The Stretching Roundtable – Part 2

With Joe DeFranco, John Paul Catanzaro, and Don Alessi

Categorized under Training

Last week in Part 1 the coaches talked about stretching myths and how flexibility affects muscle size and strength. This week they’ll delve even deeper into the subject, so warm up your brain, do some dynamic stretches for the frontal lobe, and dig in. 

Shugart:  How should a person stretch before an athletic activity, a sport, or really, really good sex?  Does stretching pre-sport differ from stretching pre-weight training?

Catanzaro: Before sex, the only thing that you should stretch is the front of your pants in preparation for the activity ahead! Now, stretching pre-sport shouldn’t differ from stretching pre-weights. You’ve heard it before: if you want to be flexible in motion, you must stretch in motion.

Stretching is velocity specific, so use that to your advantage. Hopefully, everyone realizes by now that static stretching can reduce strength. It can also decrease power output by as much as 17% for up to 90 minutes. By that time, the game or training session is over!

Shugart: What do you think, Joe?

DeFranco: First, I gotta praise the benefits of static stretching the hip flexors one more time. Not only do flexible hip flexors help you get “deep in the hole” while squatting, the same holds true for really good sex!  [laughing]

Okay, let me get my mind out of the gutter and back to pre-event stretching. First of all, I don’t think the word “stretching” should be the first thing to come to our minds when we think about pre-event. The format I generally use with my athletes before an athletic event or a conditioning workout is as follows:

Phase 1: General Warm-up. The first goal of your pre-event routine should be to raise your core temperature with a general warm-up. Bodyweight squats, jumping jacks, and various forms of skipping are some common exercises. It’s important to increase core temperature before moving onto the next phase of the warm-up. Remember that as your body temperature increases, so does your ability to produce force.

Phase 2: Mobility Drills. Mobility training increases the blood flow to the joints, lubricates them, and keeps their surfaces smooth and healthy. I use either hurdle mobility drills or ground-based mobility exercises during this phase. The form of mobility training I choose depends on what’s more practical for the situation or event.

Phase 3: Dynamic Flexibility. Once the athlete’s core temperature has increased and the joints are lubricated, we move onto dynamic stretches. It’s important to start each dynamic stretch with a limited range of motion and then gradually increase the range. If you force a muscle into a new range by building up too much momentum, your dynamic stretching can backfire. This is because forcing a muscle into an extreme range too quickly will trigger the stretch reflex and your muscles will contract instead of relax.

Phase 4: Frequency Drills. Before moving into your competition or workout, you want to excite your nervous system. I use exercises or drills that are overspeed-type movements. Low jumps in place for speed and quick steps are some of my favorites.

Although this may seem like a lot of work, it can be manipulated to suit your needs. For example, college football players I prepare for NFL workouts use a twelve-minute version of this warm-up before their NFL auditions. This is enough to prepare their bodies for a grueling workout, yet it doesn’t burn them out. On the other hand, I can also expand this “warm-up” into a 45-minute killer conditioning workout. 

Shugart: Good info! What’s your pre-sport routine, Don?

Alessi: I start with a five to seven minute warm-up, then dynamic stretching where we gradually increase the range of motion with each rep. We use only sport specific patterns.  (That means prone trunk extensions for sex in the missionary position!)  Perform three to five sets of 8 to 12 reps.

Shugart:  Back to the gym. We’ve talked about stretching before lifting, but how about after and during? Break it down for us please.

DeFranco: Generally speaking, I think that people should warm-up properly before weight training and stretch afterwards. Although I sometimes perform PNF stretching during workouts on my advanced athletes, stretching during your workouts usually isn’t practical for the average trainee.

As far as post-workout stretching is concerned, I think that timing is everything. None of my athletes stretch immediately after their workouts. I stretched immediately after my workouts for years and found it to be worthless. Immediately after a workout, your muscles are engorged with blood and your nervous system is fired up. It’s almost impossible to get a good stretch.

I have my athletes suck down a post-workout shake the second the last rep of their last set is completed. Most of my athletes then go home and take a nap. That’s the most important thing to aid in your post-workout recovery. I have my athletes perform a static stretching routine at least three hours after they’ve completed their workout. This gives the body time to “calm down,” which will lead to a more productive and relaxed stretch.

Alessi: I like my trainees to perform movement-specific, dynamic stretching pre-weight training and static or PNF stretching on the tightest joints post-weight training. During training is most variable and includes PNF or myofascial release to gain proper exercise technique and even weighted stretching to increase muscle mass.

Shugart: What stretching-related problems do you see the typical experienced trainee having? 

DeFranco: The problems don’t happen overnight, but if he’s inconsistent with his flexibility training, many can arise. The three most common problems I see are low back pain, shoulder problems, and an increased incidence of sprains and strains.

When your hip flexors, hamstrings, and gluteals become shortened, they create a downward pull on your spine. This creates tension and low-back pain. Most people then treat this problem as a “bad back.” Because they usually treat the problem, not the cause of the problem, they end up living an entire lifetime with their “bad backs.”

Shoulder problems are common because when people start to lift weights, they’re usually addicted to bench-pressing. They may eventually throw in some lat pulldowns, but remember that your lats, in addition to your pecs, are also internal rotators of the humerus. Over time, the internal rotators of the humerus become shortened as the external rotators become stretched and weak. This inward pull leads to poor posture and can cause shoulder problems.

One of the more common problems is seen in the acromioclavicular joint. Once again, instead of treating the actual joint, you should treat the cause of the problem. I’ve had great success by incorporating stretches for the internal rotators while strengthening the external rotators of the humerus.

Alessi: I see problems mainly where “muscle boundness” and stiffness influences joint mechanics. The regions most affected include shoulder flexion flexibility, internal shoulder rotation, wrist extension, and ankle dosi-flexion.

