Jan 29, 2015Stretching the Field: Making athlete flexibility a priority
At Boston College, coaches make flexibility a focal point of their strength and conditioning program — with great results.
In the pursuit of making athletes bigger, stronger, and faster, today’s strength and conditioning coaches are faced with many obstacles. Outside the realms of program design and individual instruction, a coach is challenged with scheduling, staffing, and time constraints.
A constant question is: With a limited amount of time to spend with athletes, which conditioning components take precedent?
More often than not, flexibility is the first component that ends up being neglected. However, many athletes today have very poor flexibility, and ignoring this can make your entire strength program inefficient.
The strength and conditioning coaches at Boston College have made flexibility a priority in their program with great results. The football team tied for first in the Big East conference last season, the men’s basketball and ice hockey teams have been ranked in the top 10 this season, and women’s basketball, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, and field hockey were all ranked in the top 25 during their seasons. In this article, I will explore some of the current methods used in flexibility and how Boston College has incorporated them into its strength and conditioning program.
Why is flexibility so important? Without adequate range of motion, an athlete will not get the most out of a strength program. When an athlete begins Olympic lifting, they usually exhibit common technical faults. Errors include improper back position, incorrect weight distribution, excessive trunk flexion, and poor knee tracking. These errors are directly related to lack of flexibility in the hips, upper and lower legs, and shoulders.
Increased flexibility in the hips, shoulders, and lower legs can dramatically increase the athlete’s practical range of motion. This increased ROM then allows the athlete to move more efficiently in their Olympic lifting sessions.
Greater flexibility also improves speed and agility. Most athletes have some technical flaws in their running and movement mechanics, and without adequate flexibility, fixing those flaws is difficult. For an athlete to powerfully accelerate, quickly decelerate, and efficiently change directions, they must be able to lower their center of gravity and manipulate their limbs with little to no internal resistance. Flexibility is the key to proficiently and efficiently executing these biomechanics.
A flexible athlete is also less likely to become injured. Functional flexibility allows athletes to move fluidly and efficiently without resistance into athletic positions. When a certain joint or joint complex is limited in range by tightness, the athlete is limited in function and there is increased risk of injury.
Above all, athletes who can sprint without having their stride length limited by tight hamstrings, hip flexors, or anterior shoulders, and who can quickly drop their center of gravity in the acceleration or deceleration phase uninhibited by tight hip rotators, are athletes who can perform closer to their greatest athletic potential.
The Boston College approach
When athletes have poor flexibility, many coaches simply tell them to stretch on their own without any instruction or supervision. This is where a strength and conditioning program can break down. The strength coach needs to provide a specific program for the athletes and make sure that the athletes know proper stretching technique.
At Boston College, strength coaches take a proactive approach to increasing their athletes’ flexibility. The program primarily employs active isolated stretching principles (AIS). AIS is the innervating of a muscle (the agonist) to contract resulting in the opposite muscle (the antagonist) becoming inhibited and relaxed. The principle of reciprocal inhibition allows the muscle to lengthen without evoking a stretch-reflex contraction. This creates greater muscle length without any associated micro-trauma.
Boston college athletes stretch one muscle group at a time, thus actively contracting the muscle opposite the targeted group. The muscle is stretched gently (not to full range or discomfort) for two to three seconds. The stretch is released before the muscle senses the stretch and utilizes the protective contraction, facilitated by the excitatory proprioceptor, or the “The Muscle Spindle.” This is repeated four to 12 times each session.
Some of the stretches Boston College utilizes are performed with partners and others are conducted without assistance. At the beginning of each season the coaches do more of the stretching to assure proper form and execution. Once the athletes learn the stretches, they stretch each other while the coaches supervise.
The athletes also receive extensive and specific instruction for each stretch. Boston College head strength and conditioning coach Todd Rice’s master’s degree is in kinesiology, and his ability to explain the biomechanics of stretching and then relate it to athletic performance helps the athletes fully embrace the stretching routine.
The Boston College stretching program
Below is a sampling of some of the stretches they use. Note that the first three are part of the “Sprinters Series,” which develops flexibility in the deep rotators of the hips. Each of these stretches are done twice, first with active static stretching for 30 seconds, and then again for four to 12 reps with AIS.
