MAXIMUM MOVEMENT, OPTIMUM STRENGTH
– by Dr Michael Colgan
The length of your bones is set by your genetic heritage and childhood nutrition. It cannot be altered, except by arduous, long-term surgery and drugs. But the range of motion of your limbs and spine is determined more by the habitual movements you make. It can be improved dramatically by simply changing those movements.
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Table of CONTENTS
- Stretching Prevents Injury, Boosts Speed
- Range Of Motion Boosts Power
- What Are You Stretching?
- How Muscles Stretch
- Advanced Stretching: PNF
- Rotation Of The Joints
- The Seven Keys To Stretching
- Stretches To Avoid
- The Right Stretches
- The Vital 15 Stretches
- Top 12 Upper Body Stretches
- About The Author
Knowing how to improve your range of motion is crucial to athletic power. The length of your stride, the degree you can bend and twist without strain, the arc through which you can move your arms, even your speed of movement, all depend on the ﬂexibility of your joints and the length and elasticity of your muscles. Muscles cannot apply their full power unless you can move limbs freely throughout their full range.
We all know well how a stiff neck or back or shoulder restricts our movements. Yet many athletes we ask, don’t make the mental connection between the temporary limits imposed on movement by stiff muscles and joints, and the permanent limits imposed on performance by poor flexibility. Most athletes do stretch, but often in a perfunctory or incorrect way, and with only a vague notion of the benefits. Many consider stretching an unimportant part of their training. I hope to convince you otherwise because, without good ﬂexibility, you will never be able to apply your full power.
Stretching Prevents Injury, Boosts Speed
Some research shows little beneﬁt from stretching. But when you examine the stretching programs used they are pathetic! And that’s being kind. Controlled studies using decent stretching programs all show substantial reductions in muscle and connective tissue problems and more rapid healing of injuries.
Numerous studies show that ﬂexibility training also increases speed of movement. Why this is so was unclear until recent research by Terara et al at Kyoto University in Japan. They showed that ﬂexibility training enables movements to be made with less energy.
Important work by Wilson at the University of New England in Australia shows why ﬂexibility‘ reduces the energy required to move. Muscles that are more ﬂexible show greater use of what is called elastic strain energy. In practical words, you go off like a stretched rubber band. You will learn more later how stored elastic energy boosts speed of performance and gives you that big edge on power.
Range Of Motion Boosts Power
The increased power of movement resulting from ﬂexibility training is further enhanced by increased range of normal motion. In a representative study, Hortobagyi and colleagues at the University of Physical Education in Budapest, Hungary, trained healthy students in stretching, three times weekly for seven weeks. They used six exercises for stretching quadriceps, hips and hamstrings. Subjects were then tested for ﬂexibility. The distance that subjects could stretch in front-to-back splits, for example, increased by an average of 9.5 inches for each leg, a total of 19 inches.
At the Colgan Institute, we have improved the power of many runners by increasing the ﬂexibility of their quadriceps, hips and hamstrings. Over our 8 week Extension-Connection Cycle, ﬂexibility in the front-to-back splits improves by up to 12 inches for each leg, a total of 24 inches. This improvement translates into a passive increase in normal stride length of up to 4 inches.
Such an increase in stride length makes a big difference to performance. Here’s a prime example from our ﬁles. The records show a runner who had a stride length of 53 inches before the stretching program, and a more powerful stride length of 56.8 inches after 8-weeks of stretching.
Before the program, we counted his strides in two 10Ks with a pedometer. He required an average of 7,417 strides to complete the race. After the stretching program, he completed a 10K in 6948 strides, 469 fewer strides. Compared with the distance covered with his former stride length, that’s an improvement of 633 meters.
Some coaches have criticized ﬁndings like these, saying that, though the stride is longer it is also slower, because the leg has to move a greater distance. Not so. As the studies above indicate, the lesser energy cost per stride enables the leg to move at a greater speed for a given level of energy. So the cadence or leg turnover speed of runners on stretching programs does not decline. And running times often improve dramatically.
