Unfortunately the first thing we learned about stretching was probably from P.E.. You know the drill. There’s the classic bend for your toes, cross-one-foot-over-the-other and fold, pull-on-your-elbow tricep stretch, push-the-wall calf stretch, butterfly stretch (or “crowd pleasers” as we called them), etc. etc.. Whether or not they were effective or not, who knew at that time. Normally we just trusted that if we didn’t do them, injury would be lurking around the corner.
Kelly Starret’s MobilityWOD.com is that light bulb that SHOULD and NEEDS to go off between those ears. Kelly is a DPT and owner of San Francisco CrossFit, as well as the king of supple leopards. Everyday for the past 8 months, he has been posting a new ‘stretching’ video on his website (talk about production!), going over concepts and self-programming. It is a treasure trove of knowledge, and you’d be doing yourself a favor by checking it out.
Here are 7 of the most important lessons I’ve learned from watching Kelly’s videos and from personal experience with MobilityWOD programming and design over the last 8 months with our CrossFit Program. Hopefully it will be a useful crash course for a better understanding of ‘stretching’, ‘mobility’, and how to use it effectively in your training.
1. Mobilize, don’t just stretch. (i.e. stretch with a purpose)
“Stretching only focuses on lengthening short and tight muscles. Mobilization, on the other hand, is a movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.” – Kelly Starret, MobilityWOD.com
Perhaps the simplest way to describe mobilization is “stretching with a purpose.” Specifically, our purpose is to improve range of motion (ROM), positioning, power production, and recovery. If we don’t see an increase in our effectiveness during training or in post-training recovery, then it’s NOT WORKING. Don’t be satisfied with “thinking” you are helping. Measure your progress. Far too often I see people simply going through the motions. Don’t be that guy.
One way to do this is to simply check range of motion pre- and post-‘stretching’ (what Kelly likes to call Test/Retest.) Is it easier to get down into the bottom of your squat? Are your shoulders able to get into a better overhead position? Will this improved position make you stronger/faster/safer/better (through improved force production and efficiency)?
“General stretching” has failed – and so will “general mobilization” if you let it. You need to have a plan of attack. (Why would you need to do a swimmer’s stretch if the day’s workout is Box Jumps?) By smartly programming your mobilizations to match your workout demands, you’ll be taking advantage of that new ROM you’re developing and continue to get better.
2. Mobilize the position, not the muscles.
Keep things simple. Try not to get caught up in “what” you are stretching. We are mobilizing positions, NOT anatomical terms. If you are wondering “What am I stretching in this position?”, the answer always is: anything that is a point of resistance, whether it’s muscular, capsular, or soft tissue — it doesn’t matter.
A more important exercise than naming what muscles you are stretching is to understand what positions are used in movement. For example, how does external rotation of the knee play into a squat? Why would we want to mobilize that position? How does having internal-rotation at the hip, on the other hand, help us to keep our toes pointed straight? Proper position equals injury prevention. There’s a reason the best lifters have the best technique. Not only are they more effective and powerful, but they are safer to perform too. It’s really hard to get stronger if you’re also constantly battling injury.
If you can break down a movement into its composite positions, you will be able to more effectively mobilize and program for yourself.
3. PNF – Contract/Relax
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching (or PNF for short), is a combination of passive stretching and isometric contractions. Although originally developed as a physical therapy program for patients with paralysis, in the last 20 years it has also been found to be extremely effective when working with athletes. The goal is to make quick gains in ROM to improve performance and safety.
The most basic form of PNF stretching is called the contract/relax method. To perform it, you set yourself up in the proper position, then “get tight” for 5 seconds. (In an isometric contraction, the angle of your joint stays the same. Think about someone holding your leg in place as you try hard to push against it. Even though your leg doesn’t move, you are still contracting the muscle.) After 5 seconds, relax the muscle, and try to take up your newfound slack in the muscle to put yourself back in tension. Stay relaxed and passive for 10 seconds, and then get tight again. Repeat until you stop making progress.
