Stretching Those Quads

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By MIKE CHIN, DPT, CSCS

I would like to address the topic of stretching, and in particular the quadriceps muscles. There is great content on ways to stretch every part of the body, especially on MobilityWOD.com, but I hope to give you the background and an understanding of why it is important to stretch, and a prescription for how to do it to get actual tissue changes.

Muscle length and flexibility can be changed and will adapt from your daily mobility work.
It may be obvious, but flexibility is essential to performing functional movements. You may have noticed this when trying to pick up grocery bags off the floor or reaching under the kitchen sink for cleaning supplies, and definitely at your local box when your coach was yelling at you to get your butt down lower. This is what is great about CrossFit: it reveals our range of motion deficits when performing functional movements. Although I can’t say what is limiting your movement without seeing you, muscle tightness is often one of the culprits. Fortunately for us, muscle length and flexibility can be changed and will adapt from your daily mobility work.

The Benefits of Stretching

Further stretch results in tissue deformation, which doesn’t revert back to normal length when the stretch is removed. The result of this stage is greater flexibility.
Stretching that increases flexibility has a huge benefit for us CrossFitters. It can improve posture/biomechanics, which leads to improved sport performance, which translates to faster WOD times and more PRs! Besides helping you to become a better mover, stretching also increases prevention from injury. When our muscles get tight, they begin to have abnormal forces of pull or stress on the joints they cross. Specifically in the case of the quadriceps, if they are tight, it can increase patella-femoral pressure and lead to anterior knee pain and chondromalacia patella. There is also some correlation with a tight rectus femoris muscle, one of the quadriceps muscles that also acts as a hip flexor, and low back pain. As if those weren’t enough good reasons to stretch, another great potential benefit is a reduction in post-exercise muscle soreness.

So what’s going on when we stretch? We have many different elastic fibers intertwined in the muscle that contribute to flexibility. These elastic fibers are wavelike, and when they are stretched, they straighten out.  When we initially stretch, muscle fibers straighten out and looseness occurs, but there is little deformation of the muscle tissue.

Relax:

Remember to keep breathing when you are stretching & mobilizing.

As muscle is stretched further, muscle deforms but quickly reverts to its normal length when the stretch is removed.  Further stretch results in tissue deformation, which doesn’t revert back to normal length when the stretch is removed.  The result of this stage is greater flexibility.

My Stretching Guidelines

  • Stretch after workouts when the muscle is warm.
  • Perform static (holding position) stretches for 30 seconds x 3-5sets. Alternate to the opposite extremity so there is a 30 second break.
  • The “alternate to the opposite extremity” implicitly says it, but always stretch both sides.
  • You should feel a mild stretch rather than pain.
  • Emphasize relaxation. Breathe!
  • Utilize hold-relax PNF technique to increase muscle relaxation and flexibility. This will be explained with the Sampson stretch for better understanding.

A Few Quad Stretch Ideas…

Sampson stretch against the wall:

  • Initially make sure the knee is in the corner up against the wall so that the leg is parallel to the wall. Adjust your stretch by leaning back and flexing the knee. Key points are to keep an abdominal contraction so you do not arch your back into extension, and keep your trunk in line with your thigh to isolate the rectus femoris.

Hold-relax PNF technique:

  • Contract quads isometrically in stretched position by pushing foot or kicking leg into wall for 5 seconds.  Relax the quads and stretch further.

Prone quad stretch:

  • If you have difficulty getting into the Sampson position, you can use a resistance band to pull your leg towards your butt while lying on your stomach.  Key points are to keep your thighs close together and not let the hip rotate inwards or outwards.  You can make this stretch more intense by adding a foam roll under the quads

Side-lying quad stretch:

  • Use your top leg to stabilize your bottom thigh.  Use your hand or resistance band pull your heel to your butt.
References

GA Brooks, TD Fahey, KM Baldwin. Exercise Physiology, Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications 4th ed. New York, NY. McGraw –Hill. 2005

WR Thompson. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 8th ed. Balitimore, MD. Lippincott Williams &Wilkins. 2010

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