Yoga for Athletes: Why Activation and Inhibition Matter More than Stretching
Written on January 27, 2015 at 7:15 am, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest post comes from yoga expert, Dana Santas, who is "changing the game" when it comes to yoga for athletes. Enjoy! -EC
Ten years ago, I taught yoga to athletes; literally, that’s what I did. I spent my first year in the yoga-for-sports niche teaching athletes how to be “good” at yoga. My goal was to help them be-come more flexible. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. A decade later, after working with hundreds of pro athletes and dozens of teams, I’m extremely averse to the idea of “flexibility” as a priority.
But, like many yoga instructors, I started my career with a well-intentioned emphasis on length-ening muscle tissue that seemed short and tight. Despite that misguided intention, it was my Type-A, drill-sergeant insistence on precise alignment and proper breathing that inadvertently delivered results for my clients. Once I recognized the real reasons I was positively impacting them—which had little to do with stretching—I went from providing temporary relief of tension to creating lasting increases in functional mobility, stability, and mental stamina.
Yoga didn’t benefit my clients because of flexibility gains; rather, it helped them:
1. activate/inhibit muscles
2. use their diaphragm
3. initiate their parasympathetic nervous system
In this article, we’re addressing the first item. However, my next article “5 Compelling Reasons Athletes Should Practice Breathing,” will cover why proper diaphragm use and breathing biomechanics are not only paramount for leveraging the autonomic nervous system but also facilitating integrated core strength, pelvic floor function, shoulder girdle integrity, shoulder mobility, and more. But I digress….
Because many yoga positions require multi-planar movement in a controlled manner or positional hold, demanding perfect alignment in those poses forces athletes out of compensation patterns. Taking them out of these patterns activates muscles that have been dysfunctionally dormant, and inhibits the overactive compensators (effectively turning off the tension). It’s the activation and inhibition initiated in yoga—not stretching—that actually helps athletes become more mobile.
When you simply stretch chronically tight, overactive muscles—without correcting the cause of the overactivity—you can provide temporary relief, but you risk tearing the muscle and increasing potential for injury. You might also reduce strength and power, since the athlete has likely been using that muscle as a primary source of movement in their sport.
Why do I assume that significant tension in athletes is due to compensation? I see it all the time! Consider the most popular, traditional strength and conditioning movements—the ones we love to do (i.e., squats, bench presses, bicep curls, crunches, etc.). What do they all have in common? The sagittal plane. And that’s where too many athletes place their training effort, despite the fact that most sports require multi-planar movement; think about a baseball swing. Consequently, athletes learn to compensate through powerful multi-planar movements in their sport by using the muscles they’ve strengthened in the weight room.
Understanding this phenomenon, we can better identify the contributing factors to areas of chronic tension and leverage yoga to concentrate on specific activation of the muscles that have been inhibited (agonists and synergists) by the tense area’s overactivity/compensation. In this way, you use reciprocal inhibition to not only relieve tension but restore kinetic chain firing and functional range of motion. Stretching, alone, can’t accomplish that.
Still not convinced? Let’s look at a typical area of tension: the low back.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked by teams and athletes to “stretch” tight low backs…almost as many times as I’ve been asked to “stretch out hamstrings.” Of course that’s not a coincidence, since most athletes with “tight” backs also have “tight” hamstrings…because they’re both part of a typical dysfunctional posterior chain firing pattern!
Before I explain my activation-and-inhibition rationale and strategy for approaching low-back tension, let me offer this interesting piece of info:
According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), in 2010, lower back strains were the most common reported reason for ER visits relating to yoga. I believe this is the case because the sequences of some popular yoga styles, including Bikram's Hot 26, feature poses that feed into compensatory back-extension patterns by promoting hyperextension, and counter them with stretches encouraging extreme low-back flexion. Understandably, that combination of movements can be especially dangerous for anyone with a tight low back!
Athletes with low-back tension usually have excessive anterior pelvic tilts that contribute to in-creased lumbar lordosis. Overactive hip flexors holding the pelvic tilt, inhibit glute firing, which then forces back extensors to compensate as hip extensors.
If we just stretch the low back—which often isn’t even possible because the back extensors can’t release—we’re not fixing the problem because the low back will immediately reengage in response to the hip flexors pulling on the pelvis. And, as the ER-visit data shows, we could strain the low back in the process.
