Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stretching and Flexibility

Flexibility is  a key component of health, wellness, athletic performance and just retaining mobility as we get older. It is an essential yet often overlooked part of a regular training program.

All too often after an intense workout many of us opt to just head out the door without spending the time to do a decent cool down and stretch out. This slows down the recovery process and allows us to become less flexible over time which will hinder our sought after training results. So I'd like to take a few minutes to have a look at the various types of stretching

Static stretching
Quite possible the most commonly practiced form of stretching and arguably the least effective. Don't get me wrong, static stretching definitely has it's place. It helps limber up tight muscles and increases blood flow to tissues helping along along the recovery process. Static stretching is performed by moving a muscle as far as possible into a stretch and holding for 30 - 60 seconds There are definitely more effective forms of stretching out there though which are proven to get much faster results in the search for increased flexibility. Though I do like to use static stretching as a companion to PNF stretching which I will get into later.

Yoga comes in many different forms today and is essentially meditation combined with resistance stretching. Though my experience with yoga is limited I do highly recommend it's practice as both a means to strengthen and limber up the body and free the mind as well.

Yoga generally follows a series of poses which range from simple to quite challenging and emphasizes proper breathing as well. There are a great many internal and external benefits to be gained from doing yoga on a daily basis and anybody who thinks it's not a challenge worth doing or is only for the ladies should just give it a try and find out for themselves. I remember one day walking to class behind a fairly muscular gentleman  who seemed to be walking as if in a great deal of pain. When I asked him if he had a rough workout yesterday, he replied. "No, I did the hot yoga last night".  'Nuff said

Dynamic stretching
Dynamic stretching is often done as a warm up and should be done before every work out. Often movements which "rehearse" the workout about to be done are used to "grease the groove". Essentially one moves their joints through the entire range of motion without forcing them beyond what is "normal". This primes the central nervous system for the workout about to be done which primes the body to do certain movements more efficiently and reduces the chances of injury. Movements often used in dynamic warm ups frequently include lunges, squats, push ups, pull ups, jumps all using full range of motion.

Two examples of dynamic warm ups which I personally use frequently are the core performance warm up developed by Mark Verstegen and the Bergener warm up. Developed by world class Olympic lifting coach Mike Burgener which I do to grease the groove every time I do olympic lifts.

Resistance Stretching
Resistance stretching works under the belief that a muscle has to contract in order to properly stretch. Essentially one resists the stretch while moving through the stretch itself.
This type of stretching has been brought to light by Bob Cooley and many athletes nw claim that it has done wonderful things for their athletic performance. Olympic medalist swimmer Dara Torres credits her ability to win swimming medals into her 40's with Cooley's methods and has since gone on to her own branch of resistance stretching called meridian stretching.

Resistance stretching blends many aspects of Yoga with traditional chinese medicine and is claimed to open up energy meridian pathways within the body allowing for freedom of flow of energy. I have followed Cooley's method for quite some time and I can attest to his claim that his method creates greater body awareness.Whether I think that resistances stretching has brought great increases in my flexibility, I can't say I'm positive either way. I have always paid great attention to improving my flexibility and when I switched over to his method,  certain areas that I may have neglected have definitely improved while other areas have tightened up since I haven't paid quite as much attention to them while following his book. All in all, I do highly recommend it as a starting point to teach someone the value of flexibility and each them how to improve their whole body flexibility.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF stretching)
Quite possibly my favorite type of stretching for after I work out. PNF stretching requires that you move into a stretch as far as you comfortably can and then contract the stretched muscle. Build the contraction over three to five seconds  so as to not injure yourself and hold the contraction for 10 to 20 seconds of as long as you can. Then relax, breathe out and allow the stretch to move into a greater range. this method brings immediate increases to flexibility. I use it myself and have found great success with it. I use it by following about three cycles of contract/relax and then I hold a static stretch in the final position for 20 to 30 seconds before coming out of the stretch gently.

PNF works by essentially shutting off the muscle's stretch reflex. When a muscle moves into a greater range than it is used to it tightens up in order to prevent from moving too far and causing injury. So it is not the length of your muscles that limits your flexibility. You can potentially be far more flexible than you believe yourself to be right now. PNF tells the muscle to relax by forcing it to contract and then relax telling it that it is ok to move to a greater range of motion.

Practiced regularly PNF stretching can lead to great increases in flexibility but must be done with a degree of caution. Don't move into a range that causes you pain or force to muscle to stretch too far. It is possible to over stretch a muscle and that would be counterproductive.

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