Flexibility Training for the Overhead Throwing and Striking Athlete

05 Oct Flexibility Training for the Overhead Throwing and Striking Athlete

The overhead throwing and striking athlete participating in baseball, softball, golf, tennis, volleyball, ice hockey, or lacrosse must recognize the importance mobility and flexibility play in these sporting activities. The execution of the athletic actions associated with these sports, the development of speed, and most importantly the reduction in injuries are contingent upon joint mobility and soft tissue flexibility. Recognize the generation of speed, the ability to change directions, and perform a repetitive movement (i.e. pitching motion, tennis serve, golf swing) require certain levels of soft tissue extensibility and joint mobility. Limitations in either joint mobility or soft tissue extensibility will impede the athlete’s ability to perform the athletic actions of these sports efficiently and effectively. The end results of these limitations will be less than optimal performance, a reduction in power outputs, and increases in potential injury.

In order for  the athlete to implement mobility and flexibility training correctly it is integral to understand the principles and guidelines directing such training. The initial concept to recognize is the process of developing the proper levels of joint mobility and soft tissue extensibility require an integrated approach. This integrated approached is directed by underlying concepts and principles. Once the athlete understands these concepts, principles, and guidelines the process of implementing the approach exercises and training modalities becomes much easier.

The athlete must first understand the goals of an integrated flexbility program are as follows:

  • Correct muscle imbalances
  • Increase joint range of motion
  • Reduce muscle hypertonicity
  • Decrease joint stress
  • Increase soft tissue extensibility
  • Develop proper neuromuscular length-tension relationships

 

Flexibility and mobility training is a key component in the strength and conditioning programs of the overhead throwing and striking athlete.  As stated previously, limitations in either joint range of motion or soft tissue extensibility are factors in movement efficiency, the development of cumulative injury cycles, and athletic performance . The purpose of the mobility and flexibility training is to assure the athlete has the required range of motion needed to execute the athletic actions associated with their sport.

The process by which this goal is achieved is the implementation of flexibility and mobility modalities. Flexibility and mobility training over time will improve joint range of motion, promote soft tissue extensibility, correct neuromuscular imbalances and altered length tension relationships, increase motor firing rates, and decrease injury inducing movement patterns.

Flexibility can be defined as the optimal extensibility of all soft tissues surrounding a joint allowing for a full range of motion. Range of Motion is the range that a joint should be able to flex, extend, or rotate. Range of motion is usually measured in degrees with the utilization of a Goniometer. Range of motion is contingent upon the articular structure of the joint in addition to the extensibility factors of surrounding soft tissues.

Mobility is a combination of both joint range of motion and flexibility. Joint range of motion centers upon the articular structure of the joint, and the extensibility of the surrounding soft tissues. Optimum performance in the golf swing requires both joint range of motion and extensibility within the kinetic chain.

The process by which mobility is developed is via Integrated Flexibility Training. Comprehensive flexibility training consists of a series of modalities concentrated upon developing soft tissue extensibility, joint range of motion, and functional movement patterns. It is through this process of comprehensive flexibility training that the athlete or coach can improve joint range of motion, promote soft tissue extensibility, correct altered length tension relationships, decrease injury inducing movement patterns, and ultimately improve performance within the golf swing.

Integrated Flexibility Training Components

As stated previously, flexibility is the optimal extensibility of all soft tissues surrounding a joint to allow for a full range of motion. It is through flexibility training that optimal range of motion can be developed. Range of motion is measured in degrees and is the distance through which a joint should be able to flex, extend, or rotate. Range of motion is contingent upon the articular structure of the joint in addition to extensibility of surrounding soft tissues.

Mobility is a combination of both joint range of motion and flexibility. Mobility may become limited due decreased joint ranges of motion from articular deformations, limited extensibility of surrounding soft tissues or a combination of both. In order for the athlete to develop the proper levels of flexibility, joint range of motion, and mobility, it is necessary to understand certain principles associated with flexibility and mobility training. Knowledge of these principles allows an understanding of the unique properties of soft tissues within the kinetic chain as it pertains to flexibility and mobility training.

According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, soft tissues demonstrate certain properties making them unique within the kinetic chain. Elasticity, Viscosity, and Plasticity are these soft tissue properties identified by NASM.

Elasticity

Elasticity can be defined as the “spring-like” characteristic of soft tissue that enables the tissue to return to its original shape and size after external forces are removed from the kinetic chain. Elasticity within the muscular system coincides with the principle of elastic limit.