NOTE: PNF stretching is probably best done by a physical therapist or the help of a friend who knows what they’re doing. When the athlete comes off of tension into relaxation, it’s important for the helper to also release tension so that they don’t over-extend the muscle/joint, before taking up the slack. However, even without outside help, we can still take advantage of this process by simply finding immobile objects to resist us (like tables, walls, chairs, etc.) You will be stunned by how much a difference this kind of stretching makes in your training. I know I was.
4. Band ’em if you got ’em (i.e. you can’t stretch a contracted muscle)
Guess what? A tight, contracted muscle isn’t very good at “stretching”. (In fact, if a muscle “stretches” while under load, it’s considered an eccentric movement, ex: negative pull-ups or bench press.) To this end, the classic bend over and touch your toes stretch is awful for loosening up your hamstrings, which are under high-tension. It serves much better as a lower-back stretch.
So, what can we do to make sure a muscle is relaxed before we apply the tension to it? One answer: Jumpstretch flexbands (or any other brand.) By using bands, we can distract the joint, allowing ourselves to relax and be passive even while there is tension being applied to the joint by the band.
Also, we ALWAYS want to mobilize in a GOOD position (shoulder/hip/etc.) and the bands help pull our joints into the proper place in the capsule. The hip capsule stretch is on of the best examples of how dramatic the difference can be once you set that joint to the back of the socket allowing it to move cleanly and freely.
5. Trigger points and tools of punishment
Trigger points are basically tiny knots that develop in your muscles after injury or overuse, and are a major source of pain and muscular dysfunction. We want our bodies to be in tip-top shape – primed to take on the challenges of the world and our workout routines – not junked up from too much work and not enough recovery.
Think about your muscles as layers of tissues that need to be able to slide and move against each other. If there is a “small knot” blocking that movement and causing pain, we are effectively putting the breaks on our performance. In order to take the breaks off, we need to restore our sliding tissues and attack trigger points in the muscles.
While you can fork out some dough for nice TriggerPoint Therapy Equipement, it is in no way necessary to get the benefits. All you need is a little patience and 3 lacrosse balls (a single, and then 2 taped together).
In MobilityWOD, there are 3 techniques in particular that are helpful.
Contract/Relax on a trigger point – find something that hurts or is really sore, and put the lacrosse ball on that point. Contract over the ball for several seconds, and then release to get into that deep tissue. (For me, I find lots of triggers around the glute and thorasic spine.)
Tack and pull – Put the lacrosse ball near a trigger point, press down against it to take out any slack in the tissues, and then pull the muscle past it by extending/flexing the leg/arm/hip, etc.
Pancake – This might be the most effective one. Think about pressing and smearing your tissues apart. Not just rolling back and forth, but actually applying pressure and sliding those tissues free. Example: Place the double lacrosse ball on the ground along your thorasic spine and work on small oscillations around one point. Once you make change and no longer feel pain, move on.
6. Two minutes minimum exposure
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want to make progress, 2 minutes spent on one position is the minimum dose. It’s way longer than your standard 10-20 second set-up from P.E. class, but since you are stretching with a purpose, you only need 8-10 min total to hit the mobilizations you need.
Don’t cop out and go for less. Really, you should keep going until you cease seeing progress. Trust me, it takes longer than 20 seconds for that to happen.
7. Work on position before, and recovery afterwards.
The best time to mobilize is whenever you can (even at your desk-job), but when it comes specifically to training, my recommendation is this: work on position before your workout, and recovery afterwards.
Proper technique and position is crucial to any workout, especially when dealing with a movement that’s giving you trouble.
However, it isn’t just power we’re after, but recovery. For that, trigger point therapy using lacrosse balls post-workout has proven to be extremely effective. In general, I’ve found that this work is best saved for the post-workout time period, to prep muscles to be worked the next day. The changes in ROM aren’t as significant as when using PNF stretching or bands, and you’ll probably be able to tell what areas got ‘worked’ that need extra attention after a session. You don’t need to do it every day, but make sure you don’t neglect this part of your mobility. The better you take care of your muscles, the better they’ll take care of you.
Here’s the bottom line: just mobilize. These tips and tricks will go a long way, but don’t feel LIMITED by them. If you don’t have lacrosse balls, jumpstretch bands, or much time, it doesn’t matter – just do the best with what you have available. There are lots of ways to be creative with this stuff, and plenty you can do without any tools at all.