Iron Evolution #2: Flexibility and Mobility

I’ve been told that what you say in the first paragraph of an article determines whether or not a reader will finish it; I would assume this is even truer regarding an article on flexibility! So what if I told you that something as simple as improving your flexibility could help keep you injury-free and lifting heavy for more years than you could ever imagine. Would that make you read further? If so, read on and find out what stretching can do for you!

The most obvious question I get from strength athletes is this: Why should I stretch? Below are just a few of the reasons why you should incorporate stretching into your current training program:

  • Increase range of motion (ROM)
  • Reduced incidence of injury
  • Decrease in the severity of injury
  • Delay in the onset of muscular fatigue
  • Prevention and alleviation of muscles soreness after exercise
  • Increase in the level of skill and muscular efficiency
  • PRONLONGATION OF SPORTING LIFE!

(Supertraining, Siff, 2000)

Another great quote (and one that I will always remember) is from the book Sportsmassage. The quote goes like this: Muscle is never neutral; it either works for you, or it works against you. Confused? Let me explain further.

Without getting into hard-core physiology, we need to briefly discuss the length-tension relationship. The length-tension relationship tells us that all the muscles in our body have an optimal length at which they can produce optimal tension. On either side of this optimal length, you have un-optimal length (and therefore un-optimal tension). Rarely do you see someone, especially a strength athlete, with TOO MUCH flexibility. On the other hand, it’s quite often that you see someone who has too little. But what does this lack of flexibility have to do with strength? If your muscles are excessively shortened and tight, your body will not be able to produce the kind of horsepower that it could if you had optimal muscle length.

Beyond the strength implications, it’s also true that if you are excessively tight you are exposing yourself to an increased risk of injury. Let’s examine the squat. As you are going down, if your glutes or hamstrings are excessively tight, your low back and pelvis will have a tendency to tuck under. This tucking motion causes a forced flexion of the low back. Loaded flexion is the #1 cause of low back and disc injury. This is only one example that I could give you, but it’s one of the most commonly seen in the sport of powerlifting.

One final thing we should talk about before moving on is the difference between the length of the muscle and its tone. The length of the muscle can be restored using various flexibility methods, whether it’s static stretching (as discussed here), proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), or eccentric quasi-isometrics (EQI’s). However, muscle tone is how the muscle actually feels. A muscle should be pliable, not excessively tight and rigid. Muscle tone is usually adjusted by means of massage. A trained massage therapist will not only work to break up scar tissue and improve blood flow to your muscles, but they will also improve the pliability and tone of the muscles, allowing them to contract with more speed and strength. Massage is so important to world-class athletes that many of them will receive various forms of massage up to three times per day! A good goal for you if you aren’t currently receiving any massage is to try and get some deep-tissue work done at least once per month.

General Rules of Stretching

Before we get into the actual stretching routines, let’s go over some of the basic rules when it comes to stretching. These are simple things you can apply to ANY static stretch that you may perform, because I’m sure you will find problem areas/muscles along the way that will need more attention.

  • Stretching is best performed IMMEDIATELY after your workouts. Your muscles are warmed-up and pliable, making them more responsive to the stretching program. If you can’t perform your stretches post-workout, try taking a hot bath or shower prior to stretching. This will have a similar effect by increasing the muscle temperature and thus stretching performance.
  • Another reason to stretch immediately after training is for those that are consuming a post-workout shake or recovery mix. If your muscles are in a shortened and contracted state, it will be difficult for blood flow to enter the area. The whole purpose of drinking a post-workout shake is to get those carbs and aminos to the active muscles, so take an extra ten minutes post-workout to relax and lengthen the muscles
  • You should never feel a stretch in a joint! If so, you are stretching the tendons or ligaments, not the muscle itself. For example if you feel a quadriceps stretch in your knee joint, you need to find a different stretch that works on the muscle itself versus the tendons and ligaments
  • All stretches should be held for a minimum of 20 seconds. This will allow you to relax and improve the stretch. The key to improving flexibility is to really focus on relaxing the muscle while you are stretching it

Low Body Stretches

Now that we have discussed some of the theory and methodology behind stretching lets get into a simple and effective program that will get you loosened up in all the right areas.

