When I design a training program for a specific athlete’s sport, there are many areas to focus on including: strength, conditioning, speed/power, mobility/flexibility and recovery. It is very common to focus on the areas that seem like they are the most beneficial for athletic gains. In the case of sports performance training, it’s the training for the sport itself and the speed and power work which are usually most attractive to the player while the mobility, flexibility and recovery modalities take a back seat.
This approach may work for a short while, especially if the athlete is young, injury free and plays a sport that is not completely single-side dominant. When the athlete starts to mature, the accumulation of years of the same sports stress combined with postural challenges, like sitting in the classroom and doing work on the computer, can cause many problems. The neglected areas of mobility and flexibility may lead to muscle soreness, lack of movement, decrease in athletic performance, or even result in injury.
Let’s face it, stretching is not fun or exciting but a small venture into the dullness a few times a week can vastly improve your performance, recovery and keep you off the sidelines and in the game.
Below are some of the most common areas I have found to be tight on athletes and the mobility and stretches that correspond to the assistance of relieving the tight area. When performing these stretches be aware of proper body alignment and be prepared to hold the stretch for more than the commonly proclaimed “30 seconds.” It can take up to two minutes for tight muscles to release so hold on to those stretching positions a bit longer.
This area of the body cannot actually be stretched because the ankle is a joint. However, the ankle can be mobilized. The ankle is the foundational structure for support and movement for the entire body. In sports, movement begins from the ground and then generates power upward and in the applied directions. If the ranges of motion of the ankles are not optimal, structural alignment of the joint and limbs will be offline. Off-alignment makes the body absorb and distribute energy in inappropriate directions therefore decreasing the maximal power generated and possibly setting you up for a joint injury.
To mobilize the ankles and stretch the muscles of the calves: have your front foot flat on the floor with your toes three to six inches away from a wall. Place your hands on the wall and gently pulse your lower leg and knee forward keeping the knee aligned with the toes. The ankle mobility should increase and you can judge this by how close your knee gets to the wall.
Hamstrings are the collective group of muscles of the back of the leg that are used to extend the hip and flex the knee. In sports the hamstring muscles are important for: generating the quick first step, jumping, stabilizing the knees for cutting and deceleration of the body to stop quickly and change directions.
With their numerous functions it is common for these muscles to get tight due to their overuse. If they stay tight for too long optimal use of these muscles decreases, stiffness of the legs and low back can occur and possibly a muscle pull or injury occurs that will keep you out of the game.
To stretch the hamstrings: I like to lay supine on the floor and use a long strap for leverage. Loop the strap around the ball of your foot and bring your leg to its end range of motion where you feel tension; making sure the non-stretched leg is flat on the floor and not popping up. Once I’ve established my end range position without straining, I then begin to contract my thigh muscles and hold the contraction for a few seconds and then release the muscles along with my breath and gain a few more degrees in the range of motion.
There are variations to this stretch that you can check out more in depth in my article: How are your Hammies
The hip flexors are the muscle group that pulls the knee towards the chest. In sports they are used for running and jumping. These muscles get tight really easily. As a student athlete I remembered going to early morning practice for soccer and then sitting in classrooms for the next five hours and then going to afternoon practice. After all of the training in the morning and then all of the sitting at my desk, my hip flexors would tighten up tremendously.
All of us sit more then we should for our body’s health and the hip flexors are tight because of this. If they get too tight not only will optimal performance be decreased but they can pull the hips out of alignment and this can lead to sore lower backs, postural changes and even injuries of the surrounding muscles.
There are several ways to stretch the hip flexors and you may have to perform more than one way to get them loose. In my Sports Performance Series I talked about the role of the hip flexors in sports, how to test their length and what movements strengthen the hip flexors.
In terms of their recovery and resting length: one of my favorite stretches has you put your back leg on a bench and front foot on the floor. Tilt your hips forward as if you are tucking them underneath you. Maintain this position; sink the hips downward letting gravity assist. When the hip flexors begin to release you may sit your hips back towards the heel of the elevated foot to increase the stretch intensity of the quadriceps muscles.
These muscles can get really tight much like the hip flexors do when sitting all day. The hip rotators are primarily the glute muscles and their function is to stabilize, rotate and extend the legs. All of these movements are necessary for sport applications and if they don’t respond well then neither will your playing ability. These muscles also tend to be tighter on one side than the other which can throw off hip and leg alignment which may cause low back tightness and pain.
To stretch the hip rotator muscles: find a box or a table that is around the height of your hips. Turn your foot inward towards the middle of your body and have your knee outside of the body. Rest the outside of the leg on the surface finding a position that is comfortable and does not aggravate the knee or ankle joints. My left side likes to tighten up more than my right and if it is really bad then I cannot rest my knee on the surface. When this happens I place a mat or pad under the elevated knee so it has something to rest against and therefore will want to relax and stretch. As it begins to release I take the pad away and let it rest on the surface
The thoracic spine or T-Spine is the area of the upper back around the level of the shoulder blades. Much of the movements we perform during sports and our daily lives involve going forward or dealing with objects right in front of us. Sports, driving and even while I sit here and create this article for you, my shoulder blades are being pulled forward because of the position I am in. The chest muscles get really short and tight and mobility of the thoracic spine becomes limited due to the tightness. For rotational sports like tennis and golf this can inhibit the range of motion needed to perform well and for the rest of us this tightness and lack of mobility can lead to the rounded back posture.
A great way to keep the T-Spine mobilized is to use a roller: Lie on the floor and place the roller on your back near the bottom of the shoulder blades. Keeping the hips down and the body aligned properly, let the upper back extend backwards over the roller and then, when stretched, bring it back to the neutral position. It is important to think about only moving the upper back and not the entire spine, this is not a crunch.
The Lattissimus dorsi muscles are the big wing shaped muscles of the back just below the shoulder blades. The muscle inserts into the upper arm and is used to bring the arm towards the body for action and support. The muscles are anchored at the shoulder blade, ribs, spine and the hip. With all of these attachments if any of them becomes too tight it can throw off alignment of many areas of the body therefore causing its function to decrease and soreness and pain of the arms and back can occur.
One of my favorite stretches to maintain proper alignment is the lateral bend with support: I like to use a squat rack; however a doorway can work just fine. With one arm, reach across and over your head, with the near arm keep it lower, by the hip for support. When you get your grips make sure the hips are rotated and aligned. When aligned, slowly move the far hip away and you should feel a stretch in the area where the lats insert.
There you have six stretches to help you perform at your best. Best to choose a few that you need to do and perform them a few times throughout the week.