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What about stretching? This is a question that often gets brought up in the exercise world, though there never seems to be a clear answer. A simple Google search will bring back hundreds of conflicting viewpoints – all of which serve to leave the rest of us torn (pardon the pun) over what are the best practices. What is the best way to stretch? Static or dynamic? Before or after your workout? It is actually effective for enhancing performance? Can it weaken muscles and lead to tears? Should we even stretch at all?
Like many of you out there, the first thing I learned about stretching was from P.E.. You know the drill. There’s the classic bend for your toes, cross-one-foot-over-the-other and fold, pull-on-your-elbow tricep stretch, push-the-wall calf stretch, butterfly stretch (or “crowd pleasers” as we called them), etc. etc.. Whether or not they were effective or not, I had no idea. I simply trusted that if I didn’t do them, injury would be lurking around the corner. For years this continued, with no measurable success (Sometimes I was injured, sometimes I wasn’t).
It wasn’t until I stumbled across Kelly Starret’s MobilityWOD.com that the light bulb finally went off. Kelly is a DPT and owner of San Francisco CrossFit, as well as the king of supple leopards (and my personal fitness hero). Everyday for the past 8 months, he has been posting a new ‘stretching’ video on his website (talk about production!), going over concepts and self-programming. It is a treasure trove of knowledge, and you’d be doing yourself a favor by checking it out.
But maybe you don’t have time to watch 241(and counting) five-minute videos about stretching. Maybe you don’t feel like compiling a giant excel sheet breaking down each video and looking for patterns on how to program for different movements. Maybe you had something better to do with your time. And that’s OK, because I didn’t.
Here are 7 of the most important lessons I’ve learned from watching Kelly’s videos and from my own experience with MobilityWOD programming and design over the last 8 months with my clients. Hopefully it will be a useful crash course for a better understanding of ‘stretching’, ‘mobility’, and how to use it effectively in your training.
1. Mobilize, don’t just stretch. (i.e. stretch with a purpose)
“Stretching only focuses on lengthening short and tight muscles. Mobilization, on the other hand, is a movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.” – Kelly Starret, MobilityWOD.com
Perhaps the simplest way to describe mobilization is “stretching with a purpose.” Specifically, our purpose is to improve range of motion (ROM), positioning, power production, and recovery. If we don’t see an increase in our effectiveness during training or in post-training recovery, then it’s NOT WORKING. Don’t be satisfied with “thinking” you are helping. Measure your progress. Far too often I see people simply going through the motions. Don’t be that guy.
One way to do this is to simply check range of motion pre- and post-‘stretching’ (what Kelly likes to call Test/Retest.) Is it easier to get down into the bottom of your squat? Are your shoulders able to get into a better overhead position? Will this improved position make you stronger/faster/safer/better (through improved force production and efficiency)?
One fun thing I have my clients do is mobilize one side and then check it against the other. I ask them, is there a visible difference? The most cases, the answer is a resounding YES! Not only does this show them that they ARE making a difference, but it MOTIVATES them to continue on their own.
“General stretching” has failed – and so will “general mobilization” if you let it. You need to have a plan of attack. (Why would you need to do a swimmer’s stretch if the day’s workout is Box Jumps?) By smartly programming your mobilizations to match your workout demands, you’ll be taking advantage of that new ROM you’re developing and continue to get better.
2. Mobilize the position, not the muscles.
Keep things simple. Try not to get caught up in “what” you are stretching. We are mobilizing positions, NOT anatomical terms. If you are wondering “What am I stretching in this position?”, the answer always is: anything that is a point of resistance, whether it’s muscular, capsular, or soft tissue — it doesn’t matter.
A more important exercise than naming what muscles you are stretching is to understand what positions are used in movement. For example, how does external rotation of the knee play into a squat? Why would we want to mobilize that position? How does having internal-rotation at the hip, on the other hand, help us to keep our toes pointed straight? Proper position equals injury prevention. There’s a reason the best lifters have the best technique. Not only are they more effective and powerful, but they are safer to perform too. It’s really hard to get stronger if you’re also constantly battling injury.
If you can break down a movement into its composite positions, you will be able to more effectively mobilize and program for yourself.
