Very often I hear athletes complaining about tight muscles, hamstring problems or other muscle related problems caused by high intensity training. Is the high intensity training really the main problem which causes these types of problems?
Let’s think about it! In general muscular problems occur when something is out of balance or the muscles are not functioning properly. We have muscles for movement and we have muscles for stabilisation. We call them mobilisers and stabilisers. The mobilisers produce movements and the stabilisers control the movements of the joints.
Mobilisers like the hamstrings or the rectus femoris (extends your leg at the knee joint and flexes the hip) are very powerful muscles with more fast twitch fibres. However, these types of muscles also have the tendency to become shortened. Stabilisers are the controllers of a movement or the joint position during a movement. They are usually composed of mainly slow twitch fibres. They need to be highly coordinated and should have very good endurance capacity. Stabilisers tend to be underactive, and in some cases they are weak.
Many players or professional athletes complain about muscular tightness. The first question is, what happens if the mobiliser is getting tight? The first problem is usually a limited range of motion and this limit can cause or place stress and unnecessary pressure to the joint. Another problem is that the tightness may inhibit the opposite muscle group through a process called “reciprocal innervation”.
For example: A tight front thigh muscle (rectus femoris) can inhibit the function of the buttocks (gluteus maximus). The second question is, what happens when a stabiliser is getting weak?’ A weak stabiliser will not have the necessary endurance capacity to hold a position long enough. The result of this phenomenon will be the inability of the muscle to stabilise a joint for a longer period of time -for example, holding a position with a static muscular contraction. This is further related to chronic lengthening of the muscle and consequently the system becomes inactive and weak. The result is a joint instability.
How do we go about alleviating this type of problem? At first we have to assess and test the muscular system.
Currently, there are many flexibility and strength tests available to identify these types of weaknesses. For example: The active straight leg raise test is used to assess the flexibility of the hamstrings. The athlete lies on his or her back and slowly raises one leg straight up to the maximum range. If the hamstrings are flexible enough, the leg will be able to raise and extend to an angle of 90 degrees. At the maximum range the lumbar spine should normally have contact to the ground. A short hamstring will pull the lumbar spine much earlier, and prevent full contact with the ground.
Another test is for the gluteal muscular area. The athlete lies on his or her front and bends one knee to 90 degrees. With contraction of the gluteal muscular area the athlete should be able to lift his or her knee a little bit off the floor (2-3cm). If he or she is able to keep this position for 60 seconds without shaking or experiencing a negative impact to the lower back or the hamstring area, then the gluteal muscles are good in the endurance capacity.
In cases where the stretching of the hamstrings and strength of the gluteal muscles are of concern, there are two things to do:
1. Stretching the hamstrings (or other muscle groups) regularly.
2. Strengthening of the gluteal muscles (or other muscle groups).
For a powerful body function we need a balance between a good range of motion and the muscular endurance capacity. Only stretching, or just strengthening, is not the solution for these types of problems. It is always the combination of strengthening and stretching that will yield the maximum.