Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stretching: It's all changing again.

I'm supposed to be writing about the Endless Ascent, and will get back to that, but I keep getting off on tangents. One thing I'm very interested in is stretching, and how to stretch effectively. Many of the same questions that plague/make "fitness" interesting are also in the mix for "stretching" and flexibility.

What is our goal with our stretching? Do we want to be more "flexible?" Have a better range of useful motion (meaning the athlete can move his or her body through the range, not just sag with gravity as is commonly done)? Prevent injury? Be able to do the splits like Jean Claude Van Damm (Bloodsport: if you haven't seen it and are an athlete you have to watch this movie, Van Damm was rad back in the day!). What does it mean to be adequately flexible? These are all good questions that I don't think I've asked myself enough.

I alway start with my personal experience when evaluating any protocol. I've done static stretching (hold a position for some time between five seconds and minutes), yoga (interesting), and some dynamic stretching.

My personal results can be summed up like this: Dynamic stretching seems to result in increased useful range of motion. Very long (two or more minutes) static stretches seem to result in increased range of motion, but not as clearly ROM that I can control. My current version of speed yoga seems to result in feeling better and more conscious of my body, but without huge increases in ROM. I hurt myself too quickly in ashtanga Yoga classes to judge how well that worked, but it was fun playing until I got hurt repeatedly. Bikram didn't put me in a position where I injured myself, but I don't have regular access to Bikram.

We were all told not to "Bounce" (dynamic stretch), that long static stretches were the way to warm up and be stronger come game time, and that static stretching reduces injures. Just in: All of this is likely bullshit. More on this here.

The most flexible people I watch, at least in terms of ROM that I'd like to have, are dancers (ballet, break and modern), gymnasts and various martial artists. All do a lot of dynamic stretching (and also have a lot of injuries, but I suspect those injuries have more to do with massive over-use than stretching). Yoga people are often flexible and some are very strong (doing L-sit to handstand or various plange maneuvers), but often as a group that I've seen relatively weak at holding a limb up or in a stressed position. Not all, and all you Yogis are going to get your matts in a bunch, but compare Bruce Lee to any sort of Yoga type--who would you want to be? I thought so, but peace, let's do a few sun salutations, I'm into to it too.

After watching a lot of climbers, kayakers, and other athletes I'm starting to think that "flexibility" (ROM in a non-muscle activated position) has little to do with either one's skill at most mountain sports or direct injury avoidance if done shortly before the game/event. I'm starting to think that training useful range of motion dynamically may be the way forward based on the two articles above and a bunch more research I've done. And this is a huge departure from how I've been looking at stretching over the years...

What this means for me personally is that I've got to learn some new information on stretching, really think about it, and modify my habits to be more effective. I am holding my range of motion as I age, but it's sure not increasing. I also think some of my injures of late (adductor groin pull, leg flexor pull) have been due to poor range of motion, and muscle imbalances brought on by weight/gym training to fix muscle imbalances...

The more I train and act on goals the more I learn about what doesn't work, but the more I also learn to trust what I see works, and what I see the best athletes in a given sport doing to succeed. I know of no better principle than "Specific Adaption to Imposed Demand." Even for stretching.... Makes sense: if you want to increase the range of motion in movement then do the movement to the point where it stops, repeat. Interesting idea, it just goes against 20+ years of training. I love it when I think I understand something and then it changes. This is the moment when faith gives way to searching for a deeper understanding of a problem. I've got a problem with stretching, time to figure out how to do better.


Gabriel said...

Will, good news! Flexibility is the easiest physical attribute to train up, its possible to literally go from horrible flexibility to full splits in as little as one month - given proper training and dedication, regardless of age and mostly regardless of fitness level.

For everything you ever wanted to know about stretching, read this book:

This book goes into detail explaining the various types of stretching which you've touched on in your post - static, dynamic, and ballistic and each of these types of stretches can be done in an active or passive manner. The book also prescribes a regimen for increasing static active flexibility, but given the knowledge within, it would be easy to carry over the principles to help you with whatever flexibility challenges you have.

Hope this helps!

Butch said...

I didn't see it in your link, but the US Army did a massive and very good study of stretching, and found that a well-defined and regularly-used stretching program had no effect on rate and severity of injury (this is in their boot-camp grunts and officers-- an extremely active group who do an amazing variety of physical tasks).

Stretching, as your link notes, decreases muscle strength for quite awhile. Lots of elite athletes don't do any stretching at all beyond functional range of motion, and even in that case, lots of people now use massage after workouts rather than stretching (elite runners, cyclists).

At the climbing gym, I see people doing yoga and stretches, cold, before climbing. I'm sure it feels good...

Anonymous said...

Hi, Will,

I have 20 years experience in the martial arts and would consider stretching and being flexible to be a part of my life.

The Stretching Scientifically book is good.

I have a block of several stretching workouts -- I pick one each day until they've all been chosen, and then repeat.

I never stretch cold. Also, when doing static stretches, it's important to relax. When I've been most flexible in my life, I've been at my best athletically -- no question. My energy flows differently and more effusively, and I'm actually a practical guy.

I believe many people stretch poorly -- just exerting pain on themselves for a bit and then backing off. I try to gradually stretch until my muscles relax in a given pose -- done incrementally.

Anyhow, my stretching "days" (done post-workout):

1-Swiss Ball (get psoas like nothing else... many folk have tight psoases and it affects hips and knees)
2-Isometric (squeeze in a few secs, relax briefly/deepen, squeeze again... just a few times... avoid going to hard on this.. I think I messed a knee up this way)
3-Similar to Isometric, but hold for 40 seconds, per Natural Flexibility book
4-Yoga (great for a chill day)
5-Dynamic (also discussed in Stretching Scientifically)

Hope this helps,


Anonymous said...

Streching works for some movement and not for others. For running etc it is amazing. For boxers..not so much. For climbers we need to bridge a gap between power and finess. Yet it sounds like you are looking for a form of Ti Chi.