body’s protective response and get us a little extra motion especially if your issue is more joint mobility related than true flexibility. Now because there’s a definite way to do this wrong, working with a healthcare professional to learn how to do it just right and have them guide your through your initial trials can be pretty important, and if you are wondering if this might be right for you, I would definitely get an exam first.
Now tightness can be caused by other factors beyond what we’ve talked about today. Nerve impingements and injuries can very much affect your mobility as well, so if your typical home care isn’t working, or you’ve reached an unexplained plateau, that’s the time to find out some more from your health and fitness experts. Until then, best of luck, and have fun!
Alec Martinez, DP, DPT