3. PNF – Contract/Relax
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching (or PNF for short), is a combination of passive stretching and isometric contractions. Although originally developed as a physical therapy program for patients with paralysis, in the last 20 years it has also been found to be extremely effective when working with athletes. The goal is to make quick gains in ROM to improve performance and safety.
The most basic form of PNF stretching is called the contract/relax method. To perform it, you set yourself up in the proper position, then “get tight” for 5 seconds. (In an isometric contraction, the angle of your joint stays the same. Think about someone holding your leg in place as you try hard to push against it. Even though your leg doesn’t move, you are still contracting the muscle.) After 5 seconds, relax the muscle, and try to take up your newfound slack in the muscle to put yourself back in tension. Stay relaxed and passive for 10 seconds, and then get tight again. Repeat until you stop making progress.
NOTE: PNF stretching is probably best done by a physical therapist or the help of a friend who knows what they’re doing. When the athlete comes off of tension into relaxation, it’s important for the helper to also release tension so that they don’t over-extend the muscle/joint, before taking up the slack. However, even without outside help, we can still take advantage of this process by simply finding immobile objects to resist us (like tables, walls, chairs, etc.) You will be stunned by how much a difference this kind of stretching makes in your training. I know I was.
4. Band ’em if you got ’em (i.e. you can’t stretch a contracted muscle)
Guess what? A tight, contracted muscle isn’t very good at “stretching”. (In fact, if a muscle “stretches” while under load, it’s considered an eccentric movement, ex: negative pull-ups or bench press.) To this end, the classic bend over and touch your toes stretch is awful for loosening up your hamstrings, which are under high-tension. It serves much better as a lower-back stretch.
So, what can we do to make sure a muscle is relaxed before we apply the tension to it? One answer: Jumpstretch flexbands (or any other brand.) I got my Green (75lb resistance) jumpstretch band for $20 from Rogue Fitness, and it might be the best investment I’ve made towards my flexibility and health. By using bands, we can distract the joint, allowing ourselves to relax and be passive even while there is tension being applied to the joint by the band.
Also, we ALWAYS want to mobilize in a GOOD position (shoulder/hip/etc.) and the bands help pull our joints into the proper place in the capsule. The hip capsule stretch is on of the best examples of how dramatic the difference can be once you set that joint to the back of the socket allowing it to move cleanly and freely.
5. Trigger points and tools of punishment
Trigger points are basically tiny knots that develop in your muscles after injury or overuse, and are a major source of pain and muscular dysfunction. We want our bodies to be in tip-top shape – primed to take on the challenges of the world and our workout routines – not junked up from too much work and not enough recovery.
Think about your muscles as layers of tissues that need to be able to slide and move against each other. If there is a “small knot” blocking that movement and causing pain, we are effectively putting the breaks on our performance. In order to take the breaks off, we need to restore our sliding tissues and attack trigger points in the muscles.
While you can fork out some dough for nice TriggerPoint Therapy Equipement, it is in no way necessary to get the benefits. All you need is a little patience and 3 lacrosse balls (a single, and then 2 taped together). I got mine for $1.68 a piece on Amazon. So in total, my Mobility Equipment cost me $20 (band) + $1.68×3 = $25.04. That’s CHEAP!
In MobilityWOD, there are 3 techniques in particular that are helpful.
- Contract/Relax on a trigger point – find something that hurts or is really sore, and put the lacrosse ball on that point. Contract over the ball for several seconds, and then release to get into that deep tissue. (For me, I find lots of triggers around the glute and thorasic spine.)
- Tack and pull – Put the lacrosse ball near a trigger point, press down against it to take out any slack in the tissues, and then pull the muscle past it by extending/flexing the leg/arm/hip, etc.
- Pancake – This might be the most effective one. Think about pressing and smearing your tissues apart. Not just rolling back and forth, but actually applying pressure and sliding those tissues free. Example: Place the double lacrosse ball on the ground along your thorasic spine and work on small oscillations around one point. Once you make change and no longer feel pain, move on.
6. Two minutes minimum exposure
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want to make progress, 2 minutes spent on one position is the minimum dose. It’s way longer than your standard 10-20 second set-up from P.E. class, but since you are stretching with a purpose, you only need 8-10 min total to hit the mobilizations you need.
