Stretching is an integral and frequently overlooked aspect of an overall training regimen. Many athletes put countless hours into training and perfecting their games, but then skip their cool down and stretch. Stretching can take as little as 10 minutes and boasts several lasting benefits, including reduced risk of injury and soreness, improved range of motion, circulation and posture.
At the physiological level, the goal of stretching is to maximize the joint range of motion while maintaining the joint stability, by lengthening the individual muscle fibers. Every muscle in the body has built-in protective mechanisms. When a muscle is stretched, sensory receptors, known as muscle spindles, within the muscle recognize the amount of stretch and allow the muscle to lengthen. If a muscle is engaged in a stretch too quickly or the muscle is overstretched, the muscle spindles initiate a protective response known as the stretch reflex that causes the muscle to contract. When the stretch reflex triggers, small tears and strains in the muscles can occur. An additional receptor located within the musculotendon junction, known as Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs), can also fire when too much stretch is placed on a muscle causing an inverse myotatic reflex. The GTOs function as a protective response which inhibits further contraction and actually causes the muscle to relax. These mechanisms work to provide monitoring of the muscle and allow a safe range of motion for stretching the muscles. Understanding the role of these mechanisms helps us to understand the importance of proper stretching.
When to Stretch
There is a lot of debate around when is the most beneficial time to stretch. Prior to training or games, stretching should be composed of dynamic stretching movements that simultaneously warm up and stretch your muscles. Following your exercise routine or competition, a thorough stretching routine should be completed after a short cool down. This stretching should be more static in nature.
The following stretching routine is designed to be completed after exercise following a cool down. It can also be used in isolation to increase flexibility if a proper warm up is completed. These stretches are designed to be done consecutively, transitioning smoothly from one move into the next.
Purpose: This stretch is for the piriformis and gluteal muscles which can easily get tight during prolonged squatting position associated with the defensive stance.
- Lying on your back, bend both knees and place feet flat on the floor
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee
- Thread your right hand through the opening made by your right leg, your left arm around the outside of your left leg and link your fingers behind your left knee
- Hug your left leg in towards your chest
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch in your right buttock and hold for 20-30 seconds
- Repeat on opposite leg
- If the stretch is too strong or you cannot reach behind your leg, use a towel behind your leg to assist in pulling
ASSISTED STRAP SERIES
Purpose: This is a great stretch series for the hamstrings. Hamstrings are used when moving from a defensive position to a powerful jump and help stabilize the hips when landing. They also stabilize the hip abductors and adductors and iliotibial band, which are vital for quick, lateral movements ,
- Place the stretch strap around your right foot and lay on your back
- Keep your left leg out straight and down to the mat while you slowly lift your extended right leg towards the ceiling
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch in your right hamstring and hold for 20-30 seconds
- Slowly lower your right leg to a 45 degree angle from the ground
- Pull your extended right leg across your left leg while keeping your right hip down to the mat
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch on the outside of the right leg and hip and hold for 30 seconds
- Slowly bring your right leg back to midline and across your body to the outside
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch on the inside of your right leg and groin and hold for 30 seconds
- Repeat entire series on the left leg
- Make sure to maintain contact with both hips on the mat
- Only pull your leg as high as provides a comfortable stretch while the leg is extended
- Slowly transition from one move to the next
- When you are crossing over your opposite leg, wrap the strap around the outside of your ankle
- If you do not have a strap, use a towel
Purpose: The incidence of back injuries in volleyball players is high due to the frequent and intense loading associated with jumping and landing. This stretch is designed to assist in stretching the muscles of the lower back. Additionally, this stretch will help open up the hips.
- Kneel on the floor, placing the tops of the feet flat on the floor
- Slowly sit back on your heels
- Stretch your arms out straight in front of you as far as they can go without coming off your heels
- Rest your head down to the mat and hold for 20-30 seconds
- Walk your hands to the left, pushing your hips to the right for a good latissimus dorsi stretch
- If the stretch is too deep and is painful on your knees, roll a towel and place it on your heels to sit on
Purpose: When correctly used, the abdominals are constantly engaged and function as a core stabilizer. This stretch will help lengthen and loosen the abdominal muscles.
- Lay on the mat, stomach down with the top of your feet flat on the mat
- Place your hands directly under your shoulders and push up until your arms are straight
- Lift your head up and hold for 20-30 seconds
- If this stretch is too intense initially, start with baby cobra by leaning on your elbows and keeping your forearms flat against the floor
Purpose: The often neglected muscles of the forearm are usually very tight. Use this stretch to open up these muscles responsible for wrist and finger movements.
