Expert Panel Responds: Flexibility

by | March 1, 2012, 10:00pm 0

Last week, Skyd introduced our panel of training professionals and elite level athletes (Andrew Berry, Samantha McClellan and Jamie Nuwer) for our training topic of the month. If you have follow up questions, please ask them in the comments. We have encouraged our panelists to respond there.

The Skyd Expert Panel will be taking a 2-3 month break as Skyd focuses on the 2012 College Tour.

Question 1: improving athleticism by watching TV
Julio asks,  “Are there easy things I can do to increase my flexibility while watching TV or doing my homework?”


I like to use my foam roller whenever I have down time.  Flexibility exercises while doing homework seems tougher…you could look at using a squash ball or something else to do some point massage on your hamstrings while you sit, but be careful with this.  You can cause lingering pain (and even tightness) if you overdo it.  Start with light pressure first.  Light stretching of your calves/hamstrings/adductors/abductors are also doable while seated.

SAMANTHA MCCLELLAN, Biomedical Engineer and Personal Trainer

Keep a foam roller by the tv and use the time to roll out your muscles.  If you are not properly warmed up, do not stretch cold muscles, as this can damage the muscle.  But utilizing the time for a little massage will help keep muscles from knotting and help increase bloodflow and circulation, allowing for faster muscle recovery.  If you have just returned from working out and you are still warm, you can absolutely use the time to do a lengthy stretching session, which can help improve general flexibility.

DR. JAMIE NUWER, Sports Medicine

Yes.  Do 50 jumping jacks to warm up your muscles then static stretch whichever muscles you’d like to make more flexible.  Static stretching is defined as a stretch you hold in one position.  Do 3 sets of 30 seconds for each muscle.


Question 2: on static stretching
Matt wants to know, “How much does stretching help flexibility? I’ve heard from different sources that stretching, especially static stretching does more harm than good, but then other people say that stretching is the most important thing. If stretching isn’t the best thing to improve flexibility, what other things would you suggest; yoga, dynamic warmups, rolling muscles, etc?”


I think statements like “static stretching does more harm than good” are a bit overstated.  Before answering this question, though, I want to point out that there is a difficulty with science in general: it is hard to get results that are broadly applicable.  There is a further difficulty with stretching studies in particular: it is virtually impossible to achieve both randomness and blindness, the gold standards of study methodology (despite the fact that they may be randomly assigned, people who are stretching know that they are stretching).  That said, I have gotten flexibility benefits from static stretching after training or competition (while my muscles are warm), and there are studies to support this finding…it can help elongate muscles and there is essentially no downside to doing so, the 5-10 minutes of time notwithstanding.  The trend these days, though, discourages static stretching while warming-up in favor of more dynamic, sports-specific movements.  These warm-ups don’t so much increase your flexibility as prime you for exercise.  Speaking more generally, some of my friends swear by yoga to increase flexibility and I have enjoyed and seen benefits from the sessions I have attended.  So, in general I would search with an open mind and settle in on a combination that works best for you.  Be wary of absolutist statements regarding what’s best.  Stretching is not yet one of the areas with general consensus in the sports science community.  As a result, people can latch onto evidence that supports their mindset: those who take anti-stretching studies to the extreme (i.e. “never stretch”) can simply be the folks who have always hated stretching.  As a guide, I would search out as many details as you can when new studies come out, such as the types of athletes used, the intensity of the workouts, and the time between stretching & exercise (and vice versa) in order to construct a clear picture of the scope of the study and in what scenarios the study results may apply (such as, “next time I test my vert max, I probably should not static stretch directly beforehand”).  I do a good amount of static hip and assisted hamstring stretches to increase my flexibility but definitely value my foam roller the most, so grab one if you have not already.

SAMANTHA MCCLELLAN, Biomedical Engineer and Personal Trainer

Stretching does help improve flexibility.  And better flexibility may help improve your performance in physical activities and decrease your risk of injuries by helping your joints move through their full range of motion. Static stretching is not harmful in and of itself, but stretching before performance actually decreases muscle strength for several minutes.  Therefore, use a careful movement warmup instead if you are needing maximum strength.

For increasing flexibility, a well rounded approach that includes everything you mentioned (yoga, massage, muscle rolling, dynamic warmups, static stretching, etc) will only improve upon the benefits gained from only using one or two of those methods.

DR. JAMIE NUWER, Sports Medicine

Two separate issues here: (1) stretching as warmup and (2) stretching as a tool to improve flexibility.  When stretching to warmup for exercise, avoid static stretching.  Excessive static stretching before exercise will decrease the muscle’s ability to contract effectively.  Short amounts of static stretching before playing are okay, but unlikely to be helpful.  An exception is if you have a pulled (strained) muscle.  In that case gentle, short static stretching may help an overly tight muscle relax before dynamic stretching.

Dynamic stretching is the best way to warm up before exercise.  Work up a sweat with running then go straight into dynamic stretching (high knees, etc).  Do at least one stretch for each muscle group of the legs and core.

Athletes often tend to overdo stretching/warmup for Ultimate and other sports.  Basically, you want to work up a sweat, move your muscles through the full range of motion needed to compete, and do some sprints accelerating to full speed.  That’s all you need to do to prepare for Ultimate or other sports.

Stretching to build flexibility should be done after workouts or after a short warmup.  3 sets of 30 seconds of static stretching for each muscle that you want to make more flexible.


