I would have never guessed that one of the most popular articles on my blog would be Six Stretches Most Athletes Need. Based off my experience most athletes are more concerned with increasing their strength, bicep size or mastering some new exercise to get then to the next level instead of concerning themselves with recovery and stretching.
Stretching always seems like an afterthought for most and if I had a dime for every time I heard, “I’m tight here and I know I need to stretch more but…..” I’d be a fairly wealthy man. I realize stretching does not release the rush of endorphins a squat or bench press does and I know that most people ask others, “How much ya bench?” versus “Can you touch your toes?” however the days of waking up and hopping out of bed throwing on your uniform and performing at a high level are short lived and the maturing athlete must add some stretching into their programming.
As I did in the first stretching installment I am going to keep it brief, simple and only focus on stretching techniques for the most common areas that athletes get tight and have dysfunction. It won’t take up too much time; you won’t need to put on a pair of Capris and Zen out. You can do this before you go to bed in the privacy of your own room so no one will even know you are into stretching.
The difference this time around is that I am going to add a PNF (acronym for a fancy long word meaning to contract and relax the muscles) component which will help you get the most out of your stretch and get the desired release you are looking for.
Hip Flexors and Quads
The Hip Flexors are the muscle group that pulls the knee towards the chest. In sports they are used for running and jumping. The Quadriceps muscles are a series of four muscles of the front of the thigh that extend the knee. These muscles help with actions such as kicking and they also play a huge roll in knee stabilization to prevent injury.
Student athletes are either in motion or sitting for long periods at a time and this combination of movement and inactivity leads to shortening of the hip flexors and the quads. When they become too tight optimal athletic performance is compromised and they can eventually cause misalignment of the hips which may lead to tight low backs, postural changes and even injuries.
This following stretch is intense but highly effective for hip flexors and the quads. Find a mat and place on knee on it and the knee angle should be slightly behind the hip, with your front foot at a straight shin angle. Grab and hold the top of your back foot like a traditional Quad stretch. Tilt your hips forward as if you are tucking them underneath you, contract your rear-leg glute muscles and as you relax the muscles, exhale, find your new position and repeat.
To learn more about the role of the hip flexors in athletic performance check out my Sports Performance Series and learn how to test their length and what movements strengthen the hip flexors.
These muscles get really tight, especially in athletes who run a lot for training and their sport. The hip adductors are the inside muscles of the thigh and are commonly referred to as the groin area.
The roll of the hip adductors in sports is to bring the leg across the body toward the midline and they also help stabilize the hips and knees. These muscles are important for lateral motion or cutting. If the length of these muscles are not optimal not only will your cutting ability and power diminish, but if you lunge your leg away from your midline these muscles might be too tight to support the movement and therefore could get pulled or torn.
To stretch the hip adductors find a box or a table that is around the height of your hips. Bend your knee and abduct your thigh so they can both rest on the table. Make sure you are able to get into this position and maintain good posture. It is not uncommon to have one side that is tighter than the other but strive for good body posture to get the most benefit from the stretch.
Contract your glutes of the stretched side and release with a breath and allow the hips to subtly move forward and drop as you relax into the stretch.
Thoracic Spine and Pectoralis Muscles
The thoracic spine or T-Spine is the area of the upper back around the level of the shoulder blades and we should all know where our Pectoralis muscle group is. The thoracic and pec muscles are victims of our daily lives and tend to be in a constant state of flexion. Most activities ranging from sports, driving, watching dinner and studying pull the shoulder blades forward because of the position we are in causing the pecs to get really short and mobility of the thoracic spine becomes limited. When you are called to rotate in your sport (think golf or tennis) or get maximal body extension (sprinting or jumping) tightness in this area inhibit the range of motion needed to perform well and could cause a rounded back posture.
An easy way to stretch the T-Spine and Pectoralis muscles is to use a Swiss Ball. Simply lie on the Swiss ball taking the shape of the ball with your back neck and head. When you are settled in this position turn your palms up towards the ceiling and lightly contract your pectoralis muscles as if you were doing a chest press or fly. Exhale, release and relax and find your new resting position for these muscles.
Shoulders, Traps and Pectoralis Muscles
As stated above, with our daily posture chances are that you will feel like you are wearing your shoulders as earrings after a full day of sitting in class or working in front of the computer. Again with this forward posture we are thrown out of alignment and not only will we be unable to perform at our best, we can also experience a lot of neck stiffness and pain if the muscles affected never get a chance to rest.
When stretching the limbs of the upper body I am a big fan of using a band because the band allows the shoulder joint freedom to move around were it will not be inhibited or in pain. The band also provides some stability for the joint while it is in traction at the same time the surrounding muscles are being stretched.
Take your light band with an underhand grip and put it behind your back. It is very important that you maintain good posture and keep your shoulders and ribcage down while your perform this stretch or else you will be getting a false sense of flexibility.
Contract your biceps and pull your shoulder blades together as you allow the band to provide some tension for the stretch. Relax, exhale and allow your palms to travel upward while you maintain keeping the ribcage and shoulders down.
Shoulders internal and External Rotators
I am sure you have tried the yoga pose where you place one hand low behind your back and the other over your head and try to get your fingers to touch; how did that go for you? If you are like most people I see, one direction looks pretty good and you might even be able to get your fingers to interlock, however when you try the other direction you can only get half of what you displayed on the other direction.
Imbalance between sides can be drastic during sporting movements and you want to try your best to even out the sides to prevent possible injuries.
Attach a medium tension band on a pull up bar and grasp the band behind your back. Go as high on the band as you can without allowing the shoulder to rise up to handle the tension. Once you are set contract the muscles around (deltoids and pecs) and deep within (rotator cuff muscles) the shoulder. Relax, exhale and find a higher point to grab on the band and repeat.
Low Back Stretch and Decompression
Who hasn’t has some dull low back pain in their lives before. Tight hips and hamstrings, heavy weight training, ballistic lifting and giving and taking impact in practice and games all contribute to a tight low back.
There are plenty of people who can tell you how debilitating a tight low back can be. Sports and activity can be difficult to maneuver and in the more extreme cases, simply getting out of bed is tough. If left untreated with accumulating years of abuse, damage to the disc and spine can occur and the pain can become a more permanent fixture.
One of my favorite ways to decompress the low back and relax the surrounding muscles is to perform a tabletop stretch. You can rest your arms on a table or grasp a bar to anchor yourself. Walk your feet back far enough to get an effective stretch while your knees remain straight and your back stays flat throughout. Contract your lats, low back muscles, glutes and hamstrings. Relax, exhale and try to elongate your spine to decompress your low back.
There you have six more stretches to help you perform at your best. Feel free to choose a few that you need to do and perform them a few times throughout the week. You can also perform the original six one day and these new stretches on the next day. Remember that stretching is a big part of being able to perform at your best.
Now go out there and make it happen.