Are the San Francisco 49ERS in the Super Bowl because they are more flexible than their competition?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the 49ERS are the least injured team in the league due to their coach’s commitment to a stretching program.
My own view after reading the article is that the 49ERS low-injury rates have a lot more to do with just stretching. The team and head coach (Jim Harbaugh) have made a commitment to smart training and preparation.
This is no small feat in the world of professional football. These are big, strong and fast guys and they like to train that way. Most people like to do things that they are good at and football players are good at lifting heavy stuff! So getting them to work on their mobility and flexibility is not insignificant.
49ER players that have been with other organizations have said that other teams aren’t doing this and that’s likely because getting players to buy in and commit to the training is an exercise in futility. I doubt the team has some proprietary training system that no one else has discovered yet; the league is too competitive with access to a lot of smart professionals.
However, old habits die-hard and there is a bit of an “old-boys” network within professionals sports so getting new philosophies implemented can take time. It should also be noted that most coaches stick with their strengths as well which is the X’s and O’s or strategies of the game. Most coaches defer the non-football stuff to staff members who likely don’t have the tools of persuasion required to get the players to buy in.
The edge the 49ERS seem to have is that their leader (Harbaugh) buys into this training philosophy and he has the power and authority to make sure the players are doing it.
According to 49ER player Donte Whitner, “We do a lot of flexibility, a lot of warming up when a lot of people in the NFL skip warming up. That’s why we have a good, healthy football team right now.”
The team requires that their players perform a warm-up before lifting a single weight. And this warm-up is more than just stretching in fact the warm-up procedure is position specific. In football while all the players are very strong the body types vary greatly and a one-size fits all approach simply will not work. The mobility/flexibility program for a 6’6 320 pound lineman will be quite different from a 6’4 200 pound wide receiver. The “bigger” guy is more than likely very stiff and requires more mobility/flexibility while the “sleeker” guy is very mobile and demands more stability.
The 49ERS also require “stretching” after practice as well. And just as significant as the pre and post practice routine is their training philosophy in the weight room.
Squatting 400 pounds with little depth does not help improve a player’s joint range of motion. In an effort to lift as much weight as possible players will often sacrifice form, additionally they will move the weight through a very limited range of motion. Essentially what this does is develop muscles that are strong but also short. This is a recipe for poor movement quality and will make athletes that train in this manner more prone to injury.
The 49ERS use strength training to reinforce or make their gains in flexibility/mobility “stick!” While the team still lifts heavy they don’t sacrifice technique in the process. Their lifts must be through a player’s full range of motion. Resistance training through a full range of motion lengthens and strengthens muscles simultaneously. This makes the gains in range of motion and flexibility stick or last. When you stretch a muscle in the traditional sense such as a yoga pose the change to the muscle is only temporary.
Flexibility without strength is not a desirable quality for athletes seeking to improve durability while minimizing the risk of injury.
Look at the typical teenage cheerleader or gymnast as an example of tremendous flexibility without the requisite strength to control their range of motion. These athletes can reach back and touch the floor without moving their feet (upside down U) and flop into the “splits.” While the desire is to be flexible and they certainly are they have sacrificed the ability to control their movement. The muscles have lost the ability to resist and absorb force and the joint and connective tissues are now being “hung” upon to provide stability, and that’s not what they were designed to do. Is there any wonder why cheerleading and gymnastics have the highest rates of injuries? 
On the flip side of this are the big bulky guys that lift heavy weight all the time and blow off their mobility work. They look like statues and they move just like one as well, their movement is very stiff and robot like. Have you ever wondered why the athlete who spends all his time in the weight room spends just as much time on the sidelines with a tweaked hamstring or quad muscle? They have trained their muscles to be short and stiff and they are not able to absorb and re-direct force efficiently.
I was at a local high school recently working with a group of young men and putting them through a routine that focused on movement quality and for many they felt like fish out of water. Young guys like to hit the weight room and lift “stuff.” One boy remarked during the session, “this stuff is for Michael Jackson!” Understandably he was frustrated because the movements I was asking him to do were very difficult for him to perform. He was extremely stiff and based upon my observation this young man is a “gym rat.” He’s always in the weight room moving big weights and while strong he does not move well. It can be tempting as a coach to play to your athlete’s strengths and stick within your and their comfort zone by giving them only things they can excel at. But the role of a coach is to bring the best out of each individual athlete. And unfortunately for the athletes, in any training program the payoff come when you do the stuff you don’t enjoy and aren’t good at.
The big stiff football player needs more mobility so he can apply his tremendous strength in an athletic environment. The gymnast or cheerleader, if she wants to be healthy and free of pain and injury, should cut back on the flexibility work and focus on strength training so she can control the tremendous range of motion that she already has.
In summary, the 49ERS are so resistant to injury because they understand the weaknesses of their team and have made it a priority to address them, and that priority has come from the key decision maker so it has impact. They also seem to understand the importance of customizing a routine to the unique demands of the individual, in their case by position.
My own personal philosophy in regard to injury prevention is that developmentally sounds athletic development covers you. Allow kids to develop a wide base of athletic and movement experiences from a young age and as they get older allow them to play sports seasonally. And in the late teen years if they choose a single sport to pursue they must have an off-field training program that counteracts the unique demands of their sport. This diverse foundation of athleticism will serve as a powerful shield against sport related injuries.
Unfortunately injures happen. So what do you do when your young athlete does get hurt? Is ice appropriate? I will cover this aspect of youth sport injuries next week.