Given below is a circuit of stretches that you can perform to improve flexibility in your lower body. Keep in mind this is not an all-inclusive list! However, these 7 stretches address areas that are typically tight on most athletes, and even more so with regards to powerlifters. Each stretch listed will be described below.

  1. Standing Toe Touch
  2. Good Morning Stretch
  3. Calves
  4. Hip Flexors
  5. Quads
  6. Adductors
  7. 90/90

Standing Toe Touch

The standing toe touch is a staple in every elementary PE class across the nation. Just because it’s old school, however, doesn’t mean it’s not effective! The standing toe touch will loosen up the muscles of the posterior chain, specifically the spinal erectors and hamstrings.

Performance

  • Stand up tall with the feet less than shoulder width apart
  • With soft knees, bend over from the waist to get a mild stretch in the low back and hamstrings
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, and make sure to bend the knees when coming out of the bottom position

NOTE: If you have a pre-existing low back injury, the standing toe touch stretch may not be for you. Check out the good morning stretch as a safe alternative that stretches the hamstrings.

Good Morning Stretch

Just like the exercise of the same name, the good morning stretch is an effective way to stretch the hamstrings, while taking stress off the low back. The performance of the good morning stretch is identical to the exercise itself.

Performance

  • Stand up straight with the chest held high and the hands on the hips
  • From the starting position, push the butt back until you feel a mild stretch in the hamstrings
  • Keep an arch in the back throughout the stretch!
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds

Calf Stretch

The calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) often store a great deal of tension, especially for people that are on their feet a lot. The gastrocnemius crosses both the knee and ankle joints, while the soleus only crosses the ankle joint. To stretch the gastroc, the knee must be straight (which will be described below). To emphasize a stretch of the soleus, flex the knee slightly and repeat.

Performance

  • With a straight leg, pull the toe up and press the bottom of the foot against a wall
  • Keeping the chest up and the knee straight, pull the torso closer to the wall to get a mild stretch in the back of the lower leg
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then switch legs

Hip Flexor Stretch

The hip flexors (and more specifically the psoas) can be a very troublesome muscle group for any athlete. Due to its direct attachment to the lumbar spine, if the psoas is excessively tight it tilts the pelvis forward and increases the curve (and stress) in the lower back. This excessive tightness can lead to inhibition of the opposite muscle group, the glutes. Inhibition of the glutes is NOT what you need as a powerlifter, because current literature suggests that the glutes are the most active muscle group when in the below parallel position of a squat. So something as simple as loosening up your hip flexors could indirectly help you squat more weight!

Performance

  • Place some sort of padding underneath the ‘down’ knee
  • Keeping the head and chest up, let the hips sink down so you get a stretch in the front of the hip
  • Do not place your hands on your knee or lean forward to increase the stretch…let the hips sink
  • Hold for 20 seconds, then switch legs

Quadriceps Stretch

The quadriceps are another muscle group that needs attention in your flexibility program. Most people attempt to stretch the quads using a hurdler stretch they learned in high school, where they pull one knee back and sit on their haunches. The problem with this stretch is that it often creates a stretch directly in the knee joint, which is not what we are after! Our goal in this program is to stretch muscles, not the tendons and ligaments. The stretch described below is a much safer option.

Performance

  • Grasp an immovable object in front of you
  • Raise one leg behind you and grasp the foot/ankle with the same-side hand
  • Pull towards the buttocks until you feel a mild stretch in the front of your hip and thigh
  • Hold for 20 seconds, then switch legs
  • If the standing position is difficult for you, you can also perform this laying on your side on the floor

Adductor Stretch

This is yet another old-school stretch that can be very beneficial. Anyone who has ever dealt with a nagging groin injury knows that a little prevention can go a long way in keeping you healthy! This stretch can be performed with the body leaning towards the middle, as well as down each individual leg for a more side-specific stretch.

Performance

  • Sit flat on the floor with the legs spread comfortably apart
  • Shift the weight forward, keeping the chest up, until you get a mild stretch on the inner part of your thigh
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds
  • For a variation of the stretch, lean down one leg at a time

90/90 Stretch

This little known stretch is excellent for loosening up not only the glutes, but the external rotators of the hip as well. Many of my athletes at the Athletic Performance Center talk about how this stretch Hurts so good. This stretch can be performed as described below, as well as leaning towards the front ankle and to the outside of the leg.

