THE best way to stretch to improve flexibility and performance

Last week I wrote about the importance of mobility. If you don’t know the difference between flexibility and mobility, go check out last week’s post. Today though is all about flexibility, a key component of mobility.

 

As I get older I am still trying to get stronger, but flexibility is taking a much bigger focus in my training. I wish I recognised the importance of this when I was younger. Only now since getting involved in CrossFit do I spend time after my workout developing my flexibility and because of this my Olympic lifting and squatting is improving. I am also having less shoulder issues and can’t remember the last injury I had.

 

You are probably thinking ‘Adam you aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know’. We all know we should stretch and improve our mobility, BUT some forms of stretching actually make our performance worse and do not reduce our risk of injury. Do you know what the best type of stretching is? When is best to perform it? All my life I have been shown, taught, told to warm up and perform static stretching (Hold a stretch for 10s and change). Well research shows that static stretching not only decreases our performance (reduces the force and power output of the muscle) it does not reduce our risk of injury. So it isn’t as clear as you may think.

 

Want to know what the best form of stretching to improve flexibility is?

Want to get deeper in your squat?

Want to make more progress with your lifts?

Reduce your risk of injury?

Or just want to move better full stop?

Read on…

 

I have always been told that if I stretch I can increase the length of the muscle. This is not entirely correct. It is important to understand that our muscles do not change length (long term). Our joints do not move because our bones do not get longer and therefore if our muscles were to get longer then we would lose elasticity in the muscle. Imagine a rubber band (the muscle) tied around two points. If you stretch it and it increases in length but the two points of attachment (joints) stay in the same place, once you have released the band from the stretch it would sag, it would be too long. If this happened to our muscles it would be inefficient for movement and performance.

 

It is suggested that it is all to do with our nervous system

If a muscle is stretched and the body isn’t sure it is safe the nerve endings will fire registering pain and resistance meaning you cannot stretch any further.

 

A yoga instructor that can perform the splits is able to do so because they have put their body in this position or worked towards this position regularly for years and trained their nervous system to accept that their bodies can safely hold this position. They have developed a stretch tolerance.

 

The problem nowadays is that most of us spend all day every day sat on a chair at a desk and therefore our body, our nervous system, has trained us to keep within this limited range of motion. It is safe and the body adapts to the movements we make most often.

 

So how can we improve flexibility?

Research shows that PNF stretching is the best way to achieve this. PNF stretching shows the nervous system that the muscle is safe at an extended range and helps us to retrain our nervous system.

 

How to perform PNF?

Hold a stretch -> contract the muscle being stretched without decreasing the stretch -> relax and increase the stretch a bit further -> repeat

 

Examples

Without a partner

Doorway pectoral stretch – Stand in the middle of a doorway with one of your elbows at 90 degrees, your shoulder blades squeezed together, and the forearm of the bent arm placed on the doorway. Push your chest forward so that you can feel a stretch in your chest. Hold for 5-10s, Then contract your chest muscles to try and bring your arm towards the middle of your body (5-10s). Relax and increase the stretch. Repeat this process gradually increasing the stretch each time.

 

With a partner

Hamstring stretch – Lie on your back with one leg straight in the air and the other flat. Have your partner keep your leg straight and push the leg back as far as possible until you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Hold for 5-10s. Then contract your hamstrings to try and bend your leg and bring your leg back down to the floor, your partner is to resist this and keep your leg in position. After 5-10s relax and have your partner increase the stretch. Repeat.

 

Helpful tips

  • Try to relax – breath mindfully and slowly.
  • Increase the stretch as you exhale.
  • Keep it simple – contract, relax, breath, and stretch.
  • Perform AFTER exercise.
  • Do not perform prior to exercise. As with static stretching it can diminish power output.
  • Should be avoided by the elderly as the contraction process may lead to injury.

 

Whilst static stretching is not ideal prior to performance it does have its place. Check out my Instagram posts about foam rolling and static stretching to find why these are good and when to perform them.

 

Don’t forget to share with anyone you think will benefit and feel free to comment and ask questions.

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