Should rugby players stretch or mobilize?
The following is an edited version of the article Stretch or Mobility for Rugby - originally published on the rugbyrenegade.com website. As you know, Ruck Science is focused on providing the best possible nutrition for rugby players. Unluckily, we're not experts on mobility or flexibility.
Thankfully, our friends at Rugby Renegade have kindly allowed us to share some of their best content so that American rugby players can benefit from their helpful training tools and resources.
Without further ado, we leave you today with Dan Jones explaining the differences between mobility and stretching for rugby players.
To stretch or not to stretch. A frequently asked question in the rugby world is – what is the benefit of stretching? If you canvas opinion, you are likely to find some conflicting opinions, which can leave us confused about what is best practice.
Like many of you out there, the first time I encountered stretching was during my junior rugby days. I can recall my coach emphasizing the importance of feeling my “groin twanging”, as we held an adductor stretch for an age!!!
Whether or not these stretches were effective, I had no idea. At the time, I simply trusted that if I didn’t do them, an injury might be lurking around the corner. For years, this continued. Sometimes it seemed to help, other occasions not.
Over recent times I have found myself influenced by the great work of San Francisco-based Physical Therapist and Mobility WOD guru, Kelly Starrett. As a Chartered Physiotherapist, this has been a natural path to follow, as I have found my practice and advice moving down the route of taking a more “movement based approach” to stretching… or my preferred term – mobility.
To me, it makes perfect sense that if you stretch a muscle to end range (static stretching), without strengthening it to function within that range – you are opening yourself up to increased injury risk. The main issue for me is that you are only addressing one part of a more complex system.
You are not addressing additional fundamental issues such as motor control, joint range or joint position. Also, it does not change how your tissues interact with one another, such as the gliding of skin, fascia and musculature when mobilizing. So where do you start? We suggest you follow four core principles:
1. MOVEMENT & MOTOR-CONTROL
Movement and motor-control correction should guide and dictate the content of an athletes’ mobility program. Getting better motor control is a key precaution you should take before playing rugby. A good example of assessing and correcting movement and motor control is analyzing the overhead squat. The overhead squat is a good assessment tool and can highlight several movement and control issues.
What are we looking for?
If an athlete is limited in external rotation of their hips, restricting the bottom of the squat, will determine if they need to focus their mobility work around their hips. Similarly, if they are unable to maintain their arms above their head, thoracic and shoulder exercises to improve mobility must be considered in their prehab program.
2. JOINT MECHANICS
Joint mechanics can complement movement and motor control quite nicely, with one often improving the other in many cases. For example, if an athletes’ hip is too tight to rotate externally to the range required to achieve a deep squat, then hip mobility work is essential. Without it, the athlete will always be limited, not by their strength but, by their range of motion.
How do we mobilize a joint??
Joint restriction is driven by tightness in the joint capsule, a fibrous sac of tissue that surrounds the joint to provide stability. When we play sports such as rugby we repeatedly occupy similar positions (think of a prop forward in a scrum). As a result, our tissues adapt and can shorten accordingly to cope with these demands.
To affect change in the joint capsule, we must influence the joint by creating space – this can be achieved by doing exercises using banded distraction. This is a technique founded by legendary Kiwi physio Brian R Mulligan that physiotherapists have been using for many years… but now with our prehab and rehab programs you can do it yourself with a stretch band!
Deep Squat Hip Opener
Mobility Band Hip Opener
Mobility Band Ankle Opener
Mobility Band Shoulder Opener
Mobility Band Tricep Opener
Supplements for joint mobilization
There are also a coupe of tweaks you can make to your diet that can make you more nimble. Consider adding fish oil and glucosamine to your breakfast. The two primary fatty acids found in Fish Oil (EPA and DHA) have been shown to decrease inflammatory and increase anti-inflammatory markers in the blood. Glucosamine has a similar effect on the joint and surrounding muscle specifically and has been shown to rebuild the bones and prevent cartilage wear and tear.
Ruck Science provides a range of rugby endurance, pre-workout and post-rugby supplements. Glucosamine and fish oil are two products that we don't supply but would highly recommend that you pickup at your local pharmacy or grocery store.
3. SLIDING-SURFACE RELEASE
Once joint mechanics have been addressed, how the soft tissues slides and glides are the next most important factor in overall mobility. Skin, fascia, nerve tissue and muscles all interact, therefore it is essential to ensure that the individual layers do not adhere reducing mobility.
Consider sitting for extended periods of time, commuting to training or traveling long distances to an away fixture or on rugby tour. Prolonged periods of sustained pressure can result in adhesion and compression of the tissue layers, leading to the sticking together of muscle bundles and fascial layers. Once you arrive at your fixture, this may be one of the reasons why you struggle to activate your glutes or hip flexors and find difficulty achieving optimal movement and function.
What can be done?
No amount of stretching will unglue the skin, fascia and deep tissue layers. Using a foam roller or trigger point ball, it is possible to create large shearing forces across the skin and muscle to un-adhere matted down tissue layers. Check out the following examples:
Foam Roller Complex
Rotator Cuff Triggerpoints
4. STRENGTHENING PREHAB/REHAB EXERCISES
The final piece in the jigsaw is to ensure that prehab strengthening exercises are incorporated to complement the gains achieved from your mobility program. Our rehabilitation centre and daily training program offer daily mobility and prehabilitation solutions to help reduce the risk of injury from such a grueling sport.
See the full range of strength, prehab and rehab exercise videos on the rugby renegade YouTube channel.