Ok, maybe I’ve overdone the hyperbole a tad, but they’re still pretty damn fantastic. I’ve written before about my views on the best way to stretch. Strength is key to flexibility, at least in the long-term. Good ‘strexibility’ training should seek to do two key things:
- Induce a neurological/physiological change within the muscle
Static stretching can induce both acute and chronic changes in range of motion (ROM), however, such changes are likely to be a consequence of increased stretch tolerance (Hayes et al, 2012) as opposed to anything structural. Strengthening a muscle throughout a full range of motion, and potentially biasing the eccentric portion of an exercise, induces structural changes within the muscle which not only facilitate a greater ROM but also increase the ability of the muscle the produce force at longer lengths (O’Sullivan et al, 2012). Comparisons show that full ROM strength training is at least as effective as static stretching for pure ROM improvements (e.g. Morton et at, 2011, Wyon et al, 2013) whilst also carrying these additional benefits.
- Strengthen ‘phasic’ muscles
Given that muscle groups tend to work in pairs (e.g. the biceps and triceps brachii), ROM at any given joint can be affected by how the two are balanced. Vladimir Janda suggested whilst some muscles are prone to over-activity and tightness, termed as ‘tonic’ muscles, other ‘phasic’ muscles are prone to under-activity and weakness (see picture). Unsurprisingly, the muscles highlighted in the picture tend to tie-in with a lot of common ROM restrictions. Activating the phasic muscles has been shown to augment acute improvements in flexibility in PNF stretching routines (Sharman et al, 2006) which you can read more about here and here. Research hasn’t properly evaluated this concept when looking at chronic changes in ROM but I’d certainly suggest that this does augment improvements.
So, let’s get down to business. What are my top four exercises? They’re based upon four of the key ROM issues I see with athletes. Hell, save yourself the time of going to a physio (and also forgive my colloquial usage of the word ‘tight’) and let me spell out your problems; you have tight calves, tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors and tight lats. Let’s sort all of that out with these little beauties.
- Seated calf raise
Great way to improve ankle ROM and a fantastic exercise to perform prior to squatting if you struggle with depth. 3 second hold at the bottom. 3 second hold at the top. Perform 6-10 reps for 2-3 sets with a moderately heavy weight, something that’s about a 7-8 out of 10 on the intensity scale.
- Isometric hip thrust hold
Trust me, you can’t do this often enough and those tight hip flexors will definitely thank you for it. Do this pre-session, mid-session, end-session, at home, at work and anywhere else you can. Elevate your shoulders on a bench or a chair/sofa and set up in a slight posterior pelvic tilt. Squeeze the glutes to about an 8 out of 10 on the intensity scale and hold for sets of 30-60 seconds.
An oldie but most definitely a goldie for getting at those tight hamstrings. Perform 2-3 sets as part of your warm-up routine with a light weight and then again as one of your key assistance lifts in your programme. Emphasis a slower eccentric tempo than normal, 4-6 seconds or so, and pause briefly in the bottom position.
- Plate pullover
Address restrictions in shoulder flexion with this forgotten gem. The prescription outlined for the seated calf raise works well again here, just make sure that you’re not compromising form for the sake of an extra stretch. I’m a massive fan of pullovers (and not just the sweater kind) so you may see a whole article on these in the not-to-distant.
Four fiendishly-fantastic flexibility finds for you to get your teeth into. Give them a try and let me know how you get on.