Modern Stretching for Football
Taylor Tollison provides advice for coaches, parents and athletes who want guidance on how to stretch.
Anyone involved in soccer knows that flexibility is one of the primary components of fitness. We all know you should stretch before and after practices and games. But old methods still might permeate, so it is time to move forward. The strength and conditioning industry evolve like any other industry. Science and trainers move to new levels of understanding and knowledge. This pushes other trainers to new levels as well. We know the body continues to operate the same but our knowledge on how to train it improves. Ten years from now, there will be a whole new set of new understandings and training methodologies to work from, although many principles seem to have staying power.
What is Stretching?
Stretching is the process used to elongate muscles for optimal functioning of the body in sports and everyday life. This elongation can happen with no movement as in static stretching, with movement as in dynamic stretching. I even take stretching further. If we include dynamic stretching and warm-up, we then must understand that it wakes up muscles and warms up the body as well. The most common types of stretches are:
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching should be incorporated and taken seriously as part of a regular strength and conditioning program. New methods of stretching and understanding have taken us to higher levels of implementation. With that as a background here are some of the benefits of stretching.
There is some debate in the science community as to whether stretching before activity reduces injury. One study from 2004 reviewed the impact of stretching on sports injury risk. They reviewed various other studies relating to stretching and concluded there is not sufficient evidence to either endorse or discontinue a stretching routine before and after exercise. (Fradkin 2006)
I have seen it mentioned multiple times in the scientific literature that there is insufficient evidence to suggest stretching reduces injuries. But don't let this debate fool you. There has got to be something to stretching even if some studies or reviews show otherwise. Can you imagine the sports world without stretching? I cannot. And also if some studies showed no injury prevention benefit from stretching, who in their right mind would have the guts to keep their athletes from doing it. It would be irresponsible to stop stretching.
From time to time, you will come across information on CNN or Fox News quoting the "newest study" on stretching. For example, just the other day, my brother heard a study from a news source that showed no difference in injuries between the group that stretched and did not stretch. The study went on to say the real injury difference comes from switching between the two. In other words, it is when you switch from stretching to not stretching or not stretching to stretching that causes the problem. I have not read the research, so I can fully comment on it. But I would add this; if you are not stretching now, START. Do not let little things like that dissuade you from one of the "foundations" of physical fitness.
Here is how I look at it, and I think most trainers and people with common sense would agree. Muscles at their optimal length are less likely to cause injury than those that are tight and imbalanced. Let me illustrate. We know that a tight psoas muscle will cause the opposing glute muscle not to fire correctly. This is called reciprocal inhibition. The glute muscle is a primary mover in actions like running. So, if the glutes don't fire correctly, the hamstrings must take over. Don't you think that if the prime mover is not working correctly and another muscle has to take over that injury is more likely to occur? I do.
As the psoas example illustrated an obscure relationship on how a tight muscle might indirectly lead to injury, I would like to illustrate another example. Sports involving bouncing and jumping activities with a high intensity of stretch-shortening cycles (SSCs) [e.g. soccer and football] require a muscle-tendon unit that is compliant enough to store and release the high amount of elastic energy that benefits performance in such sports. If the participants of these sports have an insufficient compliant muscle-tendon unit, the demands in energy absorption and release may rapidly exceed the capacity of the muscle-tendon unit. This may lead to an increased risk for injury of this structure. Consequently, the rationale for injury prevention in these sports is to increase the compliance of the muscle-tendon unit.
Recent studies have shown that stretching programs can significantly influence the viscosity of the tendon and make it substantially more compliant. When a sport demands SSCs of high intensity, stretching may be necessary for injury prevention. This conjecture is in agreement with the available scientific clinical evidence from these types of sports activities..." (Witvrouw 2004) Phew. I hope you made it through all that scientific jargon. It's time to wake up.
Further, there is some evidence to suggest pre-exercise stretching reduces the incidence of muscle strains. But the author mentions there is a need for more studies in this area. (McHugh 2010)
In summary, your goal is to create optimal length in the applicable muscles so that injury is reduced, and performance increased. But, there seems to be insufficient evidence to suggest stretching does not reduce injury. You want to be careful with the studies that say stretching does not reduce injury. There are a lot of factors to consider before we say don't stretch. First, I don't know of anyone who would say that. I would venture a guess to say many of those researchers would advise continuing stretching. Second, every trainer you ask would say to stretch. Third, consider the indirect and obscure relationships mentioned previously of lack of flexibility and injury possibilities. They are real and should be enough to keep you stretching. In the end, you must stretch. I point out both sides of the argument using science and scientific reviews. You will come across more than say stretching does not decrease injury. Not for one moment should think stretching is a bad idea.
Modern Stretching Warms up the Body and improves performance
Modern stretching in my mind is far more than just a lengthening of muscles. It also prepares the body for performance by warming up the body and waking up muscles. This process is typically done through dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching is a crucial part of the warm-up. The unfortunate part is some find it common for some athletes to skip their warm-up routine. This is a huge mistake. As an aside, one study showed that applying a targeted warm-up routine can reduce injuries by up to 30%. (Kirkendall 2010). The dynamic warm-up will prepare the body for the sport by waking up the body. A warm-up will increase blood flow and increase the speed of nerve impulses. (Shellock 1985)
Dynamic stretching can improve performance. In a study called "effects of static stretching for 30 seconds and dynamic stretching on leg extension power," they found that first static stretching did not improve performance. But when dynamic stretching was applied, leg extension power went up compared to non-stretching. (Yamaguchi 2005). This does not mean you should stop static stretching.
