by Charles Poliquin
Yoga is suddenly cool again. Workshops and online presentations on stretching and becoming more supple have become very popular recently. With the value our culture places on staying young, mobility training is essential as people age. Also, as athletes strive for higher levels of physical perfection, they need to work on maintaining full range of motion and eliminating muscle adhesions that impede progress in performance and gains in strength and muscle mass. So what type of mobility work is best for you?
Before looking at the types of mobility work available, consider that the nature and timing of stretching is critical to achieve the optimal training response. For example, performing static stretching before activities that require maximal strength or power, such as sprinting or powerlifting, may decrease performance. In fact, a study published in the June 2011 issue of Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that stretching an antagonist muscle group can adversely affect performance of its agonist. In this case, researchers found that stretching the quadriceps can affect the power production of the hamstrings.
With that warning, for your consideration here are a few types of activities that fall into the category of mobility work:
Static stretching. In this form of stretching you assume a stationary position and hold muscles at a length greater than their normal resting length. The duration of the stretch is usually 30 seconds. Static stretches are generally easy to learn and can be performed without the assistance of a partner. Static stretching should be performed either after a workout or four or more hours before a workout, as it can affect the ability of the muscles to generate strength and power. Although many yoga stretches can be considered a form of static stretching, static stretching by itself was made extremely popular by Bob Anderson with the 1975 publication of his book (co-written by Jean Anderson) Stretching (Publishers Group West, 2010). The book has sold over three million copies and has been published in 24 languages.
PNF stretching. An acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, PNF is a partner-assisted type of stretching that involves stretching a muscle, holding it isometrically against a resistance (usually a partner), and then stretching it once more to achieve an even greater range of motion. This type of stretching requires skill to administer, as an untrained partner can easily stretch an individual too far and cause injury. As with static stretching, PNF should only be performed after a workout or several hours before. A good, practical guidebook about how to perform PNF stretching is Facilitated Stretching, 4th Edition, by Robert McAtee and the late Jeff Charland (Human Kinetics, 2014).
Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves fast movements that place muscles under a rapid but brief stretch. One reason for its popularity is that the correlation between dynamic flexibility and static flexibility is quite poor (r = 0.42): What this means is that it’s possible for someone who can barely touch their knees in a sit-and-reach test (static stretch) to kick you in the face (dynamic stretch). As such, this type of stretching is considered a dynamic expression of flexibility. Also, as opposed to static stretching, dynamic stretching can be performed immediately before a strength or power activity without negatively affecting performance. Thomas Kurtz helped popularize this type of stretching in his book Stretching Scientifically: A Guide to Flexibility Training (Stadion Publishers, 2014), which was first published in 1985 and is now in its fourth edition.
Fascial stretching. Fascial Stretch Therapy™ is a stretching method developed by Ann and Chris Frederick. With this technique a client is placed on a treatment table and the practitioner moves the client’s limbs in specific ranges of motion. Straps are used to stabilize the limbs not being worked so the practitioner can work on specific muscles. This technique enables the practitioner to stretch not only the muscles but also the fascia, which is connective tissue in the body that plays a key role in providing stability to the body.
Distraction stretching. A form of traction using rubber bands, distraction stretching provides tension that helps to open up joint capsules. The basic technique involves attaching a large elastic band to a stationary object and the other end around a body part and slowly pulling away. An excellent resource for this type of stretching is Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza (Victory Belt Publishing, 2013).
ELDOA. The technical name for this type of stretching is Longitudinal Osteoarticular Decoaptation Stretching, which translates from the French acronym ELDOA. This form of stretching was developed by Guy Voyer, D.O., and serves to decompress the spine and help normalize alignment of the vertebrae.
If these stretching methods do not give you the results in increased range of motion or performance you expect, you may need to see a soft-tissue practitioner to address adhesions that may be restricting your progress. One extremely popular and effective method is called Active Release Techniques Treatment® (ART), which was developed by Dr. Mike Leahy. Unlike traditional massage, with ART the area being treated is moved throughout its optimal range of motion to help restore function. Another type of soft tissue treatment (and one that is much easier to learn) uses the Fascial Abrasion Tool developed by Dr. Mark Scappaticci. This treatment helps identify and treat fascial restrictions that could affect sports performance and lead to injury.
As for which type of stretching method is best, that’s debatable – perhaps all of them, as each has its pros and cons. In any case, whether your goal is to improve athletic performance, build muscle or simply live pain free, you need mobility training to be a part of your regular fitness routine.