Performance

  • Place the front leg at a 90 degree angle in front of you, the opposite leg at your side also at a 90 degree angle
  • Keeping the chest up, lean forward slightly along the leg
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then switch legs
  • You can also lean outside the knee and to the ankle for variations of this stretch

Upper Body Stretches

Now that we have thoroughly covered the lower body stretches, let’s examine the upper body. While you have probably seen quite a few of these stretches before, there will also be some new ones included that can help improve your performance and keep you injury-free!

Below is a listing of the upper body stretches we will be going over.

  1. Shoulders/Pecs
  2. Latissimus Dorsi
  3. Supraspinatus
  4. Upper Trapezius
  5. Triceps
  6. Quadratus Lumborum

Chest & Shoulders

The pecs and shoulders are obvious choices when it comes to an upper body stretching program. The pecs and shoulders both play a vital role when bench pressing, so it’s important to keep them at optimum length to improve performance. Excessive tightness in the chest and anterior deltoids can lead to rounding of the shoulders, which will eventually lead to dysfunction and injuries in the shoulders and arms if left untreated.

Performance

  • Using a doorway, post, etc., firmly grab the structure with one hand
  • With a bent arm, twist from the hips away from the arm until you get a mild stretch in the chest and shoulder
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then switch arms
  • Repeat as necessary

Latissimus Dorsi

The lats are another muscle group that can cause issues if excessively tight. Being an internal rotator, excessive tightness again can create impingement in the shoulder joint, which we all know is something to be avoided.

Performance

  • Stand up straight with the chest held high and the hands on something just above hip height
  • From the starting position, push the butt back until you feel a mild stretch along the sides of the back
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds and repeat as necessary

Supraspinatus

The supraspinatus is a relatively unknown muscle group that, like all internal rotators, can cause serious problems when it’s excessively tight. Supraspinatus is one of the primary internal rotators of the arm, and as we have discussed before excessive internal rotation of the arm leaves us at an increased risk for shoulder injuries in the not-so-distant future. Below is a simple stretch that can loosen up the supraspinatus and help return it to its normal resting length.

Performance

  • Sit or stand with good erect posture.
  • Place arm behind back and grasp forearm with UNINVOLVED hand.
  • Pull forearm with UNINVOLVED hand across and upward behind the back and hold
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then repeat with opposite arm

Trapezius

The upper trapezius is a commonly tight muscle, not only from all the heavy pulling that we perform as strength athletes, but our posture throughout the day. Many of us sit at ergonomically poor desks, where the upper trapezius are overactive and shortened for 8 or more hours per day. No wonder so many of us carry stress in this area! This simple stretch will help relax the upper trapezius fibers, and its best if you also perform strength work for the middle and lower trapezius fibers to balance the area.

Performance

  • Sit in a chair with good erect posture and hook fingers under chair seat on right side.
  • Bring ear toward left shoulder and turn chin toward chest.
  • Place free hand on top of head to assist stretch and hold.
  • Keep fingers hooked under seat throughout exercise.
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then repeat on opposite side

Triceps Stretch

With all the tricep work we do as powerlifters, it’s no wonder these muscles get tight. Nothing too fancy here, just a simple tricep stretch to relax the muscles of your upper arm.

Performance

  • Either standing or seated raise one arm up overhead as high as possible
  • Flex the arm at the elbow, and use the opposite arm to pull gently on the elbow
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then repeat with opposite arm

Side Bend Stretch

The side bend stretch works on the quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle. This is yet another muscle group that is frequently overactive. Although it’s a very important stabilizer of the spine (especially when squatting or deadlifting) remember that this overactivity does nothing for us, and must be removed to promote optimum function.

Performance

  • Place feet shoulder width apart, and place one hand upon your hip
  • With the opposite arm outstretched, reach up and over to get a mild stretch in your side. Do not force the stretch!
  • Do not allow the trunk to move forward! Movement should be strictly side-to-side
  • Hold for at least 20 seconds, then switch sides
  • Repeat as necessary

Conclusion

I hope that I’ve given you a little insight as to how improving flexibility and keeping your body relaxed can improve your performance. Stretching may not be as impressive as a 600 pound squat or a 400 pound bench, but adding stretching into your routine can and will help you achieve your goals in a more safe and efficient manner. Good luck!

About the Author:

Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]

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