- In standing, extend your right arm directly in front of you, palm forward like you are telling someone to “stop”
- With your left hand, reach behind the palm of your right hand and pull backwards
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch on the bottom of your forearm and hold 20-30 seconds
- In the same position, drop your fingers on your right hand towards the ground
- With your left hand, reach behind your right and pull backwards
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch on the top of your forearm and hold 20-30 seconds
- Repeat with left arm
- Keep your elbow extended, but not locked out
- Make sure to hold onto your hand at the palm, not the fingers
- With your fingers towards the ground, try rotating the hand to hit other parts of the muscle group
Purpose: With the abundance of jumping involved in volleyball comes overly-tightened calf muscles. To counteract this, try this calf stretch to lengthen the muscle after a match.
- Standing on the edge of a step, take a baby step back with the right leg until the heel is hanging off the edge
- Keeping your right leg straight, slowly lower your weight down onto the right heel
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch in the belly of the calf and hold 20-30 seconds
- Repeat on left leg
- To move the stretch lower in the calf muscle and towards the achilles, bend your right knee once you are lowered
- Hold onto a railing or wall if you feel unsteady
- If you do not have a bench or stairs available, this stretch can be performed in standing against a wall
THREAD THE NEEDLE
Purpose: Given the frequency of overhead and arching shoulder movements associated with volleyball, rotator cuff and shoulder injuries are common. This stretch will help to stretch the posterior shoulder and upper back.
- Come into a table position on all fours with hands beneath the shoulders and knees beneath your hips
- Slide your right hand along the ground, palm up, between your left hand and knee
- Allow your right shoulder to come down to the mat, rotating and looking to the left
- Hold this position for 20-30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side
- Make sure to pull the extended arm out and away from the body so you feel a good stretch beneath the shoulder blade
- Do not rest your body weight on your neck or head
MODIFIED RUNNER’S LUNGE AND QUADS
Purpose: Spending much of a match in the defensive position can also lead to tight hip flexors. This stretch is designed to lengthen the hip flexors and attached quadriceps.
- Come into a high kneeling position
- Take a large step forward with your left foot
- Maintaining an upright body position, push both hips forward with equal pressure
- Stop when you feel a comfortable stretch down the front of your right leg and hold for 20-30 seconds
- Then bring your right heel towards your buttocks and hold your foot for an additional 20-30 seconds
- Repeat on each side
- Roll up a yoga mat to kneel on for more support on your knees
- Make sure your front knee doesn’t stretch far over your front toe
- If you are unable to reach your foot, use a towel or the stretch strap for assistance
ROTATOR CUFF SERIES
Purpose: The rotator cuff is made up of four small muscles that work together to stabilize the shoulder help move the arm up and down and rotate it in and out. Since these muscles are so small and the space that they are encapsulated in is narrow, injuries to this area are common and often debilitating. These next three stretches are designed to help keep these muscles flexible and performing at their peak.
- With your right hand grasp one end of the stick with your thumb facing down
- Bring the stick over your shoulder with a 90 degree angle at your shoulder and elbow
- With your left hand, reach across your body and grasp the lower end of the stick so that the stick hits the back of your arm approximately 3-4 inches from your elbow
- Gently pull the stick forward with your left hand while maintaining the 90- degree bend at your shoulder and elbow
- Hold this position for 20 seconds
- Repeat on left side
- Sitting on the edge of a chair, place the back of your hands flat on your low back
- Bend over at the waist and allow the elbows to fall towards the ground
- Feel the stretch around the shoulder blades and hold for 20-30 seconds
- Repeat on left side
Arm Behind Back
- Bring your right hand behind and place it, palm out, on your low back
- With your left hand reach behind your back and grasp your wrist
- Gently pull your right arm across your back towards your left hip
- For an added stretch, drop your left ear towards your left shoulder or rotate your head so your chin is over your left shoulder and drop your chin to your left shoulder
- Hold for 20-30 seconds
- Repeat on left side
- Since these are small muscles, do not force the stretches
- If you feel pain at any point, stop immediately
TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND WHILE STRETCHING
- Hold each stretch for approximately 20-30 seconds. Your muscles need at least this long to override the stretch reflex.
- Move into and out of each position slowly and smoothly.
- Stretch to the point that you feel a light to moderate tension. If it hurts, you are stretching too hard.
- Do not bounce while stretching. Again, your muscle stretch reflex will kick in and cause your muscles to contract.
- Don’t forget to breath! Focus on taking deep, belly breaths and relaxing into the stretch.
- Feel free to cycle through these stretches as many times as you would like or return to stretches that target your problematic areas. If time permits, rotating through these stretches 2-3 times will provide optimal results, as your muscles will lengthen a bit longer with each rotation.