Last blog post we discussed the Cool Down and how it can be a great opportunity for the development of specific mobility and/or flexibility
And promised to discuss that more in this weeks newsletter.
So I’ve gone into the archives and pulled out an article I published on the blog on 9/3/2018
And as it’s 5 years since I wrote that, I’ve tweaked it a little with some of my current thoughts.
So, here is, “A Quick Primer On Stretching”
Stretching is a very subjective topic. Different people respond very differently to various styles of stretching.
So here's a look at the main styles of stretching (various people/training systems may lay claim to inventing or owning some of these methods. They’re wrong.)
Static Stretching has a more appropriate name that is used by Pavel Tsatsouline in his book Relax into Stretch, he calls it “Wait Out The Tension” And that’s an apt description of what actually happens. You assume the stretch position and you hang out there until that position becomes comfortable and then you go a bit further. Simple.
Update, while this is still true, we have to nod towards the fact that we still don’t know what is being stretched or where the new range of motion comes from.
We know the muscle fibres don’t get any longer, and we really really do not want the tendons or ligaments getting longer.
Over the years I have worked with Tae Kwon Do folk and dancers who have stretched themselves passively to the extent they became “floppy” had no control of that range of motion and often struggled with pain and injury, usually in the knees, low back, hips and sometimes muscles.
Have they stretched the ligaments that are supposed to hold the body together? We don’t know for sure
But that “floppiness” was doing them no favours.
What are we actually stretching?
I prefer to think of this as the nervous system “allowing” the muscles to relax enough to allow greater range of motion.
So “Relax into Stretch” is a great title, we literally allow the body to let go of residual / habitual tension and sink into greater length.
To get the most out of this, take a big breath in and let it out in a big sigh.
Tension reduces with a sigh, and you will sink into that stretch.
Dynamic Range of Motion
My personal favourite so if you follow my work, the one you will be most familiar with.
There are two main ways to employ DROM.
Either moving through a full range gradually expanding that range as you warm up.
So if you’ve trained in WG-Fit, several of the Kyokushin Clubs around Dublin, Jungle BJJ and maybe even a few other places, you’ll be familiar with the 100 rep warm up format.
And maybe the head to toe joint mobility sequence.
These are examples of DROM.
We take the joint(s) and muscles through their current comfortable range, then as the body warms up, as blood starts to flow through the muscle, synovial fluid gets pumped into the joints, we move a little further, then a little faster.
The joint mobility sequence (look up "Dave Hedges Joint Mobility on the YouTube") is all about that synovial fluid, greasing each joint up and smoothing out it’s action.
The 100 rep warm ups are a little most muscle focused (There are also examples of these on the YouTube)
Now, if you wish to develop a specific range, go into the stretch and begin gently pulsing to deepen the stretch and then release it.
The pulsing is done in the last few degrees of motion.
So you go into the stretch, feel it just come on or just become uncomfortable, then you pulse there.
Push deeper, bounce out, push deeper, bounce out. Until you increase the range to a satisfactory amount or feel the target muscle wake up.
This method can be done for very high reps to get rapid increases in mobility, but as a warm up and cool down anything that gets the joints back moving is adequate.
A bit like dynamic in that you’re moving deeper in that stretch space. Only for contrast you’re pulling yourself deeper by contracting the opposite muscles. So for a hip flexor stretch, you will contract and release the glutes, for a Hamstring stretch you’d pulse the quads.
It works on reciprocal inhibition where if a muscle on one side of a joint is pulling, the opposite side will relax to allow movement.
This method has gained a huge amount of popularity of late often going under the banner of “End Range Strength” and is foundational to the Functional Range Conditioning method “created” by Dr Adreo Spina.
I put the word created in inverted commas, not because I think he’s a fraud, I’m actually a fan of his work, but I think wrapping a concept up in a 4 figure certification is a bit much…
I find this works best if we use either passive or DROM to open the “back” of the joint, then hold a position close to end range and using tension on the closing side pull deeper.
For martial arts folk who want better kicks, this means we can get into a kick like position with the foot supported, do some DROM to get comfortable there, then we try to lift our foot off the support, hold a second and lower down again.
This is also seen commonly in the Muay Thai Wai Kru dance, where the fighter kneels into a hip flexor type stretch then lifts the rear foot off the floor holding it up with the hamstrings.
Almost, and I mean almost everyone I have do this gets a cramp in the hamstring the first time, take moment if you will to imagine a whole team of U15 hurlers, who all think they’re hard as nails and think stretching is for wimps, all rolling about clutching their hamstrings during a cool down stretch after an S&C session….
