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Overcoming Flexibility and Mobility Plateaus in Gymnasts – Part 1: Lower Body by Sami Gurdon

By samigurdon | In Education, Exercises, Uncategorized | on July 26, 2019

Most people assume that gymnasts all have amazing flexibility or that they achieve their flexibility by spending hours holding splits, bridges etc. Whilst this may be more common for certain gymnasts with a particular body type, this is not always the case leaving the athlete to either struggle to hit lines with the desired aesthetics and/or execute skills proficientlyAlternatively they may develop massive compensation patterns whereby more mobile joints take up the slack and allow the range of motion to be achieved. Whilst this may seem great from a performance point of view it places increased stress on those structures and increases the risk of injury. 

This article examines the adverse affects of having restricted range of motion in joints and advises on alternative ways to address them other than just the stock standard batch of static stretches found in many programs. Developing an understanding as to why your athlete is so tight or mobile then tailoring their strength and flexibility programs around this can produce profound results and can also make skill execution far easier. 

THE BASICS:

General principles to consider are that mobility issues generally arise from either shortening of muscles being created by:

  • Sports specific repetitive movement patterns
  • Muscle imbalances: expected in almost all athletes – but must be managed if excessive to what’s required 
  • The body’s protective mechanism if it detects an unstable joint (very important to increase strength and stability and keep stretching to a minimum here).

ANKLE & CALF MOBILITY:

This subcategory includes the calf muscles (both the Gastrocnemius and Soleus) as well as the ankle joint itself. Excessive calf tightness is very common in gymnasts due to the aesthetic requirement of toe point in skills as well as the jumping and take-off mechanics required and the high volume of explosive running, jumping and tumbling. Poor dorsiflexion range of motion creates significant compensation in landing positions. This creates issues in both at the ankle as well as other joints that experience more force as a result. 

Performance and Skill-related Issues:

  • Poor squat patterning = poor landing positions
  • Reduced ability to control landings (increasing likelihood of steps and other landing deductions).
  • Issues with force transfer in tumbling leading to inability to hit correct positions and/or loss of power. 

Injury Risks and Concerns: 

  • Rigidity and poor shock absorption in landings causing more force to be applied to joints further up the chain (i.e knee, hip and/or back).
  • Can contribute to a myriad of overuse injuries and growth related syndromes such as Sever’s Disease, Achilles Tendinopathies as well as calf strains and other acute injuries to the calf and achilles.

Solutions: 

  • Calf Stretches – bent and straight knee
  • Foam Rolling and Trigger Ball to self release muscles
  • Voodoo Banding – calf and lower calf (Soleus)
  • Powerband Ankle Mobility Stretches
  • Massage therapy and other manual therapies on a semi-regular basis using techniques such as trigger point release, active release therapy (ART) and tissue lengething massage.
  • Eccentric strengthening exercises to promote muscle lengthening when range is quite restricted.

ANTERIOR HIP MOBILITY:

Hip mobility can be surprisingly poor in gymnasts due to very high repetition of sport specific skills and drills requiring explosive hip flexion such as kips, saults, in-bar circle skills etc. This can cause tightening and shortening of the hip flexors (Psoas major and Iliacus) as well as Rectus femoris which can restrict hip extension, create hip capsule tightness and can also contribute to excessive anterior pelvic tilt. 

Poor hip mobility and hip flexor tightness is a major factor in all of the lower back injuries that are seen commonly in gymnastics. This is due to the anterior pelvic tilt created that places the lumbar spine in more of lordotic curve (archy back) as well as decreasing the hip’s ability to dissipate force meaning more force goes through the lower back. 

Performance and Skill-related Issues:

  • Poor hip extension: affecting ability to take-off, reach any stretched or open positions in layouts etc.
  • Decreased ability to hit split positions: affecting jumps, leaps, walkovers, aerials etc.
  • Limits efficiency when tapping in skills – decreased power in tap and/or compensation in lower back.
  • Poor handstand shape and therefore in-built deduction for body lines in many skills requiring handstand or straight hip position. 
  • Poor posture and limited ability to achieve upright position when running.
  • Inability to achieve full hip extension also inhibits power production in everything from running and jumping to tumbling and taking off.

Injury Risks and Concerns: 

  • Lower back stiffness, pain or injury (lumbar stress fractures, facet joint irritation etc.). This is due to the fact that when hip extension is required but is limited by hip flexibility the lower back will arch more to take up the slack. This can create a hinge point whereby the lower back is taking more of the load than what is ideal. 
  • Inhibition and weakness of opposing hip extensor muscles (glutes, hamstrings etc) which can cause deficits in lower body mechanics and/or can contribute to a number of hip, knee, back or ankle issues. 
  • Inhibition of the deep intrinsic core muscles or lower abdominals affecting pelvic control and leaving the lumbar spine vulnerable. 
  • Muscle strains of the anterior hip muscles.

Solutions: 

  • Hip flexor and quad stretches with assistance of Powerband 
  • Programs should include a variety of isolative hip flexor, adductor and quad stretches and avoid just focusing on going straight into long duration holds in full split positions. 
  • Soft tissue self-release strategies such as voodoo banding , foam rolling and trigger point therapy.
  • Eccentric quad strengthening to promote increased muscle length.

LOWER BACK STIFFNESS: 

Gymnasts generally have good mobility in lumbar flexion/extension (and in some cases are hypermobile) but can be restricted in forward bending and rotational movements due to tightness in posterior chain muscles such as glutes, piriformis etc. Hamstrings can also be tight but more often than not in gymnasts these other muscles restrict the movement of the hip and pelvis creating the PERCEPTION of hamstring tightness when in actual fact they are not to blame. 

Solutions: 

  • Lumbar rotational stretches
  • A variety of glute max stretches as well as piriformis* stretches – figure 4 stretch, pigeon stretch etc
  • Trigger ball release of glutes and piriformis*
  • Back extensor stretches
  • Lat Stretches – these can be overlooked but are one of the most overused muscles in gymnastics; maintaining good range in Lats can impact the hip, lower back and shoulder line in handstands.

*Piriformis is the muscle right in the middle of the buttocks that physios and massage therapists often stick their elbows into and can make a HUGE different to hip movement and ‘hamstring’ flexibility.

CONCLUSION:

It is very important to individualise for each athlete and veer away from using a one size fits all technique with your team. An approach which enhances performance in one may lead to injury in another so it is important to consider the needs of each gymnast. Something else to consider is that there are variations dependent on body type and genetics; for a gymnast with hypermobility your focus should be more on strengthening and stabilising joints to increase performance as too much stretching will actually inhibit them and leave them more susceptible to injury. 

Whilst the temptation is always there to cut down time on stretching and mobility work in favour of skill development, spending adequate time on both the flexibility and conditioning side of physical prep will ensure you are left with a far more ‘coachable’ body. 

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