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The Effectiveness of Stretching: What Type? When? How Much?

If you go to any baseball game at any level, there is some form of pre-game body routine that is meant to prepare the athletes for maximal performance. My goal in writing this post is to help you think critically about the design of your warmup and to give some easy, common-sense principles that can help you decide how to best prepare your body for action.

5 Major Genres of Exercise on a Typical Game Day:

  1. Warm Up: A warm-up is an exercise like a light jog or bike session to get the blood flowing throughout the body and to activate the sympathetic nervous system which increases heart rate, core body temperature, and a player’s overall state of arousal. Prior to a baseball game, this is often done by a jog out to the center field fence and back.
  2. Dynamic Stretching: Dynamic stretching is when a player goes through their full range of motion in an exercise without holding for an extended period of time. The player is also moving through the exercise. Examples of a dynamic stretch would be walking lunges or High Knee Skips.
  3. Activity: This one is pretty simple… Play Baseball!
  4. Cool Down: The cooldown is optional and generally not necessary in baseball given that it is not a sport that requires a level of exertion that raises the heart rate significantly (With the exception of pitchers). If you want to perform a cool down, this is usually a light jog to gradually bring the athlete back to their resting state (heart rate, temperature, etc…).
  5. Static Stretching: Static Stretching is what most people think of when they hear the word “stretch”. This is designed to improve range of motion and is thought to prevent injury by many… more on this below.

Order of Routine

As a beginning template, the most commonly effective order of exercises is warm up, dynamic stretch, activity, cool down, and static stretching. The most variable of these genres is static stretching as there is a lot of controversy surrounding it. For many, it is the most important pre-game activity they perform while for others, static stretching is never done because of the thought that it decreases force output (which is definitely not what you want prior to a power sport like baseball). One of the primary problems that I see is that almost every pre and post-game routine is done together as a team with each individual doing the exact same things. Unfortunately, everyone has different limitations and therefore should have a pre and post-game routine that is specifically designed for them. So how do we decide who should do what?

While it is true that stretching has not been proven to decrease injury risk, we know that there is a bell curve when it comes to flexibility. Some people have little to no flexibility, some are extremely flexible, and everyone else (roughly 80%) fall in the middle.  Research shows that those on either end of this bell curve are more susceptible to injury. With this information, our decisions about whether to static stretch before the game, after the game or not at all become pretty simple. If you are a player who is of the stiff end of the bell curve, it makes sense to do some static stretching prior to the game since this will provide some protection against injury given that individual’s tight nature. On the other hand, if an excessively flexible player is static stretching prior to a performance, they are likely increasing their chances of being injured.

What About The Decreased Force?

Research has been mixed as to the question of whether static stretching acutely decreases force output. Some studies have found an immediate decrease in force while others have found no decrease in force at all. The majority of studies that found the immediate decrease, no longer saw the decrease in force once the individual performed a dynamic stretch or other warm-up activity. This suggests that it would not be wise to static stretch immediately prior to an at-bat, or pitching performance but that it is not likely to be detrimental if given enough time or muscle activity prior to the activity of significance (throwing, hitting, etc…)

Maximizing Static Stretching: Less is More

As discussed earlier, if you are hypermobile, you likely don’t need to perform any static stretching at all. If you do need more mobility, let’s talk about how to stretch as efficiently as possible. Many who are attempting to improve their range of motion think that the longer they stretch and the harder they stretch, the better the results will be. As it turns out, research shows that range of motion increases from static stretching improved most at 3 minutes of stretching regardless of how that 3 minutes was achieved. For instance that could be one 3 minute stretch, two 1:30 stretches, or six 30 second stretches of the same muscle. Stretching has also been found to be most effective when stretching slowly, only to the edge of the resistance. If you go too fast, too deep into a stretch, the nervous system will begin fighting back and the stretch will not end up being effective for improving range of motion. This is why you often see shaking of muscle with intense stretching. Avoid this and remember, sometimes less is more.

Using Hold-Relax Stretching to Improve Flexibility

As I mentioned above, the nervous system often fights back and limits flexibility gains. One of the best ways to override the nervous system is to use hold-relax stretching. This concept works with ay muscle stretch but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll use a traditional straight leg hamstring stretch which is most easily performed with a partner. The player should move into the range of motion until the first twinge of resistance is felt. Then the partner should support the leg and have the player gently press their heel into their partner for a few seconds. When the player relaxes, the partner should bring their leg up further until they fell the 1st bit of resistance. This process should be repeated until the desired range of motion is reached. In my opinion, this is a much more effective way of increasing flexibility compared to traditional static stretching.

Every pre-game routine should contain some form of warm-up and dynamic stretch but remember that everything you do should have a purpose so evaluate whether you need static stretching and if you do, follow the guidelines in this article to maximize your flexibility and decrease your chances of injury.

Gabe Dimock – Baseball Rebellion Hitting Instructor

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