How to develop your athlete's flexibility
Brian Mackenzie examines the various ways an athlete can improve their flexibility.
What is Mobility?
Flexibility, mobility and suppleness all mean the range of limb movement around joints. What we must remember is that in any activity there are two groups of muscles at work:
Why do mobility exercises?
The objective of mobility training is to improve the range of stretch of the antagonistic muscles.
What are the benefits?
Mobility plays an integral part in the preparation of athletes by developing a range of movement to allow technical development and assisting in the prevention of injury.
How will I know if I am stretching correctly?
When you perform a stretch correctly, you will feel mild discomfort in the antagonistic muscles. If you feel pain or a stabbing sensation, you must STOP.
What do I need to consider before conducting mobility exercises?
The body responds best to a stretching programme when it is warm, and the muscles and joints have been exercised through their current range of movement.
What types of mobility exercises are there?
The various techniques of stretching may be grouped as Static, Ballistic and Assisted. In both Static and Ballistic exercises, the athlete is in control of the movements. In Assisted the movement is controlled by an external force which is usually a partner.
Static stretching involves gradually easing into the stretch position and holding the position. The amount of time a static stretch is held may be anything from 6 seconds to 2 minutes. Often in static stretching, you are advised to move further into the stretch position as the stretch sensation subsides.
Dynamic or Ballistic stretching
Ballistic stretching involves some form of rapid movement into the required stretch position. Where the event requires a ballistic movement, then it is appropriate and perhaps necessary to conduct ballistic stretching exercises. Start with the action at half speed for a couple of repetitions and then gradually work up to full speed.
Assisted stretching involves the assistance of a partner who must fully understand what their role is otherwise, the risk of injury is high. A partner can be employed to assist with Partner stretches and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) techniques.
Your partner assists you to maintain the stretch position or help you ease into the stretch position as the sensation of stretch subsides. It would help if you aimed to be fully relaxed and breathe easily throughout the exercise. Partner assisted stretches are best used as developmental exercises, with each stretch being held for thirty seconds.
Which method is best?
Static methods produce far fewer instances of muscle soreness, injury and damage to connective tissues than ballistic methods. Static methods are simple to carry out and maybe conducted virtually anywhere. For maximum gains in flexibility in the shortest possible time, the PNF technique is the most appropriate. Dynamic (ballistic), slow controlled movements through the full range of the motion, will reduce muscle stiffness. Where the event requires ballistic movement, then ballistic stretches should be employed.
In what order should the mobility methods be used?
When conducting mobility exercises, it is recommended to perform them in the following order: static, assisted and then dynamic.
When should they be performed?
Mobility exercises could be part of the warm-up programme or as a stand-alone unit of work. It is considered beneficial to conduct mobility exercises as part of the warm down programme. Still, it should not include ballistic activities as the muscles are tired and more prone to injury. Static exercises are recommended as they relax the muscles and increase their range of movement.
Mobility Exercise Programme
All athletes require a basic level of general all-around mobility to allow them to benefit from other forms of training. Identify a selection of exercises and then put a programme together for your athletes. Also, athletes will need to develop specific mobility for those joint actions involved in the techniques of their events.
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About the Author
Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.