Why Stretching Isn’t Always the Answer
When working with athletes we often find ourselves having to adjust highly developed programs on the spot. While it’s great to have a plan and periodized program, it often times works as a road map that we efficiently have to detour around. A combination of countless variables such as a lack of recovery, poor nutrition, training right after a practice or a game, stress, or obviously pain, can act as road blocks causing a coach to acknowledge that the best option for an athlete on any given day may be to make adjustments and scale back.
A situation like this does not mean that progress cannot be made to and one should completely scrap a training session. The time for lying around and catching up on your reality TV cannot wait for another day.
For beginners or really anyone in the fitness industry that doesn’t have the proper skillset to deal with pain a good rule of thumb is if it hurts – don’t do it. Simple. If it persists – seek out someone who is skilled and get some answers.
But how do we figure out what we can do? Sometimes it just takes a little digging.
Recently I had a conversation with an athlete that went like this…
Nick came in and said his back was “inflamed” and that his doctor told him he “needed to stretch”.
Coach: Stretch what?
Nick: “He didn’t say”.
Coach: What makes it hurt?
Nick: “Touching my toes”.
Instead of abandoning any productive strength work he planned on doing, we took the approach of finding out what movement patterns could be done well and pain free.
Below is the video of his initial toe touch.
(The video shown above was filmed on the spot with an iPhone to capture Nick’s actual movement patterns)
This athlete was clearly using almost nothing but spinal flexion to reach his toes (in other words – his hips weren’t moving at all). The hip joints were essentially being lazy, resulting in his back acting as the angry coworker trying to pick up all the slack.
One school of thought is that a “tight” muscle or joint can cause these issues. In reality, it’s just as big of a concern when one joint moves too much as it is when another moves too little, and in fact the two are often inter-related. So, we often see issues where one joint looks “tight” or locked up, while an adjacent joint looks extremely mobile. It’s easy to see how this happens when we think about completing a task – if we need to touch the toes, and the hips don’t move enough, we can either give up on the task or find another strategy. Our nervous system is really, really good at finding alternate strategies – this is great for adaptation and survival but not always the best for optimal movement.
In the case here, Nick was not moving through his hips much at all. There was no posterior weight shift – so what strategy did he use? He used up all available range of motion through the spine, and then some, so he could touch his toes.
“We have to touch the toes. You don’t want to do anything? Screw you – I’ll do it myself!”
And this works until it doesn’t – and finally the back has had enough.
Was his back the problem and needed to be stretched, or could we clean up the movement and get his hips to share the load and get his back to stop being so cranky?
After attempting to work on correcting the toe touch pattern with no success, the next step was to get his hips moving in a hinging pattern and check for pain – the result was difficulty with the pattern but was completely non-painful when done right. Great – we found exercise #1 for the day.
You might notice after his first rep of trying a true hip hinge (on his knees) he grabs his back – obviously this was uncomfortable but there’s also a lot rounding of the spine. On the second rep he’s able to maintain a good back position and hinge from the hips – back pain gone!
By placing Nick on his knees, we completely remove the lower part of the legs and it makes it impossible to shift his weight forward from the knees down…any weight shift will have to be backwards. Now we can focus more on cueing spine position and could even regress this by holding a dowel along his spine for some feedback. With the spine neutral, and the weight having nowhere to go but backwards, we were able to get the motion we were looking for. The next step is repetition and eventually progressing to standing until he has a new motor program.
Does this “fix” his back? I’d say no but I think the better answer is that we’re asking the wrong question, since he wasn’t “broken” to begin with.
Now for adjusting the program…if movement stays clean we may be able to get away with all planned exercise and just adjust for intensity but for risk/reward reasons we removed anything that may promote any forward bending.
The result? After 20 minutes he was feeling much better and was able to get a great training session in.
The lessons – train smart, ask questions, clean up faulty movement patterns, and listen to your athletes!