Do you feel tight and stiff in the lower extremity throughout the day or after certain activities?
Have you been told to stretch more because you are “tight?”
If so, addressing your flexibility and/or muscular tension might be a valuable addition to your daily routine. Yes, maybe that’s the case! But, where do you begin?
Over the years, there has been a big debate on which type of stretching is more effective. Research has studied static vs. dynamic stretching and they both have their time and place. Click here to read a review of research on the topic. One area I generally aim to increase flexibility and reduce muscular tension is directly within my client’s strength training program.
Now don’t get me wrong, a shortened and/or stiff muscle is not always a bad thing. This is especially true in my running clients who use these characteristics to increase running economy and speed. But, once they start negatively impacting the range of motion needed to get into certain positions necessary for their sport or linger throughout their daily routine is usually where I will intervene.
When I was in my much younger years, while playing high school hockey to be exact, my hips were extremely tight. This could have been a normal adaptation from years of playing the sport or the increased volume that high school hockey provided.
Despite static stretching day after day, I didn’t see much benefit besides some temporary relief in muscular tension. It wasn’t until years later that I reduced the amount of static stretching and modified my strength training program that quickly created longer lasting and sustainable results in terms of flexibility.
Why do I think this happened?
Flexibility is about more than just stretching individual muscles or muscle groups. More often than not, we feel a muscle is tight and immediately lengthen that specific muscle while holding for 30-60sec.
What we often miss with this approach is the nervous system’s contribution on muscle length, safety (increasing tone to prevent over stretching a tissue), and tolerance to loading in general or at certain tissue lengths. That’s where modifying your strength training program to lengthen certain tissues while controlling through a greater range of motion could provide better results. At least it did for me!
How do you improve flexibility and reduce stiffness within your strength training program?
To address flexibility within your strength training program, it all comes down to exercise selection and a progressive loading protocol. Plain and simple, certain exercises more readily promote flexibility than others depending on where your issue may be.
For instance, if you suffer from hamstring tightness it might be more helpful to incorporate the romanian deadlift (RDL) than a prone hamstring curl. The RDL directly lengthens the hamstring muscle group while the body hinges into hip flexion, thus building strength to the end-range of hamstring flexibility.
It’s important to consider that loading these movements in a controlled manner might be a big contributor to successfully improving flexibility. Perhaps the nervous system allows for greater lengthening when the body is in control of the movement, via an active mechanism, rather than aimlessly cranking on a muscle while static stretching.
From a loading standpoint, progression is key. If you begin with a resistance that is so heavy that you are unable to load comfortably to your end-range of motion OR it creates excess muscular soreness then results might be limited. Instead, start with a manageable load and gradually increase week by week. This will allow you to consistently lengthen to the end-range without overloading the tissue or creating excess delayed onset muscle soreness that will actually be perceived as tightness/stiffness.
In this next section, I want to share with you a video outlining various lower extremity movements that improve flexibility at the following areas:
- Quadriceps/Hip Flexors
- Hip Adductors (Groin)
- Gluteus Medius (Lateral Hip)
1.Muscle Group #1: Quadriceps/Hip Flexors
- Movement: Split Squat & Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
2. Muscle Group #2: Hamstrings
- Movement: Romanian Deadlift & Offset Romanian Deadlift
3. Muscle Group #3: Hip Adductors (Groin)
- Movement: Assisted Lateral Squat & Lateral Squat
4. Muscle Group #4: Gluteus Medius (Lateral Hip)
- Movement: Assisted Cross-Behind Lunge & Cross-Behind Lunge
5. Muscle Group #5: Calf
- Movement: Calf Raise from a Deficit
Now that you understand various lower extremity movements and the muscle groups which they target, it’s important to implement the most relevant into your program. If you have quadriceps tightness and are currently performing back squats, the split squat or rear foot elevated split squat might be a better option for the time being. By no means do you have to give up your favorite exercises altogether. But, reduce volume in that exercise and add one from above that targets the desired area while still working on your flexibility outside of the gym. Stay consistent and slowly progress week after week to see reliable results.
If you have any questions or want help creating an individualized exercise routine that helps you improve flexibility and overall move more efficiently, please click here to contact me. I hope this article has provided you with value! Thanks for reading.
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART