As a fitness coach I am constantly talking to my clients about the importance of stretching and working on mobility. These are not necessarily the “fun” things to practice when it comes to your health and fitness, but they are important not only for your athletic performance, but for your ability to be an independently functioning human being for as many years as possible. Things like having full range of motion in your joints, the prevention of soft tissue injuries, and even just being able to touch your toes could mean the difference between living on your own and living in a nursing home.
Maybe you are new to working on your flexibility or maybe you understand the importance of it and you have even been stretching regularly, but you want to take it up a notch – what are some tools you can use to help you stretch and become more mobile? Here is a list and be forewarned, these tools may not feel good while you are using them, but you will feel better afterward!
Have you ever had a massage from a therapist who just dug in and pressed hard on one spot at a time? Or maybe you have been to a therapist who specializes in “myofascial release?” You can accomplish the same thing at home with a lacrosse ball.
Fascia is the layer of tissue in our bodies, between the layers of muscles and other connective tissues, which can get gummed up over time and with lack of movement. These sticky spots feel like tight areas and painful spots. Pressing a lacrosse ball into those spots, laying on it, or rubbing it into those areas can be helpful in releasing the fascia. I use my lacrosse ball to rub out tension in my neck and trapezius muscles. You can also tape two of them together and lie on them to work on the muscles in your lower back on either side of your spine.
The big rubber bands like those sold by Iron Woody and Jump Stretch are some of my favorite tools in the gym. One of the many things they are useful for is stretching and mobility work. They are particularly useful if you are stretching on your own, but want to replicate the extra pressure that can be applied by another person in partner stretching. Rubber bands can be used to stretch shoulders and legs in particular.
Similar to the rubber band, but without any give, a piece or rope is yet another tool for providing resistance in stretches. There is a type of stretching commonly called PNF, which stands for proprioceptive muscular facilitation, for which the rope is a great tool. PNF involves activating muscular contraction against either a partner or some sort of resistance in order to facilitate muscular inhibition. In other words, pushing against something in order to then cause the muscle to relax and stretch further than otherwise possible.
The bane of many an athlete’s existence is the dreaded foam roller – one of the most effective mobility tools there is and also potentially one of the most painful. It is good to start use of the foam roller with moderation. Foam rollers come in all thicknesses, textures, sizes, and densities. The more dense the roller the more intense the effect will be. If you are going to buy one tool for mobility and stretching, however, this is the tool I recommend. I use it most on my calves, IT bands, and back.
There are many videos online explaining foam rolling, but if you are not sure how to use a foam roller considering hiring a qualified personal trainer for an hour to show you some techniques or check out local gyms to see if they offer foam rolling classes. I learned a lot about foam rolling from a class I took at a local spin gym.
As you can see none of these four tools are complicated or high tech – lacrosse ball, rubber band, rope, and foam roller. Any one of these tools will get you started on the path of increased flexibility. Just ten minutes per day with one of these items can make a huge difference in your overall health. What if you could just squat all the way down with ease like you could when you were a little kid? What if you could reach the bottom drawer of the refrigerator without getting down on one knee? Those little things can add up to have a huge impact on your overall quality of life and perhaps even the length of your life.