Here’s a sample breakdown* of an introductory activation-and-inhibition yoga strategy for low-back issues:
*Note that these are just a few examples and don’t represent all of the possible yoga-based movements that could be used to initially address low-back tension. Once you’ve had success with simple—yet challenging—postures and movements, like those below, you can move into multi-planar twisting poses variations that emphasize t-spine rotation while maintaining a stable low back, as well as more challenging positions that emphasize hip mobility through a functional range. Often, low-back issues are aggravated by a locked-up thoracic spine and/or hip mobility limitations that force compensatory rotation from the lumbar spine. But you don’t want to jump right into more complicated movements until you’ve reinforced low-back stability and function and ensured that the back extensors can actually shut off appropriately.
Start with movements that promote glute activation and hip flexor inhibition, like Bridge. Maintain pressure in the lateral heels and medial arches to facilitate glute and adductor engagement. Avoid lifting into back extension. Inhale as you lift your pelvis. Exhale to bring your pelvis down. If the knees bow out or you have trouble maintaining medial arch awareness, hold a foam yoga block or ball between your legs to ensure adductor engagement.
Incorporate core and pelvic floor work to inhibit back extensors. This includes practicing poses, like my version of a Modified Boat pose with feet down. Keeping the knees and feet together integrates a focus on adductor engagement for hip and pelvic floor stability. Inhale as you reach arms out to the sides, aligned with shoulders. Exhale as you bring the arms back to the front (as pictured). Supinating the forearms as you take the arms out helps engage lower traps and re-lease upper traps to avoid drawing the shoulders up next to the ears.
Functional Squat encourages the pelvis to move through a posterior tilt and release back ex-tensors. Like the traditional yoga Child’s Pose, functional squat also lengthens the low back; however, it does it actively rather than passively. Keep feet hip-distance apart with weight in the lateral heels and medial arches. Hold for three deep breaths.
After going through the moves above, I recommend finishing with a longer-held, low-back stretch. Yes, I did say “stretch.”
I’m not a yoga trainer who doesn’t stretch my clients. I stretch them all! It’s just not the focus of my programs. But I use dynamic stretching (I call it dynamic “mobility”) in warm-ups, and I close out sessions with targeted, deeper stretches. For example, check out this video clip from a re-cent Tampa Bay Rays development camp. We'd already worked on glute and core activation to inhibit low-back extensors, so then we were doing targeted quadratus lumborum (QL) stretching.
In the interest of brevity, the sample yoga strategy I’ve shared above doesn’t specifically address asymmetry, but it’s important to note that there are typical contributing factors that lead to tension presenting more on one side than the other—particularly the right. These can include: left-to-right pelvic rotation with the center of gravity stuck in the right hip (the foundation of Postural Restoration Institute philosophy) and poor breathing mechanics causing the diaphragm to pull into the right low back, where it has a thicker, longer right lumbar-spine attachment.
Asymmetrical low-back tension is also exacerbated by an athlete’s sport, position and hand dominance. Using baseball as an example, consider how the movements of the following players would add to right low-back pain: a right-handed batter, a left-handed pitcher, and a right-handed a catcher, who stays on his toes due to an inability to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. Consequently, when developing a yoga-based program for an athlete with a low-back issue, the postures you select and the cuing and emphasis need to take into account the asymmetrical nature of the athlete’s tension and corresponding compensation patterns they’ve developed as a result of their sport.
All this said, I’m not claiming that athletes can’t get anything positive out of flexibility-focused yoga. Stretching, in and of itself, can feel great and increase blood supply to muscle tissues. I just think it’s important to understand the risks versus benefits. And, as I explained from my own experience as a novice instructor, there can be “inadvertent” benefits. However, when you’re a pro athlete, whose body’s function determines the trajectory of your career, it’s probably not in your best interest to waste your time with anything that’s “inadvertently” good for you…and could possibly be detrimental. My advice for teams and athletes, who want to add yoga to their training program, is to seek out instructors who understand functional mobility and breathing biomechanics, and don’t over emphasize flexibility.
About the Author
Dana Santas is creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga-based mobility and sports-training style designed specifically to help athletes move, breathe and focus in ways that enhance performance and decrease injury. Nicknamed the “Mobility Maker,” she’s the yoga mobility expert for CNN and team yoga trainer for the Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays, Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as sports mobility consultant to more than half a dozen other teams and hundreds of MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL, MLS, LPGA & WTA pros. You can learn more about her at www.RadiusYoga.com.
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