For the runner noted above, his 10K time had been stuck between 40 and 41 minutes for a year, with a personal best of 40:02. Over the next six months he continued stretching and we used the pedometer to count his strides in several 10K races. He took 6923 — 7160 strides. Compared with his old stride, he gained between 400 and 700 meters in a 10K. His personal best time improved by a whopping 2:05 to 37:57.
Despite such findings, gym programs rarely work with range of motion as a component of athletic power. But that’s going to change fast. Leading the charge is the Les Mills Bodybalance Program from New Zealand, which uses an integrated combination of yoga, balance and stretching exercises.
What Are You Stretching?
Stretching is not simple, despite the many books and charts on gym walls that make it seem so. Done wrongly, it is a source of many injuries on the playing ﬁeld. Renowned marathon coach and former Olympian, Jeff Galloway, repeatedly warns runners against incorrect stretching, and some coaches reject it altogether. Here I tell you the right way, because the scientiﬁc evidence shows that the right stretching dramatically increases athletic power.
First, you have to know what you are stretching. Numerous athletes we ask, believe they are trying to stretch not only muscles and their surrounding fascia, but also tendons and ligaments. No way José!
The tendons are thick, tough bands that connect your muscles to your bones. They are composed mostly of inelastic collagen ﬁbers. That makes them about as stretchy as a heavy leather belt. You can tear tendons by extreme or ballistic stretching. But tendons do not stretch. The ligaments are bands of ﬁbers that connect bone to bone. They also contain collagen ﬁbers but in a mix with a good proportion of stretchy elastin ﬁbers. So ligaments do stretch. But should you stretch them?
Generally, no. To do so renders the affected joint hyper-mobile and weak, because the over-length ligaments no longer hold the bones ﬁrmly together. The net result is multiple joint problems, including cartilage breakdown from uneven stresses and arthritis in later life. Don’t stretch ligaments.
You do want to stretch muscles but their surrounding spiderweb of fascia makes it difficult. Fascia are the thin sheaths of connective tissue which surround and hold together muscles and individual bundles of muscle ﬁbers. Although thin, fascia are composed mainly of collagen ﬁbers, and are difﬁcult to stretch.
Worse, fascia shorten with age, poor posture, and muscle imbalance. They also shorten during rest after exercise.10 Shortened fascia are a big cause of the stiffness you feel the morning after a big workout. Shortened fascia shorten the muscles they hold and reduce their range of motion. So you do want to stretch the fascia along with the muscles.
How Muscles Stretch
I want to spell out how muscles stretch, because I have been guilty in the past of using lovely-looking stretches from books and videos, without thinking whether or not they work. Most of them don’t. Each muscle is composed of bundles of muscle ﬁbers called fasciculi. Each muscle ﬁber is made up of 1000—2000 thread-like myoﬁbrils. Each myoﬁbril is a chain of short segments called sarcomeres. And each sarcomere is made up of pairs of short protein rods called actin and myosin.
Muscles lengthen when these rods slide past each other. When the muscle is relaxed, the actin and myosin rods slide back to an habitual resting position. So each sarcomere has an habitual length. Correct stretching lengthens the muscle by causing the actin and myosin rods to adopt a new habitual resting position which lengthens the sarcomere.
Muscles also become longer by another adaptation to stretching only recently conﬁrmed in studies on animals. Regular stretching causes myoﬁbrils to grow longer by growing new sarcomere segments. As yet there are no human studies, but I’ll bet my back teeth they will hit the journals in the next ﬁve years.
These are important ﬁndings for athletes, because the longer a muscle becomes, the greater its range of motion and the more power it can generate.
I’ve sketched the basic physiology of ﬂexibility because it shows why the grunt and groan stretching you commonly see in gyms is next to useless. If a muscle is contracted at the time of stretching, the actin and myosin rods cannot slide to a longer resting position. All you are doing is straining the tendons. Here’s the key. A stretch can change a muscle so that it is longer after being stretched, only if the muscle is relaxed while it is being stretched.
