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FITNESS - FLEXIBILITY (PART I)
 
INTRODUCTION TO FLEXIBILITY
 

Flexibility refers to the range of movement about a joint. The flexibility of a joint is dependent upon the extensibility (ability to extend without causing tissue damage) and elasticity (ability of muscle to return to its original size and shape after being stretched or shortened) of the structures surrounding it (e.g. the ligaments and fibrous joint capsule).

Joint flexibility is an important factor in the performance of skills and especially in injury prevention. Testing flexibility can help diagnose if the player is at risk from injury. Soccer players at all levels are often shown to have poor levels of flexibility, especially in the hamstring and adductor groups. Indeed, a specialised flexibility program undertaken by Swedish professionals was found to reduce the incidence of injury. Players may focus on strength training and do not strike a right balance between strength development and flexibility.

Isokinetic machines are often used to test muscle function in soccer players and can be useful in predicting muscle injuries - e.g. muscle imbalance where one leg is stronger than the other and differences between different muscle groups in the same leg e.g. hamstrings and quadriceps. Soccer players often suffer from muscle problems and their underlying causes can be determined and a specific stretching program introduced. Range of movement can be measured using a goniometer or through a battery of field tests (sit and reach test for hamstrings, Gaenslens test for quadriceps, shoulder lift test for goalkeepers...).

It is imperative that stretching routines are developed and become a permanent feature in training programs as well as for warming-up. Player mobility and stability can be improved as well as having a positive effect on strength and speed. Increased joint flexibility will help the body parts to work over a greater range of movement and therefore generate greater force and speed. Difficult technical movements such as bringing down a high pass will also be improved. Furthermore, it may help relax the mind, tune up the body, reduce muscle tension and generally make the body feel more relaxed.

 
GUIDELINES & METHODS FOR SOCCER FLEXIBILITY
 

There are various guidelines and methods to ensure that a player gets the most out of his stretching program, both from a fitness and health point of view.

Guidelines:

- Individuals vary greatly in their degree of flexibility and should measure progress against their own standards and initial state of flexibility. It's not a competition nor a race...
- Never carry out stretching when carrying or if you suspect you have an injury.
- Undertake low-intensity exercise before any stretching routine. Light jogging for 10 minutes will get the blood flowing into the muscles to warm them up to increase their stretching potential and decrease the chance of injury. For more information on warming-up click here.
- A stretching program must be soccer-related and cover the game requirements.
- Your stretching session should involve a set routine, for example from head to toes. Be systematic in your approach.
- When stretching a muscle, there is a point in the movement when the player feels he cannot go any further. This is the end position in the range of movement. Try to know what your body is telling you and do not try to induce pain. Controlled tension is the key and avoid the "no pain, no gain" philosophy !
- After the initial low-intensity exercise, a light 5 minute stretching routine (sub-maximal easy stretching) including 10-15 stretches can be undertaken, concentrating on the major muscle groups. Each stretch may be held for about 15-20 seconds. Remember that stretching has to be done gradually from low to high intensity. Static stretching (see below for description) should be used.
- Breathing habits should be quite normal and relaxed, do not hold your breath as this will increase body tension.
- Undertake another light session of running, easy rhythmic jumping exercises and some very light easy ball work before moving onto a further full stretching session (maximum stretching or development stretch). Here, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) or ballistic stretching may be introduced (see below for description).
- It is generally recommended that each flexibility exercise be repeated three to six times and that the stretched position be held at least 15 seconds and no longer than 50 seconds. Always come gradually out of the stretch.
- For maximum results flexibility exercises should be held daily for six to eight weeks at the initial stage of a flexibility program. A certain level of achieved flexibility may be maintained with as little as two or three weekly sessions using three to four repetitions of 10-30 seconds each.
- Make sure that your technique is correct and observed through the presence of an experienced coach or players, enjoy your stretching and try to learn new exercises.

Methods (Types of Stretching)

There are three main forms of flexibility training: static stretching, ballistic stretching and Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).

1. Static or slow-sustained stretching - the muscle is stretched to the point of mild tension and held for a length of time in the stretched position. There are two types of static stretch: Active which involves the individual player completing the stretch and Passive where the player initiates the stretch but is helped in the final part of the stretch by another player. A simple static stretch for football involves sitting and touching your toes to work the hamstrings.

2. Dynamic or ballistic stretching - the muscles are stretched through using bobbing or bouncing movements at the end of the range and building up a momentum. Often used by athletes such as sprinters and throwers. In soccer a specific example being repeated high leg kicks.

3. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) a maximal contraction of the muscles to be stretched - followed by relaxation of the same muscle - then contraction of the antagonist muscle (opposite muscle) or the use of a partner to assist the stretch. A PNF stretch for football involves laying on your back, raising your straightened leg towards your head and a partner gently pushing forwards on the leg to stretch the hamstring.

Which Flexibility Training for Soccer ?

Static stretching is very effective in improving flexibility and is generally recommended for soccer players as it involves holding a slow maintained stretch which encourages the muscle lengthening to occur. Static stretching is just as effective as ballistic stretching in producing gains in range of motion.

It is also is preferable to ballistic (dynamic) stretching because of the latter often being associated with injury. Ballistic seems to help maintain the existing range of movement but does not improve the length of muscles involved. A stretch reflex is initiated triggering a transitory lengthening of the muscles which may lead to a build-up of muscle scar tissue therefore losing elasticity (there is a danger of exceeding the extensibility limits of involved tissue). Ballistic stretching tends to elicit pain and soreness both during and after exercise. Ballistic movements should not be included in a stretching session but may be part of the training program.

While the PNF is believed to be the most effective flexibility development method as the initial muscular contraction allows the muscle to be stretched further, its drawbacks are a need of a helper or apparatus, a longer period of time and a higher degree of pain for success.

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