Stretching and Flexibility Training: Mobility versus Stability.

By Max Wettstein

 

The principles of stretching and flexibility, both for pre-workout warm-up and as a sole means to improve mobility, have completely changed since when you and I were growing up in P.E. class. In a nutshell, stretching can do more harm than good if not done correctly or if performed with the intent of hyper-mobility (exceeding bio-mechanical ranges).

We also now know that joint stability and strength, are more important to athletic performance and lower injury rates, than flexibility is. Optimal range of motion is the goal, with flexibility as one tool to get there. Hypermobility or maximizing joint flexibility is never the goal for an athlete!

In fact some professional athletes do not stretch at all in a traditional sense but rather warm-up and cool-down, and loosen up occasional tight spots and trigger points with targeted stretches, foam-rolling and massage. Strengthening exercises, massage and compression-wear have taken over many areas for today’s relevant athlete, where stretching fell short in the past.

Pre-workout stretching should be used only as a means to acclimate your body to its normal range of optimal motion, as well as loosening up any ‘tight’ spots or fascia adhesions. Pre-workout stretching is not the time to try to improve overall flexibility or push joints or muscles past their bio-mechanical maximum range of motion. Pre-workout stretching should only be done after you have first warmed up your core temperature and increased your heart rate with some form of mild cardio exercise, like spinning, jogging, jumping rope, or mild calisthenics. A warm muscle is a pliable muscle. A cold muscle is prone to high-risk of injury. Never stretch cold muscles!

Ideally the time to work on your flexibility – if that is important to you, is after your workout when all your soft tissue are very warm and pliable. This may also assist in removing lactic-acid and muscle recovery. However, while post-exercise stretching and massage may lower next day (DOMS) soreness, it may also inhibit muscle-gains by reducing inflammation and prostaglandins, which both trigger follow on muscle growth, and Growth Hormone secretion.

So sorry to break the news to all you Jean-Claude Van Damme fans and disco-dancing wannabees, but being able to claim you can do the splits is simply a novelty stunt for circus performers and in no way benchmarks one’s athletic ability. If you think you need to be able to the splits to perform a head kick in MMA class, you’re wrong. In fact, such flexibility is more likely to reduce your joint-stability and make you more prone to injury.

Yoga class? The jury is out. Yoga by design encourages hypermobility as a primary goal, and pushing past normal (optimal) range-of-motion. How many people do you know who have hurt themselves in a yoga class? I have…more than once.

Sure the ladies love it but due to their wider hips, greater valgus/‘Q-angle’, and higher levels of estrogen and progesterone, they are inherently born more flexible than us men, so of course they love to do what they are already good at! You’re better off going to CrossFit class or playing a game of hoops. I’m not saying not to stretch. What I’m saying is, stretch as a means to maintain or regain your normal, optimal, range-of motion, and to loosen up before intense exercise, but only after warming up aerobically.

 

There are several classifications of stretching:

  • Active is where you use only your antagonist muscle groups to maintain the specific stretch position and usually this is very difficult and can only be held for up to 10 seconds.
  • Passive or Static is where you use a partner or an immovable object, including the floor, to hold your limb in the stretched position. Usually for no more than 30 seconds is desired.
  • Isometric is where you use the same partner or immovable object to hold your stretch position, but while you simultaneously press back against them, again for no more than 30 seconds.
  • Dynamic is where you combine the movement of the exercise you are about to perform with a stretch at the end, so you’re moving through the entire range of motion, as you stretch. You must be warmed up before doing this type of stretching, and while it leads to greater gains in flexibility, it also carries higher risk of injury. Some studies show that a dynamic stretch or lengthening of a muscle a moment before contraction will increase strength. This is one of the principles of Plyometric exercise and ‘explosive’ strength. This not to be confused with ‘ballistic stretching’ or bounce-stretching which is never advised.
  • PNF is very advanced form of isometric stretching that requires a certified trainer or therapist to assist which has been demonstrated to improve injury recovery time, and is beyond the scope of this article.

 

When you are stretching, the old adage of “No pain, no gain” that we grew up with in the 80s no longer applies! There is no such thing as ‘good pain’ when you are stretching. I don’t care if your Yogi is singling you out in front of the whole class for your poor form!

Remember, the goal is to maintain or regain your normal biomechanical range-of-motion, never to push past it. Tightness or tingling sensation for a few moments is okay, but no more than 10 seconds at this intensity level. Stretching should simply feel amazing, when done right! The only exception to this is when you are working with a Physical Therapist to rehab an injury or are trying to prevent or break scar tissue and they will give you specific instructions and evaluation. You must focus on your breathing throughout the stretching. Slow, deep breathing to help you relax into the stretch. Inhale between stretch poses, and exhale slowly during the stretch. ‘Belly-breathe’ emphasizing pulling in from your diaphragm.

 

The ideal pre-workout warm-up/stretching protocol might go something like this, but eventually you and your trainer will figure out what works best for you, (and your nagging list of old injuries and scar tissue!). Time permitting of course:

  • Very light cardio exercise for ten minutes to elevate heart rate, circulation and increase blood flow to muscles.
  • Joint-rotations. Move through all your joints, rotating them in circles. Start with your hips and proceed through each joint! Do this for two minutes.
  • Light Static and Passive stretching next. You can emphasize and isolate the muscle groups you plan on training if desired. Hold each stretch pose for up to 30 seconds. This should take no more than five minutes.
  • If you notice any tight spots, knots or adhesions while stretching, or you know of an area of problem scar tissue, then you may want to visit these areas with the foam-roller for a minute or two to roll out the adhesion. This will also lengthen the muscle while it is fully relaxed without having to stretch it.
  • Lastly, perform the actual movement through its full range-of-motion of the exercise or sport you are about to do, but without any added weight or resistance and in much slower motion. Repeat this as necessary. You are now ready to begin your workout or play your sport!

 

As far as cool-down stretching routine goes, this is gravy.

First you need to actually cool-down, aerobically, by continuing the exercise you were just doing at a much slower pace or intensity for a few minutes. Never just stop cold, in the middle of peak intensity as this very stressful for your heart! Then you can stretch as desired, for as long as you like. If you know you have problem areas that immediately tighten up, you should work on them, and then “check-in” with them daily.

Tightness leads to fascia-adhesions, and then to trigger points, and then to muscle imbalances, and then to limited range of motion and pain. Scar tissue tries to lay down on injuries any time you are sedentary. The older we get, the more we have to be aware and involved in our health and the more we need to listen to our bodies.

 

Stay on it!