Hamstrings provide a great example. Dozens of books show standing hamstring stretches, from simple toe touches to extreme one-leg ballet bar stretches.
Unless the athlete has had extensive yoga or ballet training to relax the muscles, none of these stretches work. Whenever you bend from the waist in a standing position, the hamstrings contract automatically to stabilize the pelvis.
They cannot stretch because, unless you have had the right training, you cannot relax them. All you are doing is straining the muscle tendons and over-stretching the ligaments of the lower back. The ﬁrst rule for successful stretching is: relax the muscles being stretched.
The second rule is warmth. Cold muscle means short, stiff muscle, and especially tight fascia, the hardest part to stretch. Studies show that a 10-minute warm-up greatly increases muscle elasticity.
Though commonplace, jogging is not a good warm-up. Slow jogging delivers a vertical jarring force to the knees, hips, and back about four times that of fast walking. It causes muscles to tighten rather than relax. Use walking, cycling, rowing, stair-stepper or cross-country machines as your warm-up. Breaking a sweat is the criterion. Always warm-up before stretching.
Excessive effort is a major reason folk fail to become ﬂexible with regular stretching. Never force a muscle and never bounce. Pushing to pain, popular in some programs, brings only inﬂammation, injury, and shorter, tighter muscles.
Comparison studies of low-force versus high-force stretching, show that the lower the force the greater the permanent lengthening of the muscle.
Stretch only to the point of comfortable tension, then back off until the muscle relaxes. Then stretch again to a second comfortable point and back off again until the muscle relaxes. Repeat once more to reach the point of maximum comfortable stretch. Always use minimum force.
Take slow even belly breaths throughout stretching. Belly breathing aids muscle relaxation. Exhale as you move into a new stretch position. Inhale as you back off. Exhale as you stretch again. Belly breathe while you stretch.
I’ve watched many athletes rushing through stretch routines, holding each stretch for 10-20 seconds, often forcing the stretch because they know its too quick. Better not to stretch at all. The muscles never elongate, because they have insufficient time to relax. And the athletes complain they just can’t get flexible.
Major muscles can stretch in a relaxed state to about 50% longer than their usual resting length. They will only do it if you wait. Especially, you have to allow time for the fascia, which are often reluctant to relax.
To move in and out of a stretch three times, while allowing the muscles and fascia to relax, take a minimum of 60 seconds. It’s a whole lot better to do 10 good stretches for two minutes each, than 30 in a rush. Allow at least 60 seconds per stretch.
You may be very tight when you begin a stretching program. Be patient. Every time you force a stretch you inhibit your progress. But if you persist for six months of correct daily stretching, results will amaze you. Stretching is an exercise in patience.
When To Stretch
Don’t stretch after training. Your muscles are tight and full of the metabolites of fatigue. In that condition they are prone to stretch injury. After the muscles have relaxed from training, 50 minutes or so after, stretch in a hot tub or a hot shower with the water playing on the muscles being stretched, after lying in the sun on the beach is a perfect time to stretch.
Stretching during your morning shower works well too. Most important is to stretch, after warm up, immediately before training. Think of it as essential preventive maintenance for your muscles.
Advanced Stretching: PNF
The stretching method I’ve outlined is sufﬁcient for the needs of most athletes. But some folk have tight problem areas, and some sports such as martial arts, gymnastics, and various events in track and ﬁeld and winter sports demand extreme flexibility. For these we have developed a system called PNF-R, that is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation plus rotation.
The PNF part has been used by physiotherapists for more than 50 years. Studies with gymnasts show that PNF offers beneﬁts additional to passive stretching, for both ﬂexibility and performance. The only problem is, you have to do most PNF stretches with a partner.
In the PNF version of the seated hamstring stretch, resistance is provided by a partner as the subject contracts the hamstrings, gluteals and lower back muscles to move out of the stretch. The ﬁnal stretch often looks extreme, but is achieved without forcing.
