Many coaches and athletes perform static stretching because they believe it necessary. Many do not take the time to ask questions about how relevant it is to athletic performance. I believe that after this article you will be asking a lot of questions about how static flexibility should be used. – Grif Fig
Flexibility: The What, Why, and How
JC Santana, MEd, CSCS
One of the most controversial topics in fitness is flexibility. Many personal trainers consider flexibility and stretching to be synonymous, and thus include some for of stretching exercises in their workout programs because they have always heard it is the right thing to do. One of the most popular forms of stretching is static stretching. Whether it is performed pre or post workout, static stretching is the most common form of flexibility training. If one performs a Medline search for “flexibility” related research, the search will provide a plethora of conflicting studies on stretching and flexibility. Field observations may also be equally diverse in their findings. In spite of this diversity in theory, many educational organizations and trainers still espouse to static stretching when it comes to enhancing flexibility.
Flexibility is generally defined as “the range of motion about a joint” (1). There is no doubt that healthy movement and proper range of motion (ROM) are necessary for normal function and optimum performance. However, the question still remains, what is healthy and proper? If one references any anatomy or rehabilitation textbook, one will find anatomical ROMs assigned to all joints of the body. These ROMs are labeled “normal” and serve as references. Traditional fitness and rehabilitation programs have been guided by these ROMs in order to provide “optimum” function. However, applying this traditional approach allows a few very important concepts to be overlooked.
In order to provide some clarity to this discussion, we have to ask some important questions.
1) Why are we stretching?
2) Is flexibility related to injury prevention?
3) Is the passive ROM (developed through static stretching) related to active ROM? OR – just because a can get 140 degrees of static (passive) ROM out of a joint, will the body provide that same range at high speeds and loads (i.e. during a functional task)?
4) Is it healthy to statically develop a ROM that can’t be controlled at functional speeds and loads? Is there a difference between anatomical ROM and functional ROM?
5) Can we get flexibility through other methods of training outside of conventional stretching techniques?
6) Which flexibility do I really need the most of in functional daily activities (FDAs) and sports, static or dynamic, anatomical or functional?
All of these questions are valid and deserve some attention. However, getting to the absolute truth behind each question may be a different story. Since any position on flexibility can be supported by some research, we would like to keep the discussion based on our observations, coaching experience and common sense. I believe a simplified discussion will allow one to see flexibility from a more holistic perspective.
Most trainers stretch to gain flexibility. There is no doubt that flexibility is important, we just don’t know how important it is. The research from the armed-forces illustrates that the most and least flexible recruits are the most injured during boot-camp.(5) Furthermore, all of the research reviews that have looked at stretching and injury prevention show no correlation between the two. According to this body of work, more flexibility and stretching before an event does NOT protect one from injury.
Another aspect of flexibility one has to look at is the difference between passive flexibility (i.e. stretching) and active flexibility (i.e. functional ROM). Working with many athletes, we have had the ability to see many different ways to develop and express flexibility. Not all are tied into static stretching. Based on our observations, static flexibility is not related to active ROM. That is – the body will give you more ROM when it does not need to control speed, tension and stabilization in the ROM. As an example, all of our fighers can exhibit more ROM through a controlled passive stretch than they can through a live kick, even when instructed to kick as high as possible. What does it mean to us? We interpret this as, “if you can’t stabilize and control ROM the body won’t allow you to use it.” Therefore, our clients warm-up dynamically and incorporate full ROM training into their strength programs. We feel our strength exercises move our clients through the ROMs they will encounter in their chosen activity. Some research even indicates that it is the total amount of time at a given ROM is the predominant factor in providing ROM, and not the time of each stretch. In practical terms, this could mean that 15 reps of a reaching lunge may provide the same hamstring ROM benefits as15 seconds of a sit and reach stretch. However, the reaching lunge would provide additional stability, balance, strength, caloric burn and coordination not derived from the sit a reach stretch. This approach to training develops all of the functional flexibility we need for health and elite performance. All of our warm-up and training protocols inherently develop active ROM and if extreme static ROM is needed (i.e. as with our wrestlers), we make it part of our warm-up; holding the extreme position for 5-10 seconds.
