Flexibility refers to the ability to move body parts around a joint, through it’s full range of motion (RO.M.). Many exercise programs do not provide adequate flexibility, and run the risk of future injury. Flexibility can be improved through a systematic daily stretching routine, which should be done BEFORE and AFTER any workout or exercise bout. Flexibility exercises are designed to stretch certain muscles and reduce the likelihood of injury to the myo-tendon unit. Stretching before activity is essential for immediate gains in flexibility and safety, but the best time to stretch for long-term gains in flexibility is after games, practices and training sessions. Following activity, a muscle’s temperature is at its highest, allowing for easier stretching. Stretching after activity also reduces delayed muscle soreness and helps your muscles recover from exercise. 

A common myth holds that strength and lean muscle mass gains decrease flexibility. However, if a muscle is stretched on a regular basis gains in both areas can be achieved. A case in point is Shawn Antoski. At 246 pounds, he had the largest muscle mass on the Vancouver Canucks and was the second strongest player on the team. He was also the fastest and by far the most flexible-even more flexible than the goaltenders. Hockey Specific Flexibility Areas of the body of special concern to hockey players, when it comes to flexibility, are the hamstring and the lower back region. Skating is a bent leg activity and few players actually fully extend their rear leg when pushing off each stride and as a result the hamstrings are rarely stretched to their full length. If muscles are not used to their maximum length, they will shorten which over time will lead to back injuries or groin pulls. Increased flexibility at the hips, groin, hamstrings and thighs will not only prevent injury but will also improve skating speed and agility. 

Special preventive attention is needed in the lower back region because hockey players skate with a slight back flexion, which places demands on lower back strength and flexibility. Without specific preparation, the lower back will not withstand the continual isometric contraction of the back extensors in the skating position or the stressful twisting actions that occur during a game, such as a forceful truck rotation when shooting. Fighting through checks and warding off opponents also places a lot of stress on the lower back region. Remember these Stretching Points:

 1. Always warm-up a muscle for 5 to 10 minutes before stretching. Stretching a cold muscle can cause minor muscular damage and decrease flexibility. The warm-up increases the deep core muscle temperature, improving the muscle’s elasticity and lubricating the joint. DO NOT STRETCH COLD MUSCLES

 2. Isolate the muscle to be stretched with very strict technique. Do not “cheat” and alter the exercise slightly just to stretch farther.

 3. Move slowly and smoothly through the stretch. Fast movements will cause the muscle to contract (to protect itself). Receptors within your muscles where they attach to bones can sense the rate of lengthening. If the receptors sense a rapid lengthening, they will tell the muscle to contract, to protect itself from lengthening too fast.

 4. DO NOT OVER STRETCH – Most athletes try to stretch as far as possible, straining to move farther into the stretch. This may seem logical, but the receptors in your muscle and at the muscle tendon attachment also sense how far the muscle is being stretched. Straining a joint beyond its range of movement only causes the muscle to contract to protect itself from being stretched to far. Stretching across a contracted or tight muscle ultimately leads to the formation of inelastic scare tissue. You need to stretch a relaxed muscle, not a contracted muscle. Hold the stretch in a comfortable position. You should feel only a slight tension in the muscle, which should subside as you hold the position. If it does not subside, back off to a more relaxed position.

 5. Hold the stretch in a static position without bouncing or moving. Remember – stretching a muscle too quickly, bouncing or holding a stretch as far as you can go causes an involuntary muscle action, which tightens the very muscles you are trying to relax and stretch. 

6. Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds and optimally up to one minute. The longer you hold an easy stretch the more likely the muscle will relax and loosen. 

7. Inhale before you move into a stretch, exhale as you move into and through the stretch and then continue to breath normally and freely as you hold the stretch. If a stretched position inhibits your natural breathing pattern, you are not relaxed and are likely straining. Ease up until you can breathe naturally. Take full relaxed breaths, and NEVER HOLD YOUR BREATH. 

8. Progress to development stretching. The initial “easy stretch” is designed to help relax the muscle. If your muscle was comfortable during this stretch, you can move another half inch for a longer stretch. Move farther into the stretch until you again feel a slight tension. The tension should subside. If not, back off to a more comfortable position. Similar to the initial stretch, as you increase the range of motion (progressing deeper into the stretch), exhale slowly.

 9. Come out of each stretch as slowly and smoothly as you went into it.

 10. Stretch consistently. Regular daily stretching is needed for improvement.