CAUTION. You should ﬁnd a certiﬁed bodyworker to teach you PNF. Learning the method on your own is hazardous. Most beginners tend to force the stretches and injure themselves. At our Sports Nutrition and Training Camps, we do a two-hour intensive training before allowing participants to use PNF on their own.
- Do an initial passive stretch to the point of mild tension. Inhale.
- Against partner resistance, contract the muscles that would move you out of the stretch for 5-10 seconds while exhaling. Start lightly and ﬁnish with a strong contraction. Inhale.
- Exhale and move back into the stretch to a new point of tension for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this sequence twice more, each time moving a little further into the stretch, as the muscles which would move you out of the stretch lose tone and relax.
Maintaining a strong, ﬂexible body is always an exercise in patience.
Rotation Of The Joints
The new dimension we have added to our stretching program is rotation (R). The technique itself is not new, however, and has been part of ballet training and some martial arts for hundreds of years. It is effective because of an important characteristic of human anatomy. We are designed so that all natural movements have a rotational component.
To allow for that component, at the point of stretch, we get athletes to rotate the joint. With my friend, top trainer Steven Macramalla, we have used rotation to develop stretches that produce amazing gains in ﬂexibility.
Whether you use PNF or not, employing rotation each time you stretch yields elongation of a much larger proportion of the muscle tissues and fascia involved. You also get the stretch While they are moving under torque at full extension, exactly the sort of stress your muscles and fascia undergo during the extreme movements of sport.
To summarize: each stretch starts with a passive stretch. If you have an experienced partner and have learned the technique, it continues with three sequences of PNF. (You can do almost as well without the PNF part.) Each stretch sequence ends with rotation of the joint at the point of greatest stretch. There is no better way to increase your range of motion and, along with it, your athletic power.
The Seven Keys To Stretching
- 1. Relaxation
- 2. Warmth
- 3. Minimum Force
- 4. Breathing
- 5. Long Duration
- 6. Rotation
- 7. Patience
Learn them by heart and repeat them daily to yourself with every session.
Stretches To Avoid
Hundreds of stretches litter athletic books and magazines. Some are excellent, others are OK but many are as useless as tits on a chicken. A few general principles will help you avoid them. First, as we’ve seen already, stretches should load muscles and fascia, not tendons, ligaments or joints. Second, the muscle must be able to relax in order to be stretched.
In general, any standing stretch in which you have to bend the torso towards the knees, such as toe touching, or ballet bar stretches, require a lot of training to do correctly.
Unless you are expertly trained, the hamstrings contract reflexively to stabilize the pelvis, thereby transferring the stress to the lumbar ligaments. In addition, in most athletes, ballet bar stretches cause reflex contraction of the piriformis to stabilize the thigh, and also stress the sciatic nerve.
Some athletes at my lectures object that ballet dancers and gymnasts do these stretches all the time and can tie themselves into pretzels. Having worked with elite dancers and gymnasts, I agree that they do use extreme stretching exercises.
But their sports demand extreme flexibility movements, and the ability to do them with relative safety is a result of years of stretching training. Even so, these athletes suffer more joint problems than athletes in other sports, and often require a whole chorus of bodyworkers to keep them viable.
Standing lateral stretches for the adductors and abductors don’t work well either. In a standing position both these sets of muscles usually contract reflexively to stabilize the leg. They cannot stretch because they cannot relax.
A third rule in choosing stretches is: never put your knee in a weight-bearing position on the ground for any stretch. It’s an invitation to ligament or cartilage damage.
The common hurdler stretch and the kneeling quadriceps and hamstring stretches are the worst offenders. Another bad effect of standing and seated stretches in which you bend the torso forward, is pressure on the sciatic nerve. Done repeatedly this pressure damages the nerve.
Initially, sciatic nerve damage is symptomless. It progresses insidiously over years, until it shows as a strong pain from the buttock down the back of the leg to the heel often radiating to the shin. It is the root cause of many chronic back and leg problems in athletes, especially as they age.
You should do everything to prevent it. Use a thick foam pad whenever you stretch on the floor, and avoid stretches that put the sciatic nerve under stress.
|Avoid These Stretches||Reason||Avoid These Stretches||Reason|
Stretch — Puts
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
stretch because it is
to stabilize pelvis.