Question 3:  overstretching
Jon wonders, “How do you know when you have properly stretched? Are there any indicators that you have overstretched? and how do you know you have not understretched?“


I am very bowlegged, so my high-attention areas are the inside and outside muscles on my thighs and hips, as well as my lower back and hamstrings.  I have overstretched a few times and it has led to lingering soreness, so that is an indicator for me; when doing static stretching, do not push too hard past the point of discomfort…let your muscle engage and then focus on relaxing it.  A personal indication of under-stretching is just a general tightness in my problem areas above.  Here’s a rule of thumb for appropriate hamstring flexibility that I got from track: stand with your knees locked and bend forward at the hips to try to touch your toes while keeping your back straight.  No curling of the back or throwing the shoulders forward (use a mirror or a friend to keep you honest).  Your shoulder blades should be back and down the entire time like when you are doing a dead lift.  If you can touch your toes, then it is not worth your time to become additionally flexible.  If you cannot, you should view the distance between your fingertips and your toes as a gap to make up to realize your speed potential and help prevent injury, *especially* if you are doing dynamic, powerful movements.  It is hard to overstate the former point: even if you have never had problems with your hamstrings, addressing this inflexibility gap will allow you to train to run much faster.  Don’t forget to use a foam roller, though, for a combination of point/deep tissue/light massage.  There is more and more evidence that massage is good for both recovery, flexibility, and injury prevention.

SAMANTHA MCCLELLAN, Biomedical Engineer and Personal Trainer

Move slowly into a stretch, and go only until the muscle you are stretching resists the stretch.  Stop the stretch before it hurts.  Never bounce while stretching.  Hold the stretch for a minimum of 15 seconds, but 30 seconds or more is best.  Focus on your breathing, and as you slowly exhale, try to relax even more and allow yourself to fall deeper into the stretch.  Holding a stretch for minute or more is not harmful, and in fact may help sore muscles relax and rid itself of any chemical waste buildup. Pain is a sign of overstretching.

DR. JAMIE NUWER, Sports Medicine

For dynamic stretching, you can’t “overstretch” but you can waste your time by spending too long on it.  When you feel warm and loose, you are ready to play.

For static stretching you can overstretch and injure yourself.  Holding a stretch for an excessive amount of time (minutes) can pull (strain) the muscle.

To know if you need to improve your flexibility, look up the normal range of motion (medical term for flexibility) for any muscle then compare your own range of motion.  If you are already in the normal range, then you don’t need more flexibility.  Let’s look at an example.  your ankle should flex your foot toward your knee at least 15 degrees.  Start with your foot at 90 degrees (neutral) then flex and measure how many degrees you move.  You will need a protractor or a tool called a goniometer.


Question 4:  glutes vs hamstring response to stretching
Hayden asks  “I regularly stretch my glutes and hip ad/abductors – this has made a big difference to my flexibility and motion. Why does the same not occur with my hamstrings, no matter how much I stretch them!?!  I am prone to small hamstring tweaks while playing, but with a bit of stretching they go away, and I can play on with little to no problem. I’m male.”


While it is hard to say precisely why this may be based just on this short description, your problem may not be inflexibility.  It could be that you are dealing with a muscular imbalance.  Tightness in your hamstrings could be a result of your quads being too strong/hamstrings too weak or vice versa.  The former scenario is more common, but I have experienced both.  As a general rule, your quads can be a bit stronger than your hamstring but not by much.  You can use the leg extension and hamstring curl machines to test this, but I actually discourage use of these machines for training, especially the curl machine – they replicate no athletic motion (do straight-legged hamstring pulldowns instead).  But don’t neglect focusing on larger movements, like squats and lunges, that will build your strength in the correct proportions.  In general, though, you always want your muscles loose and supple when not flexed, so investigate if it could be a muscle issue and…do not forget that daily foam roller session!  (I am so predictable.)

SAMANTHA MCCLELLAN, Biomedical Engineer and Personal Trainer

Keep stretching.  Also, watch your hydration levels and your diet, as both of these factors can impact the body’s ability to stretch properly.  You probably had never stretched your glutes and hip ab/abductors regularly before, so the increase in flexibility was easily apparent.  Most of us athletes are pretty religious about stretching hamstrings and quads, so in order to increase flexibility in these muscles, you may need to try incorporating some new techniques (such as deep massage or deeper stretching)  and really watch what you are putting into your body.  STAY HYDRATED.

DR. JAMIE NUWER, Sports Medicine

Everyone’s anatomy is different. Some people get tight muscles and others are naturally flexible.  Bigger, stronger muscles tend to be less flexible.  This may explain why your hamstring isn’t responding as well to stretching as your hips did.

Stretch 3 sets of 30 seconds every day and you will gain flexibility.  To keep this flexibility, you’ll have to continue a regular flexibility routine.

Of note, having normal range of motion will not prevent “muscle tweaks”.  Dehydration and muscle fatigue are the most common reason for cramping.  Muscle fatigue also leads to muscle tightness which predisposes one to muscle pulls (strains).  I’d recommend hamstring strengthening and endurance training to decrease the risk for cramping and muscle strains.

Thanks to our wonderful panelists for their insights and to all of our commentors for submitting questions. Our Expert Panel will be back in 2-3 months.

If you’re looking for more training resources, check out Melissa Witmer’s new book The Ultimate Athlete Handbook.

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