STRETCHING AND FLEXIBILITY

By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

Flexibility may be the easiest way to improve your performance and increase your overall health. Often neglected, this part of an athlete's conditioning has an impact on several aspects of training and racing.

1) Biomechanical efficiency is directly proportional to flexibility. Some movements, especially in swimming are unnatural and very limited by the nature of our design. Intense stretching routine can help you perform these movements more efficiently, with less effort. Simply put, no one can swim fast with inadequate flexibility.
2) Ability to recover quickly is also closely linked to an athlete's ability to stretch and allow blood flow into the muscles after exercise.
1

It is true that stretching can cause an injury, but this is usually due to improper stretching regimen or an improper stretching technique. Back to top

 

PHYSIOLOGY OF STRETCHING

Every muscle contains stretch receptors, which are attached to the muscle fiber. When a muscle is stretched, the degree of the stretch is sensed by these receptors that send the message back via the spinal cord to the nerves that control the contraction of the muscle being stretched. This feedback loop causes the muscles to contract and shorten after a certain "stretching threshold' is passed, preventing them from being overstretched. A rule is that the intensity of the muscle contraction caused by a stretch reflex is directly proportional to the rapidity of the stretch. In other words, the faster the stretch is applied, the stronger the contraction it will evoke.
What does this mean in real life? It simply means that the most efficient way to stretch a muscle is to apply the stretch slowly. If the stretch is gradual the stretch receptors will not be stimulated significantly and the tension of the stretched muscle will remain low, meaning that it can be stretched more. Back to top

 

STRETCHING TECHNIQUES

Dynamic stretching

According to the physiology of stretching principles described above, dynamic stretching would apparently have very few if any benefits, since it involves rapid movements. On the other hand, one must wonder why it is that so many world class athletes do this type of stretching right before a race. If you've ever watched an Olympic swimming event, you've probably noticed the arm swings and other movements swimmers make right before they race. Even though it is dismissed by so many, I believe that this type of stretching has merit. In my opinion this technique is especially valuable to swimmers. Judging from personal experience, it seems that with a careful application of this type of stretching, loosening the shoulders without overstretching the surrounding muscles is possible. There are many small muscles and tendons that keep the shoulder in place. Swimming however, requires the shoulders to be slightly out of place, which necessitates very loose tendons. This is possible to achieve with active dynamic stretching. Additionally, it seems that static stretching cannot position a joint in all angles that the swimming arm-stroke goes through. One must be careful when stretching in this fashion, since it is a very dangerous way to apply stretches. If done correctly, meaning that with every move the range of motion is only gradually increased, this type of stretching will not cause a strong stretch reflex. Unlike other types of stretching, dynamic stretching can serve as a warm up since it can elevate your heart rate. I also believe that this type of stretching should be limited to the upper body, since it is much easier to control the movements and therefore safer.

Passive stretching

This method entails a partner who applies pressure to increase the extent of the stretch. Choose this partner carefully since an inexperienced person can injure you while they are stretching you.

Static stretching

This is the most common and the most popular way to stretch. Every stretch position is assumed slowly and held for 30-90 seconds. As the tendons are gradually stretched, the inverse stretch reflex is activated and muscle tension falls, which allows a muscle to be stretched further.

When planning a stretching program, keep a few things in mind:

-Warm muscles stretch more easily than cold muscles do, so warm your muscles up a bit first. While some research shows that this is not necessary, from personal experience I know that it is easier and faster to reach a new level of flexibility when applying stretches to warm muscles. Bikrum Yoga is based on this principle.
-Always stretch in between sets during weight lifting sessions. This will not only increase your flexibility but help the muscle repair process. Every serious bodybuilder does this and as a result most of them are incredibly flexible, in spite of the excess muscle.
-Expect results quickly. After a couple of weeks you will notice considerable improvements in your flexibility.
-Stretch year-round.
-To increase flexibility, stretch at least three times a week. To maintain flexibility, one stretching session a week may be enough or a little bit of stretching before and after every workout (10 min.). Back to top

 

STRETCHING EXERCISES

-Upper body

1

Left: Forearms. Put your palms on the floor and  pull back with the straight arms as far as you can.