Stretch — Puts
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
stretch because it is
to stabilize pelvis.
Stretch — The
stretch because they
are contracted to
stabilize the pelvis.
Tensor and IT Band
Stretch — The gluteus
and tensor fascia lata
because they are
to stabilize the pelvis.
The IT band does not
stretch because it is a
Hurdler — Puts
damaging stress on
ligaments of lower back
Stretch — Stretches
hamstring but puts
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
Stretch — Puts severe
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
|Reverse Tailor — Puts
damaging pressure on
knee tendons and
|Quadricep Stretch —|
pressure on knee.
|Hurdler Stretch —
pressure on ligaments
The Right Stretches
For athletes, the weightbearing structures of the lower back, hips and legs need far more stretching than the non-weightbearing structures of the arms, shoulders and upper back. Impact stresses of running, jumping and side-to-side motion shorten the muscles and tighten the fascia. As a direct result, most athletes we test have sub-optimal ranges of motion in the lower half of their bodies.
We analyzed the research literature and the records of more than 9000 athletes in our computer database to find out which muscle groups cause the worst problems. Below are the muscles that athletes need to stretch most. And following are the best 15 stretches to do the job.
- 1. Gluteus maximus, and associated lower back muscles for hip extension and lower back flexibility.
- 2. Piriformis and five other associated muscles at the side and back of the pelvis, for lateral hip rotation.
- 3. Iliopsoas, rectus femoris and tensor fascia lata, for hip flexion.
- 4. Adductors of the inner thigh for hip adduction.
- 5. Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata for hip abduction.
- 6. Hamstrings for hip extension and knee flexion.
- 7. Quadriceps for knee extension. Rectus femoris of quadriceps for hip flexion.
- 8. Gastrocnemius and soleus for range of motion of foot, ankle and knee.
- 9. Lower back and lower abdominals for spinal rotation, flexion and extension.
The Vital 15 Stretches
1. Gluteus Stretch
Lie on back. Bend one knee with foot flat on wall. Cross other leg over bent knee. As you become more flexible, you can use hands as shown or push with foot against wall to apply minimum force to increase the stretch. Rotate hip joint by drawing small circles with knee of stretched leg.
2. Piriformis Stretch
Stand at a bench a bit less than waist high. Lay one leg on bench as shown. Lean against bench and support torso with arms to allow piriformis and other hip lateral rotators to relax. Maintain normal spinal curve. Rotate joint by circling torso sideways, from over knee to over foot.
3. Iliopsoas Stretch
Lie on bench as shown. Hug knee to chest with hands to keep lower back close to bench. Allow other leg to hang freely over end of bench. After muscle has relaxed, use hands to increase stretch by applying minimum force to hanging thigh. Rotate thigh of hanging leg in hip socket by drawing small circles with knee.
4. Adductor Stretch
Lie on back with buttocks touching wall. Allow legs to slide sideways. After muscles have relaxed, use minimum force with hands on thighs to increase stretch. You should not feel tension at inner sides of knee or in groin. Rotate thighs in hip sockets by circling feet in both directions.
5. Abductor Stretch
Lie on bench as shown with upper leg crossed over lower leg. Allow upper leg to relax over end of bench. Rotate stretched thigh in hip socket by drawing small
6. Hamstring Stretch
Lie as shown. To increase stretch, use minimum force to pull foot towards head. Rotate hip joint by circling raised leg out to side and back to center. circles with foot.
7. Hip Rotation
Lie as shown. After lower back and external oblique muscles have relaxed, use upper leg to press lower leg while twisting torso in opposite direction. Rotate hip joint by drawing small circles with knee
8. Quadriceps Stretch
Lie as shown. Hold ankle and pull upper heel into buttocks. Maintain normal lumbar curve. Rotate joints by drawing small circles with knee of stretched leg.
