In our recent ‘Flexibility for Squash' blog article we looked at the use of stretching as part of a squash-specific warm-up, where the traditional concept of ‘static' stretching was somewhat outdated, and had showed little appreciable benefit in controlled studies.
In part 2 we looked more into the mechanics of stretching, the actual effects on the muscle, and what the latest research says as regards the potential use of flexibility training as part of a wider athletic programme. As an addendum, in this article we'll be exploring the different types of stretching in a little more detail.
For a lot of people, ‘stretching' or ‘flexibility' brings to mind what is more properly known as ‘static' stretching. There are however a number of different types of stretching and flexibility exercises (and indeed, different types of static stretch). These can be classified in a number of different ways, but the 4 main types of these are outlined and described below:
Static stretching firstly then, is generally defined as a stretch that doesn't involve any significant movements or muscle contractions around the joint. In static stretching a joint is taken to its full range of motion, and then held at that point of bind. These stretches can also be performed with external assistance, where a passive stretch is aided by the application of controlled force from a partner or through the use of some kind of an implement such as a strap. If using these exercises it is very important that the external force is applied slowly and gradually, particularly if coming from a partner, to ensure safety and prevent injury. Most types of yoga exercises have elements of static stretching and various 'held' positions as their base.
PNF Stretching techniques are a subset of the Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation therapy system. PNF is often wrongly considered to be just a special type of sophisticated stretching method, classified alongside the other types discussed here. PNF is in actual fact an entire system of therapy comprising a broad range of different techniques and procedures for rehabilitating people suffering from various musculoskeletal injuries or conditions – stretching is but one aspect of the full repertoire of PNF methods.
There are several PNF stretching variations, incorporating various muscular holds and contractions. In the most commonly used variant, the ‘contract-relax' method, the target muscle is first contracted, then relaxed and stretched with an assist from a partner or an applied force such as a towel or strap - one of our examples of this here on the site is our 'chest opener' exercise.
PNF techniques work on the mechanisms of autogenic inhibition and reciprocal inhibition, reflexes in the body that can be manipulated to help relax inter-related muscle groups in response to various different contraction stimuli. Other similar variations incorporate contractions from opposite muscle groups in addition to various diagonal or spiral motions, to promote movement through multiple planes of motion. These techniques are often used by physiotherapists as part of injury treatment and rehabilitation, and are a popular and useful method for returning flexibility to inhibited joints.
Dynamic Stretching incorporates active Range of Motion (ROM) movements that are generally carried out in a specific pattern related to the sport/exercise about to be undertaken. For instance, a squash player might take his racket arm through controlled swings that gradually increase in speed and ROM, or go through a series of lunge actions into the corners of the court that gradually increase in pace and depth to replicate his in-game movements.
Other more general movements such as high knees, controlled leg swings, and squatting actions are also very useful dynamic flexibility exercises, which have a functional carry over to most sports and active movements. The term ‘stretching' doesn't really fit here in its traditional form, being as dynamic ‘stretching' actually comprises a series of movements where there is little or no actual holding of a ‘stretch'. These movements are better termed ‘Dynamic Mobility' or ‘Dynamic Flexibility' exercises.
Ballistic Stretching is similar to (and often mistaken for) dynamic flexibility work, and involves more of a bouncing movement to take the target muscle through (and beyond) its standard ROM with less active control. A concern with ballistic stretching is that it is often performed in a jerky, bobbing fashion that may produce inappropriate stress to the stretched muscle and associated joint/connective tissues. It may also trigger similar reflexes as PNF stretching relies upon, that in this case will actually oppose the muscle lengthening. Although generally considered potentially dangerous for these reasons, it can have uses for specific athletes in specific situations. Generally for the average squash player however, ballistic stretching should not be the primary flexibility modality.
Of the 4, dynamic flexibility drills are becoming the most widely used by athletes, particularly as part of the warm-up. As we looked at in part 2 of the 'Flexibility for Squash' article, these dynamic flexibility and mobility drills are actually the most effective for a variety of purposes, and in conjunction with other soft tissue techniques such as foam rolling are the best method to improve the active, functional range of motion around a joint. The changing mind-set in elite sport now is progressing toward that of ‘mobility' as opposed to ‘stretching' in respect of flexibility training, integrating these more sport-specific movements into sessions and moving away from vague, generalised static stretching routines.
If you take a look at some of the top players and their movements around the court, those that display the most impressive flexibility feats of lunging splits etc such as Greg Gaultier and Miguel Rodriguez, do so quickly and powerfully – it's not a slow gradual movement as with a static stretch, but a strong dynamic movement where they maintain the strength through that increased ROM to be able to quickly push back and return to a ready position.
Passive methods of flexibility are not going to be effective in developing this enhanced range of function around the joint, so more active methods of dynamic flexibility training, activation, and strengthening are of far more sports specificity.
Stay tuned to the site for more great mobility routines and drills to optimise your range of motion for your game being added every month, and take a look at our in-depth 'Flexibility for Squash' article to discover some of the best ways to incorporate these more modern and effective flexibility drills into your training.
Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director
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