Right: Forearms. Pull your fingers back as far as you can.

1
1

Left: Pecs. Push with the forearm against the wall. Make sure that your whole arm is above your shoulder.

Right: Front of the shoulder. Push against the wall. Make sure your arm is below your shoulder.

1
1

Left: Lats and scapula. Grab the elbow behind your head with the free hand and pull as far down as you can.

Right: Lats and scapula. Hands on top of each other in a streamline position. Push with your shoulders in while keeping your hands in the same spot.

1
1

Left: Lats and scapula. Arms in the streamline position. Push with your shoulders down as far as you can.

Right: Back of the shoulder. Grab your thumb with the free hand and pull down on it while pushing the elbow up and in with  your forearm.

1
1 Left: Triceps. Put your palm behind your shoulder on the wall while slightly squatting. Extend your legs without getting farther from the wall or moving you hand.  
Back to top

 

-Torso

1

Left: Abs, back and quads. With your hands resting on your feet, bend your back and thrust your pelvis slowly forward as far as you can.

Right: Abs, back. Get your hands as close as possible to your feet while flat on the floor and lift your back from the ground making the bridge as high as possible.

1
1

Left: Abs, back. Put you hands close to your body and lift your upper body off the ground as far as possible, while keeping the hips on the ground.

Right: Back and the sides. With your legs spread, twist your body as much as possible while reaching with the arm toward the foot of the opposite side.

1
11

Left: Back, sides, inner thigh. Same as above but standing.

Right: Side. Spread your legs about 90 degrees and lean to the side while keeping your body on the same plane with your legs.

1

Back to top

 

-Legs

1

Left: Hamstrings, calves, gluteus. From a squat with your palms on the ground stand up slowly while keeping the palms down. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.

Right: Hamstrings, calves, gluteus, shoulders. With your arms locked in the back lean forward as much as possible.

1
1

Left: Hamstrings. With one leg forward, lean with your body as straight as possible.

Right: Hamstrings. Lean forward with one leg straight and the other bent inside.

1
1

Left: Gluteus, back, hamstrings. If you do this stretch with hips somewhat open (bigger angle) you'll stretch gluteus and back as well as hamstrings.

Right: Hamstrings. If you close the angle in your hips, the stretch will target the hamstrings.

1
1

Left: Inner thigh. With legs spread more than 90 degrees reach back with your arms as far as possible.

Right: Inner thigh. While sitting in a hurdlers position, lean forward and in as far as possible.

1
1

Left: Inner thigh. While squatting with one leg, extend the other one and push toward the ground with the inside of the extended leg.

Right: Inner thigh. With the legs spread, lean forward as far as possible.

1
1

Left: Inner thigh. With feet together, close to the crotch and facing each other, lean forward while pushing your knees down with your elbows.

Right: Gluteus and the lower back. With the shoulders flat on the ground, twist your body with one leg bent 90 degrees in the knee over the other leg.

11
1

Left; Gluteus, lower back. With one leg straight, cross the other one and twist your body while pushing against the knee with your elbow.

Right: Gluteus. Lean over the leg that is bent at an angle close to 90 degrees. Try to touch the knee with your chest.

1
1

Left: Quadriceps. While standing, bend your leg, hold it with your hand and push forward with your pelvis.

Right: Quadriceps. Pull on your foot with your arm while pushing down with your pelvis.

1
1

Left: Ankles. Push down with your leg while pointing down and in with your foot, toes bent on the mat.

Right: Ankles. Sit on your feet and let your weight do all the stretching. You can't swim without this stretch.

11
1

Left: Hip flexor. One leg is in front with the 90+ degree bend in the knee. The other leg is as far back as possible. Push down with your hips.

Right: Calves. Stretch the calf of the leg that's in the back by closing the angle in the ankle. If the leg is straight you get more soft tissue stretch and if you bend it you stretch the Achilles tendon.

1
Back to top

By Nenad Rodic, founder of TriathlonPlace.com