9. Gastrocnemius Stretch
Stand as shown. Keep rear heel firmly on floor. Maintain normal lumbar curve. Stretch by moving body towards wall. Rotate joints by drawing small circles with knee of unstretched leg.
10. Soleus Stretch
Stand as shown in gastrocnemius stretch, but bend rear leg about 15º. Keep heel flat on floor. Don’t lean further forward. Keep buttock above bent knee. Rotate joints by drawing small circles with bent knee of stretched leg.
11. Back Curl Up
Lie as shown (right). Hug knees to chest. Curl up more to increase stretch but keep head on pad and neck relaxed. Rotate spine by moving knees to one side then to the other.
12. Abdominal and Back Stretch
Lie on Swiss ball as shown. Extend arms to increase stretch. Rotate spine by tilting torso to one side then to the other.
13. Seated Spinal Twist
Sit as shown (right). Use elbow against knee to increase stretch. Rotate spine by gently rocking in and out of stretch.
14. Side Stretch
Sit as shown (left). Reach overhead towards foot to increase stretch. Rotate spine by gently twisting torso one way then the other.
15. McKenzie Stretch
Lie face down. Keeping hips on floor, push torso up with arms. Rotate by drawing circles with torso.
Top 12 Upper Body Stretches
The Vital 15 Stretches cover the lower body which becomes most stiff in athletes. Shoulders, arms, chest and upper back also benefit from regular stretching, especially regarding their range of motion and ability to stand rotational stress. To take advantage of these benefits without devoting even more the athlete’s precious gym time to stretching, we incorporate upper body stretches into weight workouts by doing two opposing stretches in the rest period between each superset.
1. Arm Rotations
Swing one arm in 10 giant circles allowing it to fall like a lead weight in rhythm with exhaling. First swing anti-clockwise with palm up as arm travels upward, rotating to palm down as arm travels downward. Oppose this motion by swinging arm in 10 clockwise circles in rhythm with exhaling, with palm up as arm travels downward, rotating to palm down as arm travels upward.
2. Spinal Rotation
Hold post as shown with arms straight and palms facing each other. Rotate whole body away from post, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate in and out of the stretch in rhythm with breathing. Oppose this motion by spinal rotation on the opposite side.
3. Back Shoulder Stretch
Stand at bar (left) with arms straight and palms up. Let head fall between shoulders, swinging first towards one shoulder, then towards the other, exhaling at the maximum point of stretch.
4. Back Shoulder Stretch (2)
Do Stretch 3 with palms down.
5. Front Shoulder Stretch
Stand at bar (right) with arms straight and palms down. Allow body to sink by bending knees. Stretch one shoulder, then the other, exhaling at maximum point of stretch.
6. Front Shoulder Stretch (2)
Do Stretch 5 with palms up. Do Stretches 5 and 6 in opposition to Stretches 3 and 4.
7. Arm Stretch Back
Stand at post as shown (left), with arm straight and palm facing forward. Rotate body away from stretched arm, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate in and out of stretch in rhythm with breathing.
8. Arm Stretch Back (2)
Do Stretch 7 with palm facing backward.
9. Arm Stretch Forward
Stand at bar (right) with arm straight across body and palm facing forward. Use other forearm to push away from post, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate in and out of stretch in rhythm with breathing.
10. Arm Stretch Forward
Do Stretch 9 with palm facing backward. Do Stretches 7 and 8 in opposition to Stretches 9 and 10.
11. Forward Hang
Hold bar as shown (left) with arms straight and palms forward. Allow body to hang forward in a relaxed curve, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate body side to side in circles in rhythm with breathing.
12. Backward Hang
Hold bar as shown (right) with arms straight and palms facing each other. Allow body to hang backward in a relaxed curve, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate body side to side in circles in rhythm with breathing. Do Stretch 12 in opposition to Stretch 11.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Renowned scientist, lecturer and best-selling author, Dr. Michael Colgan’s professional memberships include the American College of Sports Medicine, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the British Society of Nutritional Medicine. He is also on the Council of International and American Association of Clinical Nutritionists.