It often seems there is no middle ground with flexibility. It is either overtrained or ignored. Most athletes and coaches include flexibility exercises before or after workouts simply because they have always heard that they need to do so. In this article, I would like to share some of my experience with flexibility training, bringing into question traditional flexibility practices.
What is flexibility? Basically, it is “the range of motion about a joint”1. Healthy movement and proper range of motion (ROM) are obviously necessary for normal function. But what exactly is “healthy” and “proper” when it comes to flexibility? Open any rehabilitation text and you will see “normal” anatomical ROM assigned to all joints of the body. These ranges serve as references and have guided traditional strength and flexibility programs in an attempt to provide optimum ROM and function. However, this traditional approach overlooks a few crucial concepts.
To address this gap in the traditional approach, we have to ask certain questions. For example, how does passive ROM relate to its active ROM? You may be able to get a high static (passive) range out of a joint, but will the body provide that same range at high speeds and loads? In other words, is it healthy for athletes to statically develop a ROM that they cannot control at functional speeds and loads? Is there even a difference between anatomical ROM and functional ROM? Finally, the most important question: Which flexibility do you need the most in daily activities and sports — static or dynamic, anatomical or functional flexibility?
If you were to research stretching and flexibility, you would find countless conflicting studies and field observations. Because just about any position on flexibility can be supported by research, we’re going to base this discussion on observations, coaching experience and common sense. A simplified discussion will also show flexibility from a more holistic perspective.
Whether it is performed before or after a workout, static stretching is the most common form of flexibility training. However, in working with many athletes, especially martial artists, we have made some interesting observations, namely that static ROM is not related to active ROM. We have observed that the body has greater ROM when it does not need to control speed, tension and stabilization. For example, our fighters exhibit more ROM in a controlled passive stretch than in a live kick, even when instructed to kick as high as possible. The two questions these observations have led us to ask are: why is this so, and what does it mean? Our interpretation is, if you can’t stabilize and control ROM, the body won’t allow you to use it.
Based on these observations, we have our clients warm up dynamically and incorporate full ROM training into their strength programs. We believe that this type of training develops all the functional ROM necessary for health and elite performance. For example, when our fighters warm up, we have them start with light technique work, gradually increasing speed and ROM over five to 10 minutes. When extreme static ROM is needed, such as in the case of wrestlers, we make it part of the warm up and have the athletes hold the extreme position for five to 10 seconds.
Two of our favorite exercises illustrate how we integrate flexibility into our warm up and strength training: the reaching lunge (RL) and the T-stabilization (T-stab) push-up. Both exercises require a distinctive blend of strength and flexibility and both can be modified to work for any application.
The bottom position of the RL resembles a static hamstring stretch (see Figures 1 and 2 above). Because the RL lunge can be performed in all three planes of motion, it addresses the multiplanar nature of functional ROM. We can tailor the stance, speed and range of movement of the exercise to meet the specific capabilities and training goals of any individual. We can also use the RL to emphasize any muscle group within the kinetic chain, a concept first defined by Gray, who coined the term isolated integration to describe it2. For example, by having athletes reduce knee and spinal flexion, we can increase the ROM demands on the hamstring. Using dumbbells with the RL is an excellent way to combine ROM and strength. The RL progression is a staple exercise in our training program and part of the reason for our near-perfect record against hamstring injuries.
The T-stab push up, another one of our staple exercises, also incorporates functional strength and flexibility training (see Figures 3 and 4 above). It looks like a chest stretch, but it is more versatile. As with the RL, it can also be modified to fit the capabilities and goals of specific individuals. For example, we may elevate the upper-body support by using a fixed barbell at waist height and reduce the rotation to ease the intensity of the exercise. Conversely, we may use a lower-support position (such as the floor), a weighted vest and increased rotation to provide a more advanced training stimulus.
Let me make one thing clear: We do not believe that static stretching is ineffective and has no place in fitness and performance training. We certainly acknowledge it as an important tool for rehabilitation, and we can accept it as a “feel good” modality; we have no objections to its use for that purpose. In fact, we often roll on medicine balls and biofoam rollers for a few minutes before workouts for that very reason: it loosens us up and makes us feel good. However, we do not know to what degree static stretching is effective, whether it is the most effective means to develop functional flexibility and performance or where exactly it belongs in the training scheme. We strongly disagree when coaches and organizations insist on static stretching as the best or only method for improving functional ROM and reducing injuries.
Our field observations over the past decade support our belief that static muscle compliance and active muscle compliance are not related, or that muscle compliance is a major component of ROM. Our observations also lead us to believe that active muscle compliance is more important than static muscle compliance in striving toward our fitness performance goals. For these reasons, we have combined dynamic flexibility into strength movements, more or less removing all static flexibility from everyday training. This is not necessarily the “best” or only way to train. It simply illustrates that there may be many ways to develop functional flexibility, which is something to keep in mind the next time you train for flexibility.
- Baechle, T.R., and R.W. Earle, eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000. p. 322.
- Gray, G.W. Chain Reaction Festival. Adrian, MI: Wynn Marketing, 1996. p. 15