- INSIDE ATHLETICS
- FOR THE STUDENTS
Most conditioning programs have implemented stretching exercises to prevent injuries such as muscle pulls. Unfortunately, there is very little scientific support to substantiate that an increase in flexibility will prevent injuries. The degree of flexibility has little to do with muscle pulls. Pulls usually occur due to an athlete being out of shape, fatigued or not warmed up.
Flexibility exercises tend to increase the resting length of muscles, restore normal range of movement, encourage proper blood flow and permit increase of power with strengthening exercises. Flexibility exercises are designed to stretch certain muscles. Make sure that you maintain the stretch for fifteen to thirty seconds - avoiding bouncing. Take about ten to fifteen minutes to do these flexibility exercises with total concentration. You should be in a relaxed state of mind at all times when you are stretching.
There are three major types of stretching used to increase flexibility: static stretching, dynamic or ballistic stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching.
Static stretching involves holding a stretched position that passively places the muscles and connective tissues at their greatest possible length without pain for about fifteen to thirty seconds. It is the most commonly used flexibility technique.
Dynamic or ballistic stretching uses repetitive bouncing movements of short duration and momentum from a moving body or limb to forcibly increase the range of motion (ROM). This type of stretching places an individual at a high risk for injury because of the stresses placed on the muscles and connective tissues. Therefore, it is not recommended.
PNF stretching involves alternating muscle contractions and relaxation to improve ROM. There are two kinds of PNF stretching: contract-relax and contract-relax agonist-contract. Using the contract-relax method, a targeted muscle group is first passively stretched, typically by a partner. Then the individual isometrically contracts, slightly less than maximum, the muscle group against a resistance, typically a partner, for a six to ten seconds. Finally, the contracted muscle group is relaxed and then stretched to a new point of limitation. The sequence is usually repeated a few times.
The contract-relax agonist-contract method employs a contraction of the opposing muscle group following the stretch of the targeted muscle group. For example, if you want to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings, stretch the hamstrings to the point of limitation, then contract the hamstrings by pushing your leg against your partners resistance. Maintain the contraction for six to ten seconds and then relax. Finally, restretch the hamstrings to the new point of limitation. When using the contract-relax agonist-contract method, after the contract, relax and restretch phases, contract your quadriceps for six to ten seconds. Relax the quadriceps and then restretch the hamstrings again to a new point of limitation.
To benefit from stretching one must warm up the muscles. The best activity you can use to warm up is the activity itself. If you are going to be running sprints, begin by running slowly and then gradually increase you speed. Stretching will not warm up the muscles to sprint. When undergoing a stretching program, the following three stages should be adhered to:
1. WARM-UP: It is important to elevate the body's core temperature before stretching. This can be done during low intensity aerobic exercise such as a slow jog or riding a stationary bike. You should "break a sweat" before doing extensive stretching exercises.
2. PRE-STRETCH: Begin with a slow pre-stretch that adds only slight tension to the muscle. This position should be held for 10-30 seconds while the muscle accommodates tension. This phase should be light and should not be painful to the athlete.
3. STRETCH: During the actual stretching phase, slowly lengthen the muscle group involved. If too much tension is developed too soon, safeguards within the nervous system will be activated (e.g. excessive pain, uncontrolled muscle quivering, contraction of antagonist muscles) and the benefits of the stretch will be lost. When this happens, slowly back off and let the muscles once again relax and then proceed. The correct procedure is to develop slight tension, let this fade, then continue to achieve a greater range of motion. DO NOT BOUNCE!
The specific movements you perform for your position will develop the range of motion of the muscles used to perform those activities. When you stretch, you develop a range of motion that is specific to that stretch and the limited number of muscle fibers recruited at that point. The range of motion used in sports is different than that developed by stretching. Other differences include the number of muscle fibers recruited, the violence of the movements and the many different arcs the muscle uses to change direction, stop and backpedal.
You may spend weeks running and stretching at slow speeds. Soreness may not be experienced until you force the muscles through a new range of motion. Play racquetball and a different soreness is experienced. Start practice and the range of motion to go through drills will demand a new range of motion and soreness. Regardless of how much you stretch or how flexible you are, you will experience this new soreness each time you perform a new activity that takes your muscles through a different range of motion. Range of motion of muscles involved is dictated and developed by the activity you perform.
The aging process and inactivity erode your flexibility. Some lower back problems can be attributed to poor hip flexor, calf, hamstring and low back flexibility. Inactive people can benefit more from stretching than active athletes. When you increase the range of motion of a joint you want to also increase the strength of the muscles in that new range of motion. It makes little sense to increase the range of motion of the joint without increasing strength in that new range of motion. Increasing flexibility without an increase in strength will result in joint laxity. Unless you are a contortionist, joint laxity is of no value to you and will probably increase your risk of injury. If you properly strengthen a muscle throughout a full range of motion, you will increase its flexibility. A properly designed strength program should increase an athlete's flexibility.
Discipline yourself to stretch daily. No equipment is necessary. However, do not use stretching as a warm-up.