Elastic Limit is the cornerstone of flexibility training and is defined as the smallest amount of stress needed to create a permanent change in length of the tissue. (Alter, Science of Flexibility, Human Kinetics Publishing, 1996) External forces in the form of flexibility training below the elastic limit will not incur a permanent change within the tissue. Once the external forces placed upon the tissue, if below the elastic limit, are removed, the soft tissue will return to its previous length.

Plasticity

Permanent adaptation of soft tissue in terms of elongation is defined as plasticity. Plasticity is the property of soft tissue that allows for permanent changes in length when loaded beyond its elastic limit. (Clark, Integrated Flexibility Training, NASM, 2000) According to Woo and Zairns, a 3-5% increase in tissue length is required to elicit a plastic deformation. In addition, when forces exceed 6-10% micro-tissue failure can occur resulting in injury.

For this reason it is very important for the athlete or  coach to work within these percentages of tissue elongation to develop the desired tissue extensibility without resulting injury.

Viscoelasticity

Viscoelasticity is the fluid-like property of soft tissue allowing for deformation to occur without complete recovery after the external forces are removed from the kinetic chain. The goal of flexibility training is the incomplete recovery of soft tissue in the form of elongation from the external forces placed upon the soft tissues. It is this viscous property of soft tissues that allows for the modality of flexibility training to be beneficial in the development of the required ranges of motion and mobility needed for the sporting activities.

Tissue Tension Point

The properties of soft tissues stated above allow for flexibility training to be an effective modality in the development of mobility and the required ranges of motion with the kinetic chain in the golf swing. The goal of flexibility training is the elongation of soft tissues via exertion of external forces to the elastic limit point. Research indicates that if the external forces are exerted beyond the elastic limit structural failure can occur resulting in injury.

As a result, it is very important the fitness professional adhere to the Tissue Tension Point. The tissue tension point is the position within the execution of a corrective or static flexibility exercise where the initial tension is felt within the target muscle(s). This tension point is an indicator the elastic limit has been reached. Movement beyond the first tissue tension barrier may result in micro-trauma. Although, not progressing to this tissue tension point will negate the effect of the exercise. That being said, during the implementation of all corrective and static flexibility exercises the fitness professional must be mindful of taking each extensibility exercise to the first tissue tension point as indicated by feel. Over time, the tension point will adjust as the elongation occurs in within the soft tissue structures of the kinetic chain.

The information provided in this section demonstrates the unique characteristics of soft tissues. These soft tissue components allow for corrective flexibility exercises to be beneficial in the development of mobility and joint range of motion. A sound understanding of these soft tissue qualities by the athlete and adherence to the tissue tension point lays the groundwork for the implementation of flexibility exercises for improvement.

Integrated Flexibility Training Continuum for Athletes

Performance and corrective exercise for sport is predicated upon a systematic approach where the coach or athlete first identifies the kinetic chain dysfunction, next creates a plan to address dysfunction/performance, and finally implements the corrective and performance training program.

After kinetic chain dysfunctions have been identified, the athlete or coach must understand it is not one type of training or group of exercises through which mobility and soft tissue extensibility is developed. It is through a comprehensive series of differing types of training modalities this goal is achieved.

It is through this integrated approach to mobility training by which the coach or athlete can develop the required ranges of motion and muscular extensibility for sport. An integrated approach to mobility training referencing the National Academy of Sports Medicine model will incorporate 3 categorical types of mobility training: 1) Corrective, 2) Active, and 3) Functional.

  • Corrective: Self-myofascial release and static stretching
  • Active: Active joint range of motion
  • Functional: Multi-planar and multi-directional functional movement

 

Corrective Mobility & Flexibility Training

Corrective mobility and flexibility training consists of two types of modalities, self-myofascial release and static stretching. The goal of these modalities is improved extensibility of soft tissues associated with the muscular system of the kinetic chain. Self-myofacial release utilizes a bio-foam roller, stick, or therapy ball to apply pressure onto the muscular system of the kinetic chain whereas static stretching incorporates passive movement of a muscle to the first tissue tension point and holding it for a specified period of time.

Self-myofascial release addresses two components within the muscular system for improved extensibility. Research indicates that the application of concentrated pressure is influential on fascia in the muscular system. The pressure applied improves the extensibility and viscosity of the fascia located in the muscular system. In addition, self-myofascial release techniques reduce over activity within muscles spindles causing hyperactivity in associated soft tissues.

