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Improve your in-season speed

By George Dintiman and Robert Ward

To achieve maximum speed potential, you must possess an adequate range of motion in the shoulders, hips, and ankles. Flexibility in these areas is affected by joint structure. Ball-and-socket joints (hip and shoulder) have the highest range of motion (ROM); the wrist is one of the least flexible joints with an ROM of 80 degrees, less than the 130 degrees of the knee joint. Additional factors that affect ROM include excess muscle bulk (decreases ROM); age (decreases flexibility); gender (females are more flexible than males); connective tissue such as tendons, ligaments, fascial sheaths, and joint capsules; injuries (restrict movement); and existing scar tissue (decreases ROM).

Flexibility testing is essential for the preparation of an individualized speed improvement program based on weaknesses. Flexibility tests also reveal excessive range of motion or joint laxity that may predispose athletes to injury. Once an optimum level of flexibility is developed, athletes should focus on other training areas while maintaining this flexibility.

Because flexibility is joint-specific, a single test does not provide an accurate assessment of ROM. It is also impractical to measure the ROM of every joint. In addition, the flexibility of some joints is not critical to sprinting speed. The following tests, which can be completed easily with little equipment, provide important information on ankle flexion and extension, shoulder flexibility, and hamstring flexibility.

The sit-and-reach test measures the flexibility of the lower back and the hamstring muscle group, the group of muscles located on the back of the upper leg. An optimal level of flexibility in both areas is important for the improvement of playing speed.

After warming up to elevate body temperature as indicated by perspiration, remove your shoes and sit on the floor with your hips, back, and head against a wall, legs fully extended, feet in contact with a sit-and-reach box. Place one hand on top of the other so the middle fingers are together. Slowly lean forward as far as possible. Without bouncing, slide your hands along the measuring scale on top of the box. Your hands should reach at least slightly beyond your toes.

Complete four trials and record your best score to the nearest one-quarter inch. If a sit-and-reach box is not available, you can build one by attaching a yardstick to the top of a 12-by-12-inch square box. The yardstick extends exactly 9 inches from the front of the box where the feet are.

The sit-and-reach test provides an indication of hamstring flexibility. If your score falls below the 50th percentile for your age, flexibility training is needed five or six times a week. Males 17 years or older should score at least 13.50; females 17 years or older should score at least 13.75.

You can quickly assess the range of motion in the ankle, elbow and wrist, groin, hip, neck, and shoulder in less than five minutes by self-administering these practical tests. After performing the tests, record your scores on the test score sheet.

To test the ankle, lie on your back with both legs extended and the backs of your heels flat on the floor. Point your toes down away from your shins, attempting to reach a minimum of 45 degrees (halfway to the floor). Now point your toes toward your shins to a minimum of right angles. Compare the flexion and extension of the right and left ankles.

To test the elbow and wrist, hold your arms straight with palms up and little fingers higher than your thumbs.

To test the groin, stand on one leg and raise the other to the side as high as possible. You should be able to achieve a 90-degree angle between your legs.

To test the hips, stand and hold a yardstick or broom handle with hands shoulder-width apart. Without changing your grasp, bend down and step over the stick with both feet, one foot at a time, and then back again.

To test your neck, you should be able to use your chin to sandwich your flattened hand against your chest.

To test your shoulders, stand and attempt to clasp your hands behind your back. Reach over one shoulder with one hand and reach up from behind the other shoulder with the other hand. Repeat, reversing arm positions.

If you failed any of the practical tests, include stretching exercises in your warm-up that are designed to improve the ROM in these areas.

This is an excerpt from Sports Speed.

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