→ Single-leg stretch: In this stretch, the athlete lies supine with the left leg straight and the right knee bent into the chest with the foot externally rotated and dorsiflexed. A partner kneels on his or her right knee facing the athlete, and places their right hand above the athlete’s left knee on the thigh to minimize iliopsoas shortening. The partner places their left hand below the athlete’s left bent knee with the athlete’s right foot on the partner’s abdomen, and the partner applies pressure down (toward the floor) and back (toward the shoulder). The process is repeated for the other leg.
→ Double-leg heels on thighs: Have the athlete lie supine with both knees bent in toward the chest. The feet are externally rotated and dorsiflexed and in line with the knees. The athlete places his heels low on the partner’s thighs. The partner faces the athlete, takes a wide stance, and applies pressure down and back with hands low on the hamstrings.
The athlete should visualize and try to focus on the six deep rotators (piriformis, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior, obturator internus, obturator externus, and quadratus femoris), which collectively originate from the inferior lateral portion of the sacrum and various portions of the ischium and insert on the greater trochanter. With this focus, the athlete should be able to contract the deep rotators through external rotation of the hips. This contraction technique takes both time and good instruction to accomplish.
→ Double-leg feet on shins: This stretch is quite similar to the heels on thighs stretch. With the legs wider and lower than with the heels on thighs stretch, this movement involves both the deep rotators and the adductor complex.
→ Hamstring stretch: Lying on his or her back, the athlete lifts the right leg up to their potential range of motion either with a stretch rope or with assistance from a partner, and straightens the left leg. They first contract the quadriceps muscle group and pull with the hip flexors, then stretch the hamstrings for two to three seconds. This is repeated four to 12 times. Dorsiflexion of the foot will incorporate the gastroc and soleus complex, where plantar flexion will isolate the hamstrings.
→ Four-point lateral external rotator: This stretch is often performed incorrectly. To start, the athlete gets into the “all fours” position, with knees and forearms on the floor. The athlete allows the knees to spread until a comfortable adductor stretch is achieved. The main focus of this stretch is for the athlete to push his or her hips straight back focusing on the deep rotators of the hips. The buttocks do not move inferior, but slide straight back. Normal range of motion is minimal.
The intent of this stretch is to target the pectineus and the iliacus muscles, which are internal hip rotators. Since both muscles insert on and just below the lesser trochanter of the femur, it is important to keep the pelvis neutral and the back flat while pushing the pelvis away from the femur.
→ Hip flexor stretch: The lunging hip flexor stretch is performed by the athlete on both sides of the body. The left leg is extended into the lunge position with the knee over the arch of the foot, yet not protruding over the toes. The right leg is extended straight back with the weight on the toes. It is very important that the athlete’s back is flat and the torso is upright.
This stretch is enhanced and can be active static if the athlete contracts his or her right gluteus maximus muscle to incorporate reciprocal inhibition for the iliopsoas muscle (iliacus and psoas major and minor). Because the psoas major and iliacus portions of the iliopsoas complex insert on the lesser trochanter, slight internal rotation of the right hip (by pointing the toes in 20 degrees) will lengthen the iliopsoas and increase the stretch.
After these static and active isolated stretches are completed, athletes perform a dynamic flexibility warm up. These exercises consist of knee tucks, butt kicks, triples, walking lunges, and hip rotators, among others.
When the athletes have completed the dynamic warmup, they move to the next portion of their strength and conditioning program, which includes sprints (assisted and resisted), sled drags, agilities, plyometrics, and weight training. Upon the completion of the weight training, additional stretching is conducted. The key is that flexibility is not a separate component, but an integral part of the program, as demonstrated by the multiple opportunities for stretching built into the workout.
How do the Boston College coaches know that their program is working? Along with seeing more flexible athletes out on the field, court, and ice, hamstring pulls have decreased. In the three years Rice has been at Boston College, the football team has had only one hamstring pull. And, after initially determining that the athlete would be out for the season, athletic trainers re-evaluated and he only missed one game. Coach Rice feels that this athlete’s balance between strength and flexibility was the reason he returned so fast.
Flexibility training does not start and end with increasing the athlete’s range of motion. With a program in place that incorporates flexibility training into a full strength and conditioning regimen, your athletes will be able to successfully complete their strength and speed workouts, and they’ll carry these improved fitness levels onto the field.