For competitive athletes such as dancers and gymnasts, flexibility is critical in order to perform at the top levels. But flexibility and stretching don’t always have to go hand in hand. Often times athletes stretch and stretch to improve flexibility but they quickly reach limits to their flexibility and it can keep them from moving to the next level of competition or effectively competing at their current level.
Without getting too deep into the dangers of stretching, stretching can definitely be detrimental to your progress as an athlete, can hinder performance and actually decrease flexibility and mobility if done improperly.
This article is for anyone who has been stretching without seeing gains and a few insights into how to break through some of these barriers.
Thinking about stretching and flexibility
Before we go any further, it’s important to look at why you want to be flexible in the first place and if you really even need increased flexibility.
If you think static stretching can help you run faster or jump higher…it can’t.
If you think it will prevent injuries… it won’t.
If you think stretching is a good way to rehab an injury… it isn’t.
If you just feel tight all the time and feel the need to static stretch…. don’t.
I will cover in another article all the reasons why you don’t need to stretch, but for now, let’s just say that passive stretching (aka inactive static stretching) should only be done when it is absolutely necessary to perform a specific skill and most often is only necessary when you are trying to break through anatomical limitations.
Essentially what I mean is it should only be performed when you are intentionally trying to stretch ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, etc. in order to achieve a higher skill. This level of flexibility/mobility makes you more prone to injuries and static stretching prior to competition makes you even more prone to injury.
Not sure what I am talking about yet?
If you think back to grade school, there was always some kind of competition where the kids would try to see who could pull back their index finger the farthest and touch the top of their forearm with their finger. If you practiced and stretched your finger back every day for a long enough time, eventually you would at least get close to touching and more importantly you could probably beat your best friend. This type of stretching is neither natural nor healthy. It stretches joint capsules, tendons, ligaments, etc. and can lead to joint instability or “loose joints”.
In the example, it is pretty obvious that the joint was not meant to move that way. BUT…because it was part of a goal, competition or skill you were trying to accomplish, it seemed appropriate.
This is much like many dance and gymnastic type movements where a hyper-extended position is necessary for the hips/legs or shoulders. Much like stretching the finger back, there are times when in order to accomplish a specific goal, ligaments, tendons and joint capsules must be pushed to their limits and sometimes beyond. Much of this depends on your anatomical limitations such as the shape of your joint sockets when you are born.
If you are not an athlete that needs that range of motion, then static stretching should be avoided all together and a focus on strength, stability and functional mobility should be focused on. What you don’t want is what we call “useless flexibility.”
Active Static Stretching for Hamstrings
One of the biggest barriers that must be broken through to improve your flexibility is what is called “strength in the weakest position.” There are many “weakest positions” throughout the body, but the general rule is that the more lengthened a muscle is, the more weak that position is.
So if we take the hamstrings for example. The hamstrings are responsible for bending (flexing) the leg back and for extending the hip (like in running). The weakest hamstring position then is the opposite of that. It would be with the leg straight and the trunk of the body flexed forward. (Just like if you were touching your toes.) This weakest position is the most likely position that a hamstring injury will occur. It puts the most stress on the muscle. This is why runners pull their hamstrings most often when their leg is outstretched in front of them. In dancing or gymnastics, raising the leg high above the head is one of the weakest positions all will encounter.
In order to break through this barrier you must activate the opposing muscles and strengthen the weakest position muscles. The reason nobody does this is because it is much harder than stretching. It is easier to lazily touch your hands to the ground.
So let’s continue with the hamstring example and see how to properly increase range of motion, strength and flexibility all while decreasing your risk of injury.
The Activation Step..
The activation step of mobility is arguably the most important. When you flex forward to “stretch” your hamstrings, the first activation step should be to activate your abs. Think of rolling your abs up into a crunch position that brings your head closer to your knees.
The other activation step is to activate your hip flexors to pull your upper thigh to your chest. For beginners flexing the hip while bending over is difficult and must be worked on. That is why it is often best divided into two steps. The first exercise is to flex forward with your abs. (This looks exactly like a hamstring stretch; except this time your core has stability due to the ACTIVE contraction of your abs.)
The second exercise I recommend is standing on one leg and bringing your opposite knee to your chest without the help of your hands. While most people can pull their knees to their chest (passively) with the help of their arms, very few can pull their knee to their chest actively while standing one leg without the use of arms or legs.
So what is the disconnect? The disconnect is the difference between active and usable range of motion vs. passive and unusable range of motion. This is the whole point I am trying to make.
Any high school male/female can fling their leg above their head, but few and far between can raise their leg slowly above their head.
Do you see the difference?
Controlled and stable motion is the ultimate goal of flexibility and should be the focus of all long term flexibility training.
Side Note: When stretching the hamstrings in any way, if you feel the tightness behind your knee, that is not the muscle that is getting stretched, it is most often your sciatic nerve, which you definitely don’t want to be stretching.
Whether you are trying to increase your hamstring flexibility or your shoulder flexibility, the focus should be on active controlled motion of the joint in order to avoid injury and have the greatest gains. I wrote a previous article , 5 Quick Keys to Gaining Flexibility that covers other factors of stubborn flexibility problems in athletes, but the activation step is likely the most common strength aspect missed in most flexibility programs that aim to improve flexibility while preventing injury.
Want to learn more? Contact Dr. Anderson @ [email protected] to get one-on-one coaching or to schedule a demonstration at your gym.