Athletes of any sport would do well to remember that when it comes to preparing the body for activity, there are certain goals we must achieve, basically across the board.
- Elevate muscle temperature. That usually means working up to at least the point of mild perspiration. Feeling warm is a key step to actually being warm.
- Elevate heart rate. This goes hand in hand with the above point. Typically, you can’t have the above without this.
- Lubricate synovial joints. That comes from movement through complete ranges of motion. The release of synovial fluid will prepare joints for work.
- Stimulate the nervous system. Generally speaking, that will come from a few powerful preparatory movements done in a controlled environment. It’s even better if these movements simulate the motor skills of the sport in question. A good example would be light bounding or running A’s as a sprinter or jumper.
With all of the above said, stretching takes on an interesting and unique role that athletes would do well to recognize and properly apply. First and foremost, we should tackle a key distinction to make sure we’re on the same page.
Muscles Only Pull
Muscles don’t “push” or “relax” or “loosen.”
This may actually come as a massive shock due to the endless jargon that exists in the strength and conditioning vernacular. In truth, muscles can only contract, and the sensation of “relaxation” actually occurs from antagonistic muscles contracting on the opposing side (often paired with a change in joint angle). Think about this relationship between your biceps and triceps as you flex and extend your elbow joint.
Stretching a muscle in a passive way (static stretching) can create the sensation of “loosening up,” when in truth, it’s a good way to restrict circulation and suppress the neural involvement and sharpness to that region. It’s the same reason you often might feel a bit sleepy or sedated after a good, hour-long, deep tissue massage, or more relaxed after a foam rolling session. If you need proof, try performing a max vertical jump test, and then static stretch your hamstrings and quads for 60 seconds after doing so, then immediately retrying the same test. You won’t jump quite as high for the reasons explained above.
We always think about stretching from a muscular perspective, but we fail to acknowledge that passively stretching a muscle also stretches the nerves, the tendons, the arteries and veins, and the fascia along with it. The hard facts are there are far fewer cases where lengthening the above structures creates an ideal environment.
Whether we’re trying to warm up for our sport or trying to fix our posture in (and out of) the gym, we have to remember another cold, hard fact:
Stretching Hardly Improves Mobility
The difference between mobility and flexibility is basically that mobility is the more functional application of movement. It makes many working muscles put a joint through its optimal, full range of motion, and good mobility is contingent upon a proper balance of strength on each respective side of a load-bearing joint.
In simple terms, you can keep your leg straight and put your heel up on a chair or ledge to create a hamstring stretch. That would demonstrate flexibility. Alternatively, using your hip flexors and quads to raise your leg into the same stretch for the hamstrings with no chair or ledge would be a demonstration of mobility. The mobility, which is indeed a by-product of having access to strength in the right places, is clearly far more important in an athletic setting.
Strength Is the Answer (but not the only one)
All of this is to say that mobility drills in warm-up and strength training in the gym using proper technique and full ranges of motion are paramount to create adequate movement patterning. Doing the groundwork in this way will enable you to move freely and access the full version of your athleticism. Check out this little freestyle mobility circuit I made up on the fly. On this day, my back was bothering me, and movement was the medicine for me to properly train following it. The movements look pretty simple and straightforward, but the mobility involved for many of these movements (especially done with proper form) can easily tie up a “tight” lifter or athlete.
When to Use Static Stretching
First and foremost, if stretching just plain feels good, no one’s saying to avoid it like the plague. Everyone will respond to certain protocols differently. There’s no point in eliminating something if it’s helping your performance based on tangible evidence and a balanced, trial-and-error approach of all the available options.
With that said, static stretching does have its place, especially in a strategic setting. There’s nothing wrong with stretching after a workout, practice or game. This can be beneficial, as you’ve probably heard. Aside from that, think back to what I said about dulling the nervous system and its involvement. When you’re trying to hit a muscle in the gym, and you don’t want another muscle to get involved and overcompensate, why not static stretch the snot out of that muscle immediately before your set? Think about a pair of tight pecs impeding your postural back muscles from getting the most out of your Seated Rows or Chin-Ups.
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