Jan 29, 2015Flex Play
Great flexibility is an important tool in a football player’s repertoire. The key to improving it is a more dynamic approach to stretching.
By Allen Hedrick
Allen Hedrick, MA, CSCS*D, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He formerly held the same position at the NSCA’s national headquarters and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Flexibility plays a larger role in achieving optimum performance than a lot of football players realize. After all, a slightly longer reach could help a receiver snag a high pass. More flexible hips and hamstrings could mean evading an opponent’s tackle.
There is also another important reason flexibility deserves a lot of attention in football strength and conditioning programs: decreased injury risk. The same flexibility that provides a performance edge over a not-so-flexible opponent also allows a player to walk away uninjured from a play that would result in a strain or pull for a less-flexible player.
Here at Colorado State University-Pueblo, flexibility is a vital part of our football team’s strength and conditioning program. In this article, I will explain how we train flexibility, modify our program based on individual players’ needs, and keep our athletes motivated while taking part in flexibility training.
Defined as the range of motion of a joint or series of joints, flexibility can be improved through various types of stretching that target muscles, ligaments, and tendons. There are a variety of methods that can be used to increase flexibility:
Ballistic stretching involves rapid movements that use momentum to carry the targeted body part(s) through their range of motion until the muscles are stretched to their limits. Because ballistic stretching is performed at high speeds, the rate and degree of stretch, as well as the force applied to induce the stretch, are difficult to control. Once widely used, ballistic stretching is no longer considered a safe method for increasing range of motion because of the potential for injury.
Static stretching is the method most commonly used by individual athletes and teams to increase flexibility. It involves passively moving the joint into a near maximal position and holding the stretch for an extended period of time–usually 15 to 30 seconds. Static stretching appears to work well, though depending on the sport and the athlete, it can take a lot of time to complete a sufficient routine.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) involves a couple of steps and a partner. First, the athlete’s partner slowly moves the targeted muscle into a static stretch, while the athlete keeps the muscle relaxed. While still stretched, the muscle is briefly contracted isometrically against an external force (their partner) sufficient enough to prevent movement in the joint. Then the muscle or joint is taken out of the stretched position for a brief amount of time before the stretch is performed a second time, potentially resulting in greater range of motion. While published studies suggest PNF stretching increases flexibility better than static stretching, some of the techniques are impractical because a partner is often needed.
Dynamic stretching involves sport-specific functional-based exercises that ready the body for activity. In many cases, the actual stretching movements are identical to static stretching movements, but dynamic stretches are preceded and followed by full-body movements. Developing a dynamic flexibility program requires analyzing the movements associated with a sport and developing stretches to enhance flexibility based on those movements.
Dynamic flexibility is more applicable to athletic performance because it more closely duplicates a given sport’s movement requirements. This also means that dynamic stretching can be used to teach or reinforce sport-specific movements.
Another benefit is that the exercises can be made more effective by progressing from a standing position to a walk and then a skip or run. For these reasons, dynamic stretching is the method we employ most with the football team here at CSU-Pueblo.
INSIDE THE PROGRAM
Because dynamic flexibility training is based on the movements that occur in a given sport, the only limiting factor is the creativity of the coach designing a flexibility training program. I have a core group of exercises I like to use with our football players because I have found they best mimic the movements they perform on the field.
All the exercises we use are performed as players walk over a distance of 15 to 20 yards. A routine of five to six movements is performed every day–either in the weightroom prior to strength and power training on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or on the football field before we perform speed/agility/conditioning activities on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We also perform static stretching routines to finish our sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
To avoid monotony and make this a fun activity (while still emphasizing good technique) I use different movements each day and mix up the order. This way, the athletes will not dread this portion of their training.
Although all of our football players generally perform the same flexibility stretching routine, we do individualize the program for those who have specific flexibility problems. The large number of athletes on the team keeps us from performing a formal movement screen on each athlete, but athletes with flexibility issues are easily identifiable when participating in our strength and power training program.
For example, an athlete may display limitations when trying to properly rack the bar with a high elbow position when cleaning, or not be able to achieve a full squat position when squatting or catching a full clean. These athletes are prescribed additional flexibility work to perform on their own. The system seems to work well because we put an emphasis on correct technique in the weightroom and our athletes do not like to be singled out in front of teammates as having deficient exercise technique.
We also make it a point to constantly stress to our athletes that it is possible to increase strength and improve flexibility at the same time. For example, deep squats, full range of motion side lunges, and well executed cleans allow for the development of flexibility and strength/power simultaneously. Many football players only think about getting bigger and stronger, so this is a way to get them to take the flexibility work seriously.
Following is a partial list of dynamic flexibility exercises we use with the football team here at CSU-Pueblo. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but is a good starting point for a football program.
Lunge walk: While clasping his hands behind his head, the athlete steps forward and drops into a lunge position with his torso leaning back slightly. The back knee hovers just off the ground, where he pauses for a count, then switches to move the opposite leg forward. This exercise can also be completed as a reverse lunge walk, where the athlete moves backwards.
