The Toe Touch Can be Dangerous

Most dangerous stretches involve static stretching in which you hold the end position in a ROM for 30-60 or more seconds while relaxing the muscles. The static stretching elongates the tissues while disregarding what is taking place in the joints involved. For example, in the standing toe touch done by many players to stretch the hamstrings, you bend over from the hips and waist in an attempt to touch the toes. You remain in the bent over position for 30-60 seconds, but instead of fully stretching the hamstring muscles you end up with more stretching of the lower back ligaments even more so.

Even though the standing (and seated) toe touch exercises stretch the hamstrings, because of the excessive stretching of the lower back ligaments that hold the vertebrae in place, they are potentially dangerous. As a result of doing such stretches over a long period of time, you will have permanently stretched back ligaments that create a loosely held lumbar spine that becomes prone to injury. To show you the inadequacy of the standing straight leg toe do the following:

Assume a standing position and lock the back in its normal curvature with slight arching in the lumbar spine. Hold the spine in place via contraction of the lower back muscles and then bend over from the hips, not from the waist. As you bend over the hips move to the rear as the trunk inclines forward. In the bottom position most of you will not get beyond a 45 degree forward lean if you still maintain the lumbar spine arch.

Look to see where your hands are when your trunk is inclined forward while still holding the normal curvature of the spine. For most of you, especially the men, the hands will usually be approximately knee high or higher. Women typically go lower. If you are capable of touching your toes when the back is rounded, it means that the length of your lower legs is the distance over which you stretched the lower back, not the hamstrings. If you instead hold a bent-over-from-the-hips position with a slight lumbar spine arch for several seconds (as in the dead lift and good morning exercises), you will fee a much stronger stretch of the hamstring muscles. Doing this will also give you stronger low back muscles.

It should also be noted that bending over from the hips is a very safe way of bending over to assume the ready position and when picking up or reaching for the ball. Avoid the rounded-back position as much as possible since it is a major culprit in lower back problems.

As brought out in the last issue, active stretches stretch the muscles and tissues and activate them in preparation for activity. When you do active stretches with resistance you can gain strength through the full ROM in which you do the flexibility exercise. In other words, it is possible to gain strength and flexibility simultaneously in the same exercise. Not only does this cut down on the amount of time needed for such training but you also get a greater benefit from the work being done. When active stretches are done, the newly created ROM is functional which means it will be involved in your playing. It is a “usable” range of motion in which the muscles are capable of moving the limb through the ROM developed.

There are many forms of active stretches that range from relatively simple stretches to very complex, explosive type stretches. However, in all cases active stretches involve muscular work during the stretch. This is needed not only to ensure maximum joint safety but in many cases, to prepare the muscles for a forthcoming action. In addition, active stretches can involve contraction of muscles to perform a movement that stretches the antagonist muscles. It is also possible to do active stretches with gravity providing the force to go through the ROM.

Instead of thinking only in terms of the muscles that need stretching, in order to make the stretch specific to what occurs in volleyball play, you should think in terms of muscle and joint actions. Doing this will give you a better understanding of how active stretches relate to the key actions that occur and how they not only prepare you for playing but can improve your playing.

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