Catanzaro: Yes, in the Leighton study, strength athletes had less flexibility due to increased muscle mass in the shoulders and chest. This is common. Tight calves and hip flexors are another issue where you see many bodybuilders kissing their knees at the bottom of a squat.

Also, a typical scenario involves tight forearm flexors and huge elbow flexors. This is quite evident during the front squat where bodybuilders prefer to cross their arms in front of them to support the bar rather than use an Olympic style with the arms uncrossed.

Shugart: How much does age affect stretching and flexibility issues? 

DeFranco: There’s definitely a biological decrease in natural flexibility as we age. A lifetime of weight training and other physical activities causes micro tears in our muscles. When these micro tears heal, scar tissue is formed. The development of this scar tissue pulls these tears together, which, over time, shortens our muscles. If no flexibility or soft tissue work is done, problems will undoubtedly occur at some point in our lives.

And remember that muscle tightness isn’t the only problem to worry about as we age. The stiffening of connective tissue is another problem. Studies have shown that the elastin/collagen ratio changes in favor of collagen as we grow older. This decreases our joint flexibility as well.

But there’s growing evidence that the decreases in physical function we commonly associate with age aren’t entirely related to advancing years. This decrease in flexibility and function can be attributed to a sedentary lifestyle. I feel that staying active may be our best line of defense against this process. By taking care of your body with proper flexibility training, soft tissue work and physical activity, many of these problems can be dramatically reduced or prevented.

Shugart: Don, what do you think?

Alessi: I believe age is the second most influential factor next to training experience.  Flexibility conditioning can only minimally serve to rewind the fibrotic tissue accumulation cause by disuse and aging.  However, regular full range exercise combined with flexibility conditioning can virtually stop any future decline.

Catanzaro: I agree, flexibility decreases with age and susceptibility to injury increases. Studies show that flexibility decreases 20 to 30% between the ages of 30 and 70. As Joe said, collagen proteins become more cross-linked as you age making connective tissue less flexible. There’s an increased amount of calcium deposits and adhesions, and tissue begins to dehydrate. Keep in mind that exercise helps decrease fibrosis of tissue. Maximum flexibility seems to be reached between the ages of 10 and 12 years.

Shugart: How much of flexibility is genetic?  If there is a large genetic element, then how trainable is it? 

DeFranco: Flexibility definitely has a large genetic element, just like everything else. We all know people who’ve never paid any attention to stretching and they’re still flexible. On the other hand, there are people who bust their asses to get more flexible and still only have average flexibility!

I still feel that flexibility is very trainable if people actually trained for it! What I mean by this is, how many people actually train for flexibility? I know a lot of athletes who’ll spend hours in the weight room and hours on the track, yet their flexibility program is a post-workout afterthought. These are the athletes who’ll spend two minutes stretching a couple of times a week and then claim they don’t have the genetics to become more flexible. This is an excuse for being lazy. You wouldn’t get stronger if you only lifted weights for two minutes, three times a week. Well, don’t expect to get any more flexible either!

You must be willing to dedicate adequate time and entire sessions to flexibility training if you want to see results. I think a combination of static stretching, dynamic stretching, and mobility training, performed at specific times, is the best recipe for developing flexibility. If you’re fortunate enough to have a competent coach or therapist who’s skilled in PNF stretching, that should be incorporated as well.

Shugart: What’s your take on genetics, Don?

Alessi: The articulating surfaces and joint structures are genetic. Similar to tendon insertion placement, both can be improved on but the rates and degrees of improvement will vary. Gender plays a role too, with females tending to be more flexible than males of the same age. 

Shugart: Good point about gender. Sum it all up for us, JP.

Catanzaro: Flexibility is largely hereditary, varies between individuals, and is influenced by training history, age, gender, temperature, type of joint, type of movement, type of sport, time of day, and even breathing.

The body is a highly adaptable organism. When you ask how trainable flexibility is, it depends on the dose of the drug. Give a high enough dose for a long enough time and eventually you’ll get the desired result even with poor genetics.

Shugart: Okay, gotcha. But can you ever be too flexible?

Catanzaro: Yes! There’s an inverse relationship between flexibility and stability. Being extremely stiff is one thing, but going too far to the other extreme can promote joint laxity and is also not desirable. Optimum, not maximum, static and dynamic flexibility is required for each joint.

DeFranco: I agree, you can be too flexible, but this shouldn’t deter people from stretching. I say this because I’ve met lazy athletes who don’t work on their flexibility because they claim they don’t want to become too flexible. These are the same athletes who aren’t flexible enough to bend over and tie their own shoes!

As if stretching a couple times a week is going to turn them into contortionists! This is equivalent to the fat aerobics instructor who eats McDonald’s every day, but she won’t lift weights because she doesn’t want to get “big and bulky.” It’s ridiculous.

The fact is, you should try to achieve a level of flexibility that enables you to feel good and optimally perform your everyday tasks or your athletic event. Flexibility can benefit everyone, but you don’t have to take it to the extreme. In other words, an NFL lineman shouldn’t try to achieve the flexibility of a 95-pound yoga instructor.

With that being said, I’d like to say that any football coach who has his players doing yoga is a complete moron! Sorry, I had to get that off my chest.

Alessi: Agreed, you can definitely be too flexible. Hypermobility increases joint laxity, decreases joint stability, and can lead to permanent connective tissue deformation. The rule is, only increase range of motion as necessary for the activities being performed. If you’re a golfer, you only need optimal range of motion for golf, not kickboxing.

Shugart: Okay, some good info there. You guys may not have agreed on everything, but you certainly cleared up a lot of confusion. Thanks for helping out today. I gotta go stretch!