Flexibility separates champions from good athletes. Releasing muscles in the proper way maximizes power, supercharges speed, and helps you perform jaw-dropping moves.
Basic stretching can increase your flexibility, but it won't necessarily guarantee optimal results. Like the guy swinging off the pull-down bar without building his lats, many athletes stretch for years and get nearly nothing out of it. Attention to detail leads to the quickest progression in most athletic endeavors, flexibility training included.
Tweak your stretching routine by applying the three tips below, and feel the difference between strains and gains.
1. Stretch the joint capsule before stretching the muscle
If you don't traction the joint before you move into the stretch, you could miss out on a significantly greater increase in flexibility. According to several studies, nearly 50 percent of the lack of flexibility in healthy people can be attributed to tightness in the joint capsule. Other studies have found increases of up to 25.9 degrees of knee flexion in just 2 to 4 minutes of combined end-range traction and stretching.
- Warm up the joint with arm or leg circles.
- Find the proper body position, e.g., in a door frame with arm elevated, hand on frame and lower body in split stance.
- Create length in the joint by trying to visualize the arm or leg growing away from the torso.
- Ease into the stretch while maintaining the new "length."
2. Release deep trigger points before stretching
Dr. Janet Travell defines a trigger point as a hyper-irritable locus (place) with a taut band of skeletal muscle, located in the muscular tissue and/or its associated fascia (layer of fibrous tissue). It is believed that these points can lead to chronic shortening of the affected muscles, causing restriction, reduced flexibility and—most important—increased resting tone. Stretching an affected muscle without releasing the trigger point first is like trying to open a locked door without the key.
- Apply gentle pressure to the affected area with the help of a foam roller.
- Find the threshold where discomfort becomes noticeable and go only 5 percent beyond that amount of pressure.
- Avoid deep pressure for sustained periods of time.
- If the area is extremely sensitive, hold the pressure until the area relaxes. In future sessions, when the area consistently becomes desensitized, begin to roll on it lightly.
- Use deep, slow breathing to relax the body/area.
3. Use stretch waves instead of forcing and holding
According to stretch gurus Chris and Ann Fredrick, "instead of counting how long to hold a stretch, athletes can stretch better by synchronizing their breathing with their movement." For the most dramatic increases in flexibility, they recommend an undulating technique that uses a very slow, rhythmic breathing technique called a stretch wave to accomplish this.
- Use 3 very slow breaths per position.
- Start the stretch at the place where you first feel restriction.
- Move deeper into the stretch on the exhale and move out of the stretch on the inhale.
- Feel the breath through your entire body to maximize nervous system relaxation.
- Always perform trigger point release/self myo-fascial release before stretching.
- Frederick, Ann and Chris. Stretch to Win, Human Kinetics Publishers, 2006.
- Johns, Richard J. Wright, Verna. "Relative importance of various tissues in joint stiffness." Journal of Applied Physiology. Published 1 September 1962: Vol. 17 no. 824-828.
- Maher S. Creighton D. Kondratek M. Krauss J. "The effect of tibio-femoral traction mobilization on passive knee flexion motion impairment and pain: a case series." J Man Manip Ther. 2010 Mar;18(1):29-36. doi: 10.1179/106698110X12595770849560.
- Nijs J, Van Houdenhove B, Oostendorp RA. "Recognition of central sensitization in patients with musculoskeletal pain: Application of pain neurophysiology in manual therapy practice." Man Ther: 2010 Apr;15(2):135-41. doi: 10.1016/j.math.2009.12.001. Epub 2009 Dec 24.
- Travell JG, Simons DG. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual: The Lower Extremities. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1992.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock