Is stretching useful?
Whether or not stretching is useful, is one of the most frequently asked questions. Even today there is still much controversy and health and sports professionals are contradicting each other. Obviously recreational and professional athletes get confused. And we will discuss later that both fans and opponents are partially right, because the answer is …
‘It depends on … ‘!
What does it depend on?
In order to answer correctly on the question whether stretching is useful, it’s important to understand how the body works and especially how the nervous system works. Our muscles contain proprioceptors / sensory nerves that give us information about the extension and the shortening of our muscles. By stimulating these proprioceptors we will awake and alert the muscles, allowing them to better respond to movements, in this case ‘playing soccer’.
Often a poor response of the sensory nerves will cause injuries when playing soccer, as for example at the end of a match when we get tired. In case we wish to perfectly prepare our body to play soccer, we opt for dynamic stretching, simply because they have the biggest impact on the nervous system.
To be clear, we’re talking about the stretching BEFORE and during the exercise, meaning while warming up or during training. Many athletes choose to perform static stretching after the exercise as a form of relaxation or cooling down so that’s a different situation.
Dynamic stretching as injury prevention?
When we understand how we can prepare our muscles to play soccer at best by dynamic stretching, then this is actually already an act of injury prevention because soccer is also a very dynamic and explosive sport. Static stretching seems to us a less efficient technique to prepare for a dynamic sport.
By stimulating the nervous system, we activate our ‘protection’. We therefore need to take into account that we have to make them not only dynamic but also ‘task oriented’. (See below)
When our body gets more and more accustomed to dynamic stretching, we build up a natural resistance against muscle injury, because muscle injuries often result from unexpected or extreme movements, like for example an unexpected slip. That’s also why we stretch a lot our muscles in ‘functional strength training’.
Our task is ‘playing soccer’, so it seems most important to stretch the muscles into positions that also occur when playing soccer.
In what positions do you end up when playing soccer?
When you would answer this question, then you come to the conclusion : a vast number of different positions!
Is it realistic to have our soccer players stretch in a fixed position (e.g. feet straight forward, knees straight, back straight, etc …) or can we introduce more variations in our dynamic stretching?
Maybe we could look at it more like ‘stretching movements’ instead of ‘stretching muscles’?
Tweaking of movements and positions means bringing many variations. We can make variations in the direction of the stretch, the position of e.g. the feet, the scope of the movement (e.g., deep, deeper, deepest), ….
Let’s make an example to clarify. Start in stance, step forward with 1 foot and reach with your hands to the knee of the front leg. This movement is known as a stretch of het hamstrings (+ buttocks and lumbar region).
In what ways can we tweak this stretch?
* Bent or extended leg, both result in hamstring stretch; however the effect is different.
* Tweak the foot positions by turning the foot of the front leg in and out (and continue the forward reach).
* Tweak the direction, e.g. reach left and right of the knee.
* Tweak the scope by reaching deeper towards the ankle instead of towards the knee or even towards the ground.
* Tweak the speed by increasing the intensity.
The principle of ‘tweaking’ is actually very easy to understand, even though it often goes against what we ‘are used to do’ (fixed positions and exercises). The above hamstring stretch will prepare the hamstrings to all kind of situations because that’s what happens when playing soccer, right?
Functional stretching is stretching in function of what you want to do, of the movements you will perform in your sport. In other words, functional stretching is different for a golfer compared to a soccer player. At this point we notice that runners, soccer players, badminton players, … often perform the same stretching, while their activity is significantly different. We believe that most non-functional stretching doesn’t have negative impact on performance; however we are confident that task oriented stretching will prepare the body better, especially in terms of injury prevention and performance. You can easily put it this way: does your stretching resemble a movement you perform in your sport?
To support our principle of ‘functional stretching’, we will provide a well known example: the classic quadriceps stretch, where we pull one foot towards our buttocks and keep it there for some time. We could ask the following questions?
• When do you end up in this position while playing soccer?
• How could you make the stretching dynamically taking into account the above information?
• How could you tweak this stretch so it will help you to play soccer?
