Conditioning Corner: Static and Dynamic Flexibility
By Mike Mejia, M.S., C.S.C.S
Over the course of the past several years, a lot has changed in terms of our attitudes towards stretching. Where it used to be thought that static stretching was the most suitable way to get warmed up prior to physical activity, nowadays, more and more athletes and coaches are singing the praises of dynamic flexibility (a.k.a. mobility) drills as a means of getting their bodies primed to perform. Pointing to their ability to increase body temperature, blood flow and most importantly, range of motion, mobility drills like the one featured below are becoming increasingly popular, thanks in large part to the fact that they can achieve all of this without the calming effect on the central nervous system that has been associated with pre-game static stretching.
Keep in mind, though, just because it may not be the best way to get your body ready to exercise, doesn't mean that static stretching is completely without benefit. You just have to know the right time to do it, which muscle groups need it more than others (i.e. where you're especially tight), as well as decipher whether or not it's really suitable for you given your age and level of physical development. The following guidelines should help in determining if static stretching is right for you and if so, how to get the most out of it:
Static stretching is not advised for children under the age of 10 years old. Since their central nervous systems are hardwired for excitability, they lack the capacity for their muscles to relax and elongate, which is the whole point of static stretching.
Children between the ages of about 11-14 also don't stand to benefit very much from static stretching. Because this is typically the age where they undergo their biggest growth spurt, it makes little sense to place more prolonged tension on muscles and connective tissues that are already being stretched by rapid bone growth.
The best time to do static stretches is after physical activity when your muscles are warmed up and pliable and will be more receptive to changes in length. It's also a great way to help return the body to its pre-exercise state and promote relaxation.
Unlike mobility drills which involve progressively increasing range of motion around a joint through movement, static stretches are to be held for at least 30-45 seconds at a time so that sensory organs within your muscles can override the initial impulse to contract and allow for changes in length to occur.
Although everyone is different, due to the heavy demand of the muscles that are mainly on the front of the body (with the one exception being the lats), most swimmers would do best targeting areas like the pectorals, lats, shoulders, abs, hip flexors, quadriceps and all of the muscles around the feet and ankles. That's not to say you shouldn't stretch muscles on the back side of your body, like the hamstrings, calves spinal erectors and upper trapezius, it’s just that these are the muscles that tend to take a real beating in the pool and in my experience, can often cause problems later on down the road if not addressed.
The stretches featured below offer examples of two different ways to stretch your hip flexors.
The first is a dynamic flexibility drill known as scorpions. It not only opens up the hip flexors, but it also helps lengthen your abs and pectorals. Begin by lying face down on the ground with your arms outstretched in line with your shoulders. Next, bend your right leg as you bring it up towards the ceiling and then sweep it over towards your left hand. Get as close to your left hand as possible without your right hand and forearm losing contact with the ground. Then bring the leg back and repeat to the other side. Continue until you've done 10-12 repetitions.
The next is a great way to stretch those hip flexors, as well as your upper quads and lats after a tough practice. Get in a high kneeling position with your left leg positioned about two feet in front of your right knee. Begin by getting into a core neutral posture (no excessive lower back arch, but no rounding) and tense your right glute. Hold this pelvic position as you drive your right knee slightly forward and raise your right arm up, while finishing by leaning over to your left side. Hold there for 30-45 seconds and then repeat to the other side.