Don’t cop out and go for less. Really, you should keep going until you cease seeing progress. Trust me, it takes longer than 20 seconds for that to happen.
7. Work on position before, and recovery afterwards.
The best time to mobilize is whenever you can (even at your desk-job), but when it comes specifically to training, my recommendation is this: work on position before your workout, and recovery afterwards.
Proper technique and position is crucial to any workout, especially when dealing with a movement that’s giving you trouble. For me, that movement was air squats. For years, I fought the “butt-wink” at the bottom of my squat, a classic sign of tight hamstrings. But no matter how many stretches I did, I couldn’t seem to get “down in the hole” effectively. After some MobilityWOD work, I decided to strap a band around the leg and work on both loosening up the hamstrings with PNF stretching and setting the hip to the back of the joint with the capsule stretch, and PRESTO! Instant ROM and my first good-looking squat in years. So if you’re having an issue, address it at the start of your workout.
However, it isn’t just power we’re after, but recovery. For that, trigger point therapy using lacrosse balls post-workout has proven to be extremely effective. In general, I’ve found that this work is best saved for the post-workout time period, to prep muscles to be worked the next day. The changes in ROM aren’t as significant as when using PNF stretching or bands, and you’ll probably be able to tell what areas got ‘worked’ that need extra attention after a session. You don’t need to do it every day, but make sure you don’t neglect this part of your mobility. The better you take care of your muscles, the better they’ll take care of you.
Here’s the bottom line: just mobilize. These tips and tricks will go a long way, but don’t feel LIMITED by them. If you don’t have lacrosse balls, jumpstretch bands, or much time, it doesn’t matter – just do the best with what you have available. There are lots of ways to be creative with this stuff, and plenty you can do without any tools at all. In fact, here are 5 classic MobilityWOD stretches that I always have in my back pocket in case I have a couple of free minutes waiting at the bus stop or after lunch.
Squat Stretch – Try to keep your toes pointed forwards, and sit down into a low squat. Use your elbows to shove your knees out, and think about sending your butt to your ankles. In this position, your lower back will be rounded, but it’s okay because your spine isn’t loaded. If you’re having trouble getting down, grab on to something to balance yourself and work towards better depth. (Time: 10 minutes.)
Couch Stretch – Plant your knee against a wall or into the back corner of a couch/chair/etc. Step the other leg out in front, and then raise up nice and tall through your midline. Keep the belly tight so you don’t over-extend, and try to squeeze the glute (butt) and open up the front of the hip on the leg that’s up against the wall. Most athletes are VERY short in the anterior hip, and this will be a challenging and potentially painful position. Back out to where it is bearable, and work through it. (Time: 2 minutes a side.)
Calf Stretch – In shoes, plant your heel near a wall and put the balls of your toes up on the wall. Make sure not to band at the hip (i.e. keep it straight), flex your butt, and send your hip to the wall. Spend 2 minutes here, and then bend your knee and send your knee to the wall. Contract/relax for another 2 minutes. This stretch works the calf both where it crosses the ankle and the knee. (Time: 2 minutes a side for each position.)
High Hamstring Table Stretch – Put one leg up on a table/chair/bed/etc., letting the other leg drop off. Plant the foot firmly, and lock it down with one arm. Then, let the knee drop off to the side (all the while keeping your foot flat on the table) and explore the hip by moving back-and-forth and laterally. Grind through anything that’s tight or pinchy. (Time: 2 minutes a side.)
Pigeon on the Table Stretch – Lay one leg across the table, letting the foot drop off to the side if it’s more comfortable. Make sure the knee is supported (not too far up off the table) and adjust as needed. Then load the hip by pushing the hip back, and keeping your torso tight, fold forwards. Contract/relax as able. (Time: 2 minutes a side for 2 rounds.)
NOTE: You should NEVER feel like you’re going numb or in serious pain while doing these mobilizations. If something feels wrong, back out, reset, and try again. If it still feels wrong, stop.
Holy crap that was a long post! But now you are fully armed to go out and attack your flexibility and mobility problems, to set new PRs, and to move safely and effectively.
ICYMI: Interested in how to apply these principles to your own training? Send me your profile for a free coaching consult! http://freefitguy.com/coaching
And if that wasn’t enough, check out these other posts on Warm Up, Mobility, and more:
-Stay healthy everybody