When we make a movement analysis of soccer activities and of the quadriceps function while playing soccer, we will notice that the quadriceps is e.g. active when running and when kicking at the ball. We never really see the example of the heel touching the buttocks and certainly not of an isolated movement of only the quadriceps. Both when running and when kicking, there is also an activation of the hip flexor (by extended rear/back leg) and the abdominal muscles. It’s a good idea to also involve these muscles in our stretch and ensure that the stretch is dynamic and ‘tweakable’ in different directions. The pictures below show the ‘true stretch’. We don’t have this equipment (yet) in soccer clubs; however a step and a doorway (where you can place your hands) may also help. Once you understand the principle, it will only require some creativity to come up with better techniques for the other muscles / movements as well.
Stretch movements – not muscles!
The rear leg is put on a step. In this way it brings the lower body in the position of kicking or running and it introduces stretch on the quadriceps, hip flexor and abdominal muscles. Lifting the arms above the head will increase the stretch; however is not required. We make a dynamic forward movement of the pelvis, increasing the stretch in all structures. In the middle photo we tweak the trunk position and thus the impact. On the right picture, we rotate the trunk and we move the right shoulder forward as this resembles the walking pattern.
1.Perform the preparatory/warming -up stretch dynamically because the body is dynamic and soccer is a dynamic sport.
2.’Tweak’ your stretching by changing positions, directions and scope frequently. When your warming up progresses, you could also increase the speed of execution because soccer has large changes in speed as well.
3.Opt for task oriented ‘functional stretching’ so your body is better prepared reducing the risk of injury and increasing the performance. Stretch movements – not muscles!
4.We don’t like change so we attach us to what we are familiar to. Changing and sustaining a number of techniques is not always easy so give yourself enough time to integrate them. The logic and principles behind them will help you to introduce change.
5. The Functional Stretching Program for soccer players and soccer coaches.
Integrating functional stretching for youth soccer players
At what age?
A frequently asked question and the answer is common: it depends!
Well, we can ask ourselves at what age the flexibility of youth soccer players drops? Or from what age it seems useful to spend more time to flexibility? Or might there be advantages to teach it before there is a need to? Or could we maybe ‘mask’ the stretching as flexibility training?
Which young soccer player trains weekly on flexibility? Which club has integrated this already into the training program? And how do they bring it?
We notice that a young soccer player becomes less flexible and less coordinated during the period of accelerated length growth, for most players around the age of 13-14 years (individually different). There is often a remarkable growth spurt at a younger age, but most children have fewer disadvantages if they are 9 or 10 years old.
However, it makes sense to integrate the flexibility training prior to the length growth. Consider it as an initiation for later. This means we can commence to teach a few basic principles at the age of 11-12 years, without looking at it as an isolated part of physical preparation. There are plenty of opportunities to integrate ‘flexibility’ in the form of movement games and skill circuits.
‘Transform yourself into an athlete’
Sharing responsibility at physical level will ensure that the young soccer player will develop more skills in terms of injury prevention, functional flexibility, functional strength training, …
It seems wise to teach to young players the principles / skills and not only telling them WHAT to do but also explain WHY. In this way we are not only creating skilled players but also smart athletes who are able to train themselves in the best possible way. There is indeed not always a qualified trainer available during mid-season, during or after injury, … or if you decide to train more by yourself.
Functional stretching for adults???
Adults often have more difficulty to apply new techniques compared to young players because they are usually less ‘flexible’ 😉 ( in changing behaviour and habits ). If we succeed to timely train young soccer players, they will create better habits as adults. The choice whether or not someone is open to improvement is very dependent on how you bring it. A logical explanation with practical examples and the actual implementation of the techniques are already a great help.
When we start thinking logically about a number of stretch techniques we see that there is often a gap between ‘the preparation of the sport’ and the actual ‘sport’: playing soccer.
Functional stretching reduces the gap and will lead in combination with ‘functional strength training’ (not covered here) to a lot of benefits in injury prevention, training and rehabilitation.
Integrating new techniques is easiest with young players; because they are often more flexible (also mentally ;-)) compared to adult soccer players who rather cling to old habits. The contribution of a skilled trainer and soccer coach will determine the success of both the young and adult soccer player; however let’s focus on teaching the principles and insights rather than teaching the techniques only. Teaching players on a physical level will relieve the trainer and will increase the responsibility of the player for his own athletic performance (and success).
Physiotherapy – Personal & Lifestyle Training – Applied Functional Science – Education
Functional Injury Prevention – Training – Rehabilitation