by Brett Klika
Let’s face it. Many young athletes have the mobility of a “Frankenstein/Tin Man” hybrid. This lack of mobility takes its toll on joints and tendon connections resulting in “growing pains,” as well as a decrease in performance. It’s important that we as parents, professionals and coaches understand the mechanisms of improving flexibility and mobility, and how to integrate exercises that can aid in their improvement.
Flexibility refers to a muscles’ ability to achieve its full, natural length through motion around a joint. To maximize flexibility it’s important to first note that muscle is a living, breathing thing. It is made up of chains of amino acids (protein), it uses oxygen, it has its own local metabolism for certain tasks, and it adapts to the stresses placed on it. In spite of this perceived complexity, muscle is rather “dumb”. It knows how to do two things, contract and relax. Muscles contract to create motion on one side of a joint, while muscles on the other side of the joint relax. In order to create safe, effective range of motion around a joint, there has to be a balance of strength, as well as appropriate length of the muscles involved with a movement on either side of a joint. Understanding this relationship, you can see that in order to increase range of motion or flexibility, you have to improve the relationship of strength and length on either side of the joint. Let’s first talk about improving and restoring proper muscle length.
The first step in improving muscle length is addressing the quality of the actual tissue. Muscles in the body are surrounded by connective tissue called “fascia”. When the muscular system undergoes physical or physiological stress, the fascia responds by tightening around the muscle. Instead of being pliable and adaptive to the movement needs of the muscle, it constricts the muscle’s ability to act as it should. In addition, it can affect the amount of blood and nutrients coming in and out of the muscle. Good stuff can’t get in and bad stuff can’t get out. This tightening of the fascia happens from stresses to the body brought on from emotional stress, poor nutrition, dehydration, toxicity, lack of movement, or high intensity movement as seen in sports or exercise. When tight fascia is limiting the function of a muscle, the effect of stretching is diminished. To maximize the positive effect of any flexibility program it is important to make sure the fascia is addressed. Stay hydrated, avoid caffeine, manage emotional stress, eat properly, warm up before exercise, stretch after exercise, and probably the most important, get massage and bodywork! Massage helps break down the tightening tissue, allowing not only for appropriate tissue length, but also tissue nutrition (good stuff in, bad stuff out). Foam rollers and tennis ball work are a great alternative to massage as well. Talk to a knowledgeable trainer to find out flexibility exercises using these tools.
Aside from improving tissue quality, the right type of stretching can help restore proper muscle length. First, it’s important to understand how stretching works. Because muscle is dumb, our body has safeguards to make sure that we don’t create damage by lengthening it too far or too fast. In addition, these safeguards protect the muscle from contracting too hard to overcome a force. Think of these safeguards as little computer chips in the muscle and tendons, monitoring the length of the muscle as well as the amount and rate of force applied to it. If too much force is applied, or if the muscle gets longer than the body thinks it is supposed to, these computer chips send massages to get your muscles out of trouble either by contracting to re-shorten, or by shutting down. For example, imagine if you were lying on your back and someone was stretching your hamstrings. If they, god forbid, decided to quickly force your leg past it’s comfortable range of motion, your hamstring would immediately resist this force instead of being stretched further than it’s capable. What stretching does is re-set these “computer chips” by convincing the body that the muscle length you are accomplishing is OK. If you slowly move into a stretch, stop the stretch before it feels painful, and hold it for a period of about 20 seconds, you stay under the radar of these “computer chips”. The slow, sustained increase in muscle length doesn’t alarm any of the sensors, so it is allowed to happen. When you do this repeatedly, you convince your neural system that it’s OK to have this change in muscle length become permanent. The “computer chips” are then reset by your neural system. This can be done using movement patterns as well. For example, if you are a beginner martial artist, your kicks usually aren’t able to get very high. The more you practice kicking, the more you convince the muscle sensors that this is a normal activity, nothing to be alarmed about. The muscles slowly allow a greater range of motion with practice.
Young athletes are a unique group. Their bodies are constantly growing and changing. Bones grow and muscles are forced to adapt to this growth. Muscle and fascia is forced to elongate to accommodate the longer bones. As we learned above, muscles go into a protective mode. The fascia tightens to protect the muscle. When a youngster in this phase of growth is involved in sports, they are constantly contracting and relaxing these muscles. If the muscle can’t shorten and lengthen effectively, there is an increased amount of tension put on the area where the muscle attaches to the bone, called the tendon. This causes swelling and pain at that attachment. This is most common with youngsters at areas like the knees and heels. Pain can decrease with ice and ibuprofen, but properly addressing tissue quality, proper movement patterns, and stretching can help prevent and lessen these symptoms. Here are specific recommendations for flexibility with young athletes:
- Learn how to use foam rollers and tennis balls as massage tools. Use them before and after sports practice, or any other time. These techniques should be used before standard stretching.
- Get massage or bodywork a minimum of every 6 weeks.
- Eat well, stay hydrated, and get plenty of sleep.
- Use a movement based warm-up before intensive physical activity. The movements should be progressively more dynamic and consist of large ranges of motion like the ones seen in sports. Lunges, Frankenstein walks, marches, shuffles, skips and variations of bear crawls are great warm-up exercises.
- After exercise, perform slow, prolonged stretches particularly in areas such as the calves, hamstrings, quads, adductors and glutes. Hold these stretches for about 20 seconds and don’t go past a “7 out of 10” on a pain scale.
- Stay moving! Muscles need to be used to function effectively at the proper length and strength. When kids sit around, muscles shorten and become weak. Fascia becomes tight from lack of movement. Problems from inactivity can last a life time!
Let’s teach our kids to become happy, healthy, pain-free adults!
Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting FitnessQuest10.com, ToddDurkin.com or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]