The popular of mobility training runs in cycles. Yoga, static stretching, dynamic stretching and now mobility training with foam rollers are some of the methods that have become commonplace in the training of those interested not just in athletic performance, but those who simply want to improve the quality of their life. What type of mobility training is best? Let’s take a look.
First, there has been considerable controversy about the value of stretching to prevent injuries or improve athletic performance. Some exercise experts claim that for many activities, such as distance running, stretching before an activity has little value – simply starting off at an easy pace for a run is considered sufficient, for example. For more aggressive sports, there is some evidence to suggest that some form of stretching may be a good investment.
A study published in 1982 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the relationship between tendinitis injuries (which are often caused by overuse) and lower body strains. What they found was that there was an association between muscle tightness and tendinitis. Besides possible injury prevention, many movements in sports require exceptional ranges of motion that can take a considerable amount of time to develop.
Most gymnasts and dancers, for example, need to work on flexibility from a young age to be able to achieve the positions needed to perform at the highest levels. If a golfer lacks flexibility in the torso, this could reduce his or her driving distance – although not backed by a scientific study, some golfing pros claim that a 2-inch increase in a golfer’s backswing could add 20 yards to their drive. Likewise, tightness in the hip flexors could affect the maximum running speed of a football player.
The type of stretching that is considered the most popular in the fitness industry -- and much of the strength and conditioning profession -- is static stretching. One reason for the popularity of this type of stretching is that it’s easy to learn, usually feels good, and can be learned from books and video presentations. The classic resource on static stretching is Bob Anderson’s Stretching (30th Anniversary Edition, 2010), a non-fiction bestseller that sold over three million copies and was translated into 24 languages.
The basic recommendation for a static stretch is to remain motionless, and then stretch a muscle beyond its normal resting length, hold that stretch position for 30-60 seconds, then slowly return to the start. Although Yoga often involves complex movements that include isometric contraction, many of the movements could be considered static stretches.
The recent controversy over static stretching is that it can reduce strength and speed if performed immediately before practice. In a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine published in 2012, researchers reviewed 106 studies on static stretching. Their conclusion was that performing stretches that latest 60 seconds or longer could reduce power, strength, and speed.
Another form of static stretching is partner stretching, which involves having a training partner stretch a muscle while you concentrate on relaxing as much as possible. The husband-and-wife team of Chris and Ann Fredericks have published a considerable amount of material on this subject and offer excellent workshops for personal trainers, strength coaches, and those involved in the health care profession. Two of their books are Stretch to Win (2006) Fascial Stretch Therapy (2014).
One method the Fredericks teach involves having an individual rest on a treatment table that contains several wide straps to stabilize the limbs of areas not being worked. The practitioner moves the athlete’s limbs throughout specific patterns that stretch the muscles and also a type of connective tissue that runs through the body called fascia.
Physical therapist Kelly Starrett is considered a mobility guru who has helped to popularize distraction stretching. Distraction stretching is designed to open up joint capsules by applying traction through the use of elastic bands. For more information on this topic, an excellent investment is the 2013 bestseller, Becoming a Supple Leopard, which Starrett wrote with Glen Cordoza.
What about foam rolling, which is soft-tissue method using dense logs of foam (with logs 6 inches by 36 inches being the most popular)? Many types of foam rollers are available, with the more dense logs being able to maintain their shape longer. In a 2006 study involving 23 college-age women and men who displayed tight hamstrings, researchers found that after two months there was “no significant difference in the interaction between the treatment and control group’s pre- and post-measurements.” Although foam rolling is especially popular in physical and athletic fitness programs, its effectiveness as a method to improve flexibility appears to be questionable.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is a stretching method (usually performed with a partner) created by Dr. Herman Kabat in the early 1940s. PNF involves performing an isometric contraction (about 6 seconds) during the stretch to stimulate nerve endings that respond to changes in muscle tension. When these proprioceptors are activated in this manner, they cause muscles to relax more than they could with traditional static stretching methods. An excellent resourced on PDF is Facilitated Stretching, 4th edition, 2013, by Robert McAtee and the late Jeff Charland.
The type of stretching that is commonly recommended by strength and conditioning coaches before training or competition is called dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves rapid movements that move the limbs throughout a large range of motion but under full control of the muscles – many callisthenic movements could be considered dynamic stretches. Thomas Kurtz wrote a popular book on dynamic stretching, along with a video presentation, called Stretching Scientifically: A Guide to Flexibility Training (4th edition, 2003).
Stretching is here to stay, but now there are many types of stretching methods to select from that you may find of value. Regardless of the type of stretching method you use, it’s always best to find a coach who can teach you how to perform these movements with optimal technique – better safe than sore or sorry!