The process by which self-myofascial release is implemented is with the use of a bio-foam roll, stick, or therapy ball by the cliental. The coach or athlete will instruct or roll over the target muscle searching for “hot spots” where tenderness or mild discomfort is felt. After the athlete locates a trigger point (i.e. “hot spot”), instruct the client to maintain pressure on the spot for 15-20 seconds. The application of pressure for this period of time allows for an autogenic inhibition response within the muscle spindles and an elongation of fascia in the muscular system to occur.

Static stretching addresses extensibility within the muscular system of the kinetic chain through the process of taking the target muscle to its first tissue tension point and holding this position for 30 seconds. Research indicates the benefits provided by static stretching are in improved viscoelasticty in both the fascia and muscular systems.

Empirical evidence also suggests the greatest benefits from static stretching is received from a “hands-on” approach by the coach with their athletes. This allows for the coach to monitor improvements as well as implement the exercises correctly. Static stretching appears to be best implemented after self-myofascial release techniques and prior to any operational or dynamic mobility training. Both self-myofascial release and static stretching techniques can be performed daily and should always be a part of a comprehensive mobility training program for golf.

Active Mobility & Flexibility Training

Active mobility and flexibility training is comprised of actively moving a joint through a specified range of motion. This process is achieved through the utilization of the agonists, synergists, and antagonists associated with the target joint. The activation of a joints agonist causes reciprocal inhibition of the associated antagonist. This results in a greater range of motion within the targeted musculature and associated joint.

The implementation of these operational modalities occurs when the fitness professional instructs the client to utilize a joint’s agonists, synergists, and stabilizers to move an extremity limb into a stretch position and holding it for 2-3 seconds. An example of this technique would be instructing a client in the active straight leg hamstring raise to contract the quadriceps/hip flexors to actively move the leg into a position where the hamstring is inhibited, holding this “stretch” for 2-3 seconds, then returning the leg to the floor, and repeating for 10 repetitions. Operational mobility exercises are to be performed after responsive flexibility training and prior to any dynamic activities.

Functional Mobility & Flexibility Training

Functional mobility and flexibility training is the process of integrating the entire kinetic chain into multiple planes of motion. Force production, reduction, and stabilization are key components of dynamic mobility training where the athlete will be required to stabilize components of the kinetic chain while simultaneously performing corollary movement patterns. Research indicates dynamic mobility training improves the rate of force production and reduction, motor unit recruitment, and neuromuscular efficiency within the entire kinetic chain. As a result, dynamic mobility training is the final series of modalities to be performed prior to athletic activities or strength training activities.

The implementation of dynamic mobility training requires the utilization of minimal loads (body weight is ideal), the maintenance of proper posture during the movement pattern, the ability to control the movement patterns associated with the exercise, and the correct sequencing of the neuromuscular firing patterns required of the exercise. An example of these requirements would be the multi-planar lunge where the athlete is required to perform a lunge movement in multiple planes of motion. In order to perform this exercise correctly, the client must maintain the proper postural positions of the exercise, correctly sequence the force production and reduction requirements of the exercise, and synergistically recruit the entire kinetic chain.

The process by which dynamic mobility training improves the range of motion and extensibility is through the process of reciprocal inhibition. It is recommended the fitness professional implement the dynamic mobility modalities after the responsive and operational sections of a conditioning program. A volume of 1-2 sets and 10-15 repetitions of each dynamic mobility exercise is ideal for most athletes.

Summary

Ranges of motion for sport are developed through a comprehensive series of corrective, active, and the functional training modalities. Each type of mobility has a specific purpose in creating extensibility and the joint range of motion for your cliental. Keep in mind the goal of flexibility and mobility training is the development of extensibility within the muscular system, and proper range of motion within the articular system through multiple planes of motion.

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About Performance Coach Sean Cochran: Sean Cochran, one of the most recognized performance coaches in sports today. A career spanning positions with 2 major league baseball organizations, over 10 years on the PGA Tour and work with top professionals including three-time Masters, PGA, and British Open Champion Phil Mickelson, future hall of fame Trevor Hoffman, and Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy provides Sean a proven track record of success.  He has been involved in the production of numerous performance videos and authored books including; Performance Golf Fitness, Complete Conditioning for Martial Arts, and Fit to Hit. He has been a presenter of educational seminars for numerous organizations including the world renown Titleist Performance Institute.

 

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