To illustrate exactly how we integrate flexibility into our strength training programs, we would like to share two of our favorite exercises: the reaching lunge (RL) and the T-Stabilization (T-Stab) push-up. Both exercises include a unique blend of strength and flexibility. Each can also be modified to match any application. The bottom position of the RL resembles a static hamstring stretch. It can be performed in all three planes of motion to address the multi-planar nature of functional ROM. The stance, speed and range of movement can be tailored to meet the specific capabilities and training goals of any individual. The RL can also emphasize any muscle group within the kinetic chain. For example, reducing knee and spinal flexion can increase the ROM demands of the hamstring. This concept of “isolated integration” was first coined by Gary Gray, the father of modern functional training.(2) Using dumbbells with the RL can provide an excellent combination of ROM and strength. The RL progression is a staple movement in our training model and, along with other exercise, is credited with our near-perfect record against hamstring injuries.
The T-Stab push-up is also one of our staple exercises that incorporate functional strength and flexibility training. It too looks like a chest stretch, accept with more versatility. Like the RL it can also be modified specific to the capabilities and goal of any individual. For example, the upper body support can be elevated (e.g. using a fixed barbell at about waist high) and the rotation reduced to attenuate the intensity of the movement. Conversely, a lower support position (i.e. floor), the use of a weighted vest and increased rotation can provide a more advance training stimulus.
It should be made clear we do not feel that static stretching is not effective or does not have a place in fitness and performance training. However, we have not been able to identify to what degree it is effective, if it is the most effective road to functional flexibility and performance, and where its exact place is in the training scheme. We certainly acknowledge it as a tool in the rehab setting. We can also accept it as a “feel good” modality and have no objections to it being used everyday for that purpose. We often roll on medicine balls and biofoam rollers for a few minutes prior to workouts for that reason; it loosens us up and makes us feel good. However, we do find it alarming when coaches and organization insist on static stretching as the “best” or “necessary” method of preparation, improving functional ROM and reducing injuries. We believe the best flexibility method is still an ideological figment.
In summary, our field observations clearly indicate that static muscle compliance and active muscle compliance are not related (i.e. muscle compliance is a big component of ROM). Our observations also indicate that active muscle compliance is more important to our fitness performance goals. Over the last decade we have combined dynamic flexibility into our strength movements and have basically removed all static flexibility from our day-to-day training. The results are without question; over 500 case studies show a better then 95% success rate against non-contact and overuse injuries in the absence of static stretching. This is not to be taken as the best way to train. It just illustrates that there may be many ways to do things right.
1) Baechle, T.R., Earle, R.W.(ed). Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.
2) Gray, G.W. Chain Reaction Festival Seminar. San Diego, Cal., Sept 1996.
7) Jones, S, B. H., and J. J. KNAPIK. Physical training and exercise-related injuries. Surveillance, research and injury prevention in military populations. Sports Med. 27:111-125, 1999.
8) Knudson, D. V., P. Magnusson, and M. Mchugh. Current issues in flexibility fitness. Pres. Council Phys. Fitness Sports 3:1-6, 2000.
9) Kokkonen, J., A. G. Nelson, and A. Cornwell. Acute muscle stretching inhibits maximal strength performance. Res Q. Exerc. Sport 69:411-415, 1998.
6) Pope, R. P., R. D. Herbert, J. D. Kirwan, and B. J. Graham. A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 271-277, 2000.
3) Santana, J.C. Flexibility: More is not necessarily better. NSCA Journal: 26(1). 2004.
4) Schiilling, B., Stone, M. Stretching: Acute Efects on Strength and Power Performance. NSCA Journal: 21(1). 44-47. 2004.
10) Shrier, I. Stretching Before Exercise Does Not Reduce the Risk of Local Muscle Injury: A Critical Review of the Clinical and Basic Science Literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 9:221-227. 1999.
5) Thacker, S. B., J. Gilchrist D. F. Stroup, and C. D. Kimsey, JR. The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 371-378, 2004.
Here is one of our favorite exercises for developing functional strength and flexibility. This reaching lunge protocol was designed by Gary Gray. Click below to see the video.