Lunge walk/palms to floor: With his hands at his sides, the athlete steps forward and drops into a lunge position. Here, he places both palms on the floor outside of his front foot with fingers pointing forward. After pausing for a count, he rises and repeats on the opposite leg, progressing forward with each step.
Twisting lunge walk: With his hands clasped behind his head, the athlete steps forward with his right foot and drops into a lunge position. As he drops, he twists his upper body so that his left elbow touches the outside of the right leg. After pausing in this position for a count, he stays down but twists the opposite way so that the right elbow touches the inside of the right leg. He then repeats with his left leg forward, touching the outside of the left leg with the right elbow, then the inside of his left leg with his left elbow, progressing forward with each step. This exercise can also be completed as a reverse twisting lunge walk, where the athlete moves backwards.
Hockey lunge walk: While clasping his hands behind his head, the athlete steps forward, placing his front foot about eight to 10 inches outside of his shoulder, and then drops into a side lunge position. Both feet should be pointing directly forward with the back knee hovering just off the floor, head up, and back slightly arched, just like in a forward-stepping lunge. After pausing for a count in the bottom position, he repeats with the opposite leg, progressing forward with each step.
Walking side lunge: The athlete takes a long lateral step with the right foot, keeping his toes pointed forward. Keeping the left leg straight, he sinks his hips back and to the right in a groin stretch. With his back arched, he pauses for a count at the bottom, then stands back up before pivoting and repeating the movement with the left leg leading.
Lunge out on all fours/walk hands between: The athlete lunges out on all fours, with the body extended long and supported by the hands and feet. Keeping his hands stationary and legs as straight as possible, the athlete walks his feet up between his hands. At the top of the movement, he lunges out on all fours again and repeats the movement, attempting to get his feet further through the hands with each repetition.
Walking knee tuck: Stepping forward with his left leg, the athlete pulls his right knee up to his chest, using his hands to assist. After pausing for a count, he steps with the right leg and pulls the left knee, trying to pull the knee higher with each repetition.
Walking knee tuck/lift the foot: The athlete steps forward with the left leg and pulls his right knee to his chest as if performing the walking knee tuck, but at the top of the movement, he moves his right hand to his right foot, then pulls the foot toward his shoulder while standing tall. After pausing for a count, he steps with the right leg and repeats the pulling action with the left leg.
Walking over/under: Turning sideways, the athlete imagines a series of high and low hurdles progressing down the track. He first swings his right leg and then his left up and over the first high hurdle, keeping his toes pointed forward. After clearing the first high hurdle, the athlete drops into a squat position and moves laterally under the first low hurdle. After moving under the low hurdle, he pivots to the opposite direction and repeats the two movements.
Walking leg swing to opposite hand: The athlete steps forward with his left leg and left hand outstretched. After returning his left leg to the ground, he swings his right leg up to touch his left hand while keeping his right leg straight throughout the swinging motion. He repeats the movements with the opposite leg and hand, attempting to swing the leg slightly higher with each repetition.
Walking knee over hurdle: The athlete imagines a line of intermediate hurdles running down the track, alternating to the right and left sides. Leading with the right knee, he lifts his right leg up and over the first hurdle, placing the right foot down in front of him. He repeats the movement, leading with his left leg and attempting to bring the leg slightly higher over the hurdle with each repetition.
As the athlete becomes proficient at performing each dynamic flexibility movement, the exercises can be “complexed” into combinations. For example, the athlete can perform a knee tuck to a lunge walk, alternating legs after each movement has been performed.
There are two primary advantages of combining movements. First, it becomes a more sport-specific way to train because in football, the athletes do not repeat the same movement often. Second, it becomes a more efficient way to train because a larger number of muscle groups are stretched when performing a combination of stretches rather than duplicating the same stretch repeatedly.
This also shows the wide array of options available with dynamic stretching. Simply use the movements athletes make on the field and you’ll find increased performance during training, and more importantly, during games.
Sidebar: WARMUP VS. STRETCH
It is important to note that a static stretching routine is not a sufficient way to warm up. Because a team stretching routine is a deep-rooted tradition in a lot of sports, some coaches still use it as a warmup. But the truth is, athletes should stretch only after they have warmed up.
Warming up is an activity meant to raise body temperature, which readies the body for vigorous exercise. Static stretching is a passive activity, so there is minimal friction of the sliding filaments. There is also little, if any, increase in the rate of fuels being metabolized. Therefore, it’s easy to see that static stretching results in minimal increases in core body temperature.
A proper warmup before stretching is necessary because the decreased muscle, tendon, and ligament viscosity that results from an elevated core temperature allows range of motion to increase, which means the athlete will get more benefit from stretching and be at less risk for injury. If their bodies are not properly warmed up, the athletes will feel stiff and be at higher risk for injury.