I both laughed and rolled my eyes at them.
Contrast work takes a muscle(s) into a very short position. Don’t be surprised if there’s a cramp.
I theorise this is weakness or rather unfamiliarity with the position and the nervous system getting a rude awakening!
Basically dynamic range of motion but on steroids. This is using force to ballistically load the tissues in their end range, going way beyond your voluntary range of motion. Leg swings would be an example. This is very effective but should be built up slowly, start your practice in a range of motion that you can barely feel, then gradually increase both speed and amplitude.
OK, ballistic stretching is still as controversial a subject as it was 30 odd years ago when we were told to stop doing them in Karate due to “new information”
That “new information” seems to keep cropping up every now and again and once again we’re reminded how dangerous this method is.
Is there a risk of muscle/tendon damage when ballistically throwing them into end range?
Does this mean we need to be sensible about it then and use some common sense?
So, let's take a leg swing for the hamstrings. We step forward and swing the leg up ballistically allowing the weight of the leg take the hamstring into length.
The leg then fall to the ground, or we let it swing through to load the next rep. Typically if it fall to the floor, we step through and do the other leg. Either / or, both are valid.
The first set should be done to around 50 or 60% range. So maybe swing to belly button height only
Next round, 70/80% or chest height
Next round, push it out towards 100%. And I mean towards, not right at it straight away.
Does this not sound like what we do in weight lifting?
We start with a light weight, then gradually add load each set?
Is that not common sense?
Does that mean the principles of “Progressive Resistance Training” and “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand” are as applicable to mobility / flexibility as they are strength / power?
Well knock me down with a feather……..
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation which is a real conversation killer if you say it at a party!
This is the physio’s favourite.
In Contrast, you flex the opposing muscle to the one you stretch. In PNF you flex the one you are trying to stretch. So if you’re stretching your Bicep, you go to the stretch position and then try to bend your elbow. This typically sucks, but it does work.
Here’s some thoughts on this. If we’re really only tricking the nervous system into allowing us move further, this is just a great way to do that.
Why would the nervous system shut movement down?
Is it safety?
Very often this is the case, we need safety to ensure we survive the day and get a chance to pass on our genes. If we over stretch and cripple ourselves, we may not get home and we become vulnerable to any predators who may be watching.
So, again taking the hamstring, if we get into a hamstring stretch position, taking the muscle to perceived end range, or close to, we then contract that muscle isometrically. No joint move, just tension in the muscle.
Hold for 10+ seconds, you should be grimacing!
Now release the tension and in the moment that muscle is relaxing for a well earned rest, you sink deeper into the position.
Then you repeat this in the new position….
But, consider this, if the muscle CAN contract in the new lengthened state, does that not suggest safety?
Are we not building the much coveted end range strength?
If we’re strong, we are safe.
The nervous system likes this and you get to keep that extra range.
There are more than these, but these are the big players.
Understand these, google the most common stretch positions, or go to a Yoga class, then apply these principles as you wish, to get the result you wish.
Why do they work?
If I’m honest, we don’t really know, the research changes every few years proving then disproving various theories on why it works. At the moment we’re pretty confident that we’re simply telling the brain and nervous system that these ranges of motion are safe to access and it can let the muscles allow the joints to go there. This fact is why using the strength (PNF/Contrast) and movement methods (DROM/Ballistic) generally have quicker and longer lasting results than passive or static stretches.
Perhaps a better question is, what do you mean by “Works” ?
Are you looking to achieve a certain position? If so how much flexibility do you need, and what is preventing you getting into that position?
Are you looking for maximum bendiness?
Are you looking for good all round mobility?
Are you coming back from injury?
As with everything, the best training is found by reverse engineering from your goal to your current status. So if the goal is to achieve the splits, and right now I can’t even swing my leg over my bike seat. At least I have my start and end points in place and can begin to plot a journey.
No end goal, even a temporary end goal, no journey.
But for general Joe, what works best?
General Joe just needs to move well. End of.
He needs to work on dynamic range of motion most of the time. It's what we use as our warm ups and is a fair description of the Anatomy in Motion protocols. After training a spot of PNF or Contrast work to the areas he feels tightest And maybe a bit of static in the evenings in front of the telly.
Athletes will require more targeted work.
Specific stretches to allow for smoother/less restricted movement in the planes required by the sport. Or to balance and recover from the rigours of the sport.
I’ll go into specific stretches for specific muscles in another post.
Most people have some awareness of the common stretches, so start there.
Whatever position you assume, take a minute to explore within that position to find the tightest line or lines and that is where you will put in most of your time and energy.
Now, get to it!