Are you among the many who wake up in the morning to a stiff back, neck, or shoulders? Do you tend to chalk these up to early morning pains or to getting older, even though you stretch often and otherwise take good care of your body? If we told you that the good old-fashioned way of stretching to improve flexibility has no real benefits or relation to sports performance and muscle recovery, would you believe us?
You should. More and more studies are producing results that discredit stretching as a useful tool in aiding recovery or preventing injury. Beyond that, static stretching — holding one position for an extended period of time — before lifting or a competition has shown to do very little (if anything) to promote muscular power or strength. So why even bother? Well, the truth is, it’s still important to continually work on your mobility to promote strength and power development, as well as improve performance and reduce injury risk. In short, you still have to do something — you’re just going about it wrong.
How Does Flexibility Training Fail Us?
Here’s the major problem: the muscles you are statically stretching return to their original resting length once the stretch has been stopped. Think of your muscle like an elastic band: when you release the stretch, it returns back to its original resting length. The problem lies in how you’re teaching that muscle to remember that length, not the stretch itself.
Why Mobilization Techniques Are The Way To Go
Allowing for more mobility through mobilization techniques can lead to lasting results. These exercises let your muscles adapt to a new resting length by stimulating the muscle to remember that length. However, this can only happen when there is proper joint symmetry, meaning the agonistic and antagonistic muscles are in balance with each other, which only happens when there is some neural reset to the length. This is where mobility training comes in.
Mobility training changes the resting length and tension relationship to allow for proper joint balance, resulting in an improvement in your range of motion in the joint. Just remember that your body will not willingly allow you to go into a range that it doesn’t have control over, so before you attempt to push a bit further, first make sure the joint is stable for both your comfort and injury prevention.
Step 1: Stability Test
Before we begin, let’s examine your hip joint mobility and fix your squatting technique by testing for restriction and stability during the squat on the Smith machine.
(A) While performing a squat, your body should be able to easily move through all portions of the exercise without significant difficulty or resistance. If there is any resistance before you hit the end range of a joint (e.g. at the bottom of the squat) or it is excessively stiff, this could be a sign that your joint equilibrium is off, meaning the length and tension relationship between your agonist/antagonist muscles (your tight hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and calves) isn’t properly aligned.
(B) Next, make sure each of your joints is active during a squat, then note how each feels throughout the movement. As you descend, if movement at your ankles, knees, or hips becomes increasingly harder at the bottom, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get into the right position or move with good form because you’re missing a key movement along the chain.
(C) Your duty now is to find where that missing link is. For example, tight calves would make dorsiflexion (extension of the foot at the ankle) very challenging at the bottom of the squat, causing you to compensate up the chain to achieve the movement.
Tip: If it’s too hard to keep the spine position neutral, forgo the machine and do without.
Step 2: Foam Roller
For the most part, issues may be found in your thoracic (or “T”) spine extension, hip extension, and external rotation, so let’s focus on these. Use a trigger-point roller to alleviate some tension in the areas you’ve identified. The goal here is to open up thoracic extension by tackling two or three motion segments of your back, ribs, and the soft tissue of your T-spine. For a lasting change, create as much force over these tissues as possible and use the roller as a fulcrum by arching your back right over the area, allowing your body’s pressure to do most of the work. Don’t quickly move away from this spot, either. Instead, continue rolling back and forth until you’ve made some change. You can tell this has happened when the initial pain has subsided and your body has gone farther than the original position.
Step 3: Open The Hip
The purpose of this exercise is to open up the hip’s external rotation on the front leg and extension of the back leg. Here’s how it’s done:
(A) Keep your lead foot pointing forward on a box and lean forward from the hip. The leg on the floor should remain straight during this motion.
(B) As you bend forward, place your hand on your lead foot to keep it from lifting. For example, if your right foot is on the box, you’d use your right hand. Then, switch feet and reach for your grounded foot.
(C) As you move down into a squat position and bend forward, draw your lead knee outward using your hip muscles. Perform two sets, holding each for 30 seconds.
(D) Sway backward and forward through the hip joint and continue to hunt for additional stiff areas by driving your hips back. When you are complete, switch sides to open the other hip.
Tip: This exercise works best when the box or platform your foot is on forces your leg to bend at least 90 degrees.
Step 4: PNF Patterns
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching teaches the nervous system how to control hip motion and reinforces the proper movement pattern after you’ve opened up the hips; this is done by shortening a muscle in order to stretch its opposing one. Here is an example of a PNF stretch for the external rotators of the hip:
(A) You’re going to start with one leg behind you, toes pointed inward.
(B) Bring your leg out in front of you, changing rotation midway, so that your toes now point outward.
(C) Repeat this motion for a total of 10 reps. When through, repeat on your opposite side. Perform two sets on each leg.
Tip: These exercises should be reinforced each day in order to retrain your movement patterns successfully.
Step 5: Isometric Exercise
The use of isometric exercise — an exercise in which the muscle doesn’t change in length (think about a plank) — reinforces muscle control by activating both the T-spine extension and hip extension. Here’s one for your hip extensors and your posterior chain: using your spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings, arch your back up into an extended position, and hold for five seconds before slowly lowering; perform 10 reps. Once all these steps have been completed, try the squat test again and see if the range of motion has been corrected!
Tip: You should always test and retest each time you are trying to improve a movement pattern.