To further solidify my point that stretching does improve performance, let me provide one more study. The purpose of this study was to clarify the acute effect of dynamic stretching on performance. To not bore you with the details, this study also showed that dynamic stretching significantly improves power output. (Yamaguchi 2007)
In a warm-up routine, I see static stretching putting the muscles to sleep (not literally). There is even evidence to suggest static stretching causes a decrease in strength and power. Again, this does not mean to stop static stretching.
Does stretching reduce muscle soreness?
I went through a couple of studies relating to stretching and soreness reduction. One review of stretching and soreness looked at ten studies and found that stretching does not reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. (Herbert 2007)
The Dos and Donts of Stretching
Even the body during stretching must follow basic physiology principles. It is that physiology that guides how we stretch. It is also the physiology of muscles that guide how we should not stretch. The body contains muscle spindles. These are reactive to changes in length and velocity. During ballistic stretching, you perform bouncing movements which might activate these spindles, causing an increase in tension. It does not make sense to stretch a muscle that has enabled its tension mechanism. Does not it make sense to stretch a relaxed muscle?
Increasing Flexibility too much
Should you continue to increase your range of motion (ROM) or is there a point that too much ROM can be bad. Well, there is a point where too much causes concern. There is evidence to suggest that increases in ROM beyond function through stretching can cause injury and decrease performance. (Ingram 2003).
Don't stretch too far
Stretching should only happen to the point of slight discomfort. Going beyond that can cause possible injury. You can usually tell the difference between slight discomfort and pain resulting from the injury. The body has a great communication system. Listen to it. If at any point you feel "injury pain" stop immediately.
Don't compete during stretching
Athletes are competitive and want to outperform their teammates. Putting them into a competitive situation with stretching can be dangerous. Each athlete should be measured by his/her performance and improvement. Creating a competitive environment could cause an athlete to stretch too far beyond the point of slight discomfort. Remember, we are stretching to decrease injuries, not cause them.
The Old Way
In reality, the old way is still the new way of stretching for some. I believe that not enough education has happened to move youth soccer players and coaches, along with current strength and conditioning trends. Because of this, we have youth players performing outdated stretching and warm-up routines or not doing them at all. The old way looks something like this. Trust me, you will recognise it. Run around the field a few times followed by static stretching then a game or soccer-specific warm-up like small-sided games, shooting, etc. The new method is in this order:
I understand foam rolling may be challenging to perform before a game or practice, so do it when you can, especially before your workouts. Foam rolling is great to do while watching television.
How to Stretch
This is where the rubber meets the road. We've illustrated some of the fundamental concepts associated with stretching and tried to back it up with science. Now we talk about how to stretch. In the end, you will come away with a greater understanding of stretching and be able to apply stretching with yourself or team in the future.
Should you stretch cold?
I know this will cause many to pause and think is it true. Because I like you have always been taught to warm-up before stretching. You have been taught that stretching cold can cause injury or you will not get any effect from stretching cold. Analogies of stretching a frozen rubber band have caused enough fear to keep most if not all of us from stretching cold. So, what is the truth?
Just recently, I have come across information that has shown it OK to stretch cold. Mike Boyle, one of the most well-respected trainers, has advocated it. The National Academy of Sports Medicine said this, "An Active warm-up may not be necessary before stretching when an improvement of ROM is the goal." (Range of motion) (Lucett, 2011)
As a personal aside I think this is excellent news for those practicing fitness of any kind. Many of us possess flexibility deficits. When trying to work on those deficits, it is inconvenient to hop on a bike or go for a jog just to work flexibility. But now with this new "modern" information, it appears it is OK to stretch without a warm-up when ROM is the goal.
What is Static Stretching?
As "static" implies, it means no movement. You get into the stretched position where slight discomfort is felt and hold it for the prescribed time frame and relax.
Why static stretch?
Static stretching must be done the way it is prescribed, or the benefit will be reduced. Stretching follows physiological guidelines. There is a reason you hold your stretch.
Autogenic Inhibition protects the muscles from excessive tension. It works when the GTO overrides the effects of the muscle spindles allowing the muscles to relax. If the muscle spindle were to be allowed to fire without inhibition, the muscles would tense up, creating a poor environment for stretching. During static stretching, it is desirable to have relaxed muscles. To get the GTO (Golgi Tendon Organ) to fire, thus relaxing the muscle, you must hold your stretch without movement for a given time.
Static Stretches practices to avoid
Static Stretching Guidelines
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About the Author
Taylor Tollison graduated from the University of Utah with a Bachelors degree in Exercise and Sport Science. While at the University Taylor took coursework in Exercise Physiology, Sports Nutrition and other exercise-related coursework. Since graduating Taylor has continued to significantly expand his knowledge of training outside of his college coursework.
He is a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He recently achieved the Youth Speed and Agility Specialist Level 1 and Youth Fitness Specialist Level 1 through the International Youth Conditioning Association.