The Rules of Stretching

6 04 2013

Growing up, I distinctly remember being taught to stretch before playing sports. Static hamstring stretching, static quad stretching, static shoulder stretching, etc. The one thing all the stretches had in common was they were static: extend or flex your limb into a full range of motion and hold it for 30 seconds. Hell, we probably even did this before parachute day in gym class…

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Well ladies and gentlemen, times have changed. As an undergraduate Phys-Ed student at Queen’s University in the early 2000s, I remember the rules of stretching being challenged by the latest research. By the time I graduated, it appeared as though it was actually detrimental to perform static stretching pre-exercise. Now, it is a foregone conclusion.

A friend of mine forwarded me an article from the NY Times the other day entitled Reasons Not to Stretch. Upon seeing the title I became a bit concerned that the content might be telling people that stretching should never be done, but thankfully the article explains exactly what I’ve been alluding to. Here are the Coles Notes:

  • Numerous studies have now shown that static stretching before physical activity does not prevent injury, and can actually limit speed, strength and power in athletes
  • It appears that the more a muscle is stretched before an activity (ie, the length of a static stretch hold), the weaker the muscle becomes
  • Athletic performance after warming up with stretching is likely to be worse than if no warm-up was used at all
  • Why stretching hampers performance is not fully understood; it is suspected that stretching simply over-loosens muscles and tendons, making them less able to store energy and use it effectively
  • It appears as though static stretching even impairs performance in long distance sports like running and cycling as well
  • The article concludes that a dynamic warm-up is a better alternative pre-exercise

In the end, it is an informative little article citing the most recent research in the field and further supports the sentiment that has been growing for some time now: dynamic stretching should be done pre-exercise and static stretching should be reserved for post-exercise.

What's your excuse?

What’s your excuse?

Dynamic stretching

The goal of dynamic stretching is simple: minimize risk of injury and maximize performance. Stretching dynamically gets the blood flowing to your muscles and preps your central nervous system for activity. Without a 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up, your muscles will be tight and stiff, which means you’ll be less flexible, less able to use correct form, less able to achieve peak performance, and far more prone to injury. As mentioned before, static stretching only compounds these issues, as you will be stretching tight, cold muscles, essentially damaging them before your activity. NOTE: some people like to perform a few static stretches immediately following a dynamic warm-up, once the muscles are warm; not much research has been done on the effects of this, but I cannot imagine it would be detrimental in any way.

So what does a good dynamic warm-up look like? Frankly, it depends on the activity. If you’re running out to play pick-up soccer, you can probably get away with a much quicker and unspecific warm-up, as opposed to say, going to the gym to strength train, where you would want to ensure that you target the appropriate muscle groups and movement patterns. A simple 5-minute dynamic warm-up for general activity could look something like this:

  • 20 jumping jacks
  • 20 seal jacks
  • 20 body weight squats
  • 5 lunges
  • 10 hip extensions
  • 10 leg swings
  • inch-worm
  • shoulder rotations
  • 10 push-ups

You can also toss in some short sub-maximal sprints and/or lateral movement drills, or jump rope, or just running around aimlessly for a few minutes. The idea, as mentioned above, is to get the blood flowing and prepare your muscles for action. Soft tissue work and mobility drills are also very valuable and important aspects to combine with dynamic stretching to really achieve a true and complete dynamic warm-up.

Weight training is a bit different, especially strength training, as you’ll be taxing your muscles in a very unique (and stressful) manner. My good friends Jordan and Paul have a Jacked and Strong Video Series on YouTube, and if you lift weights, you need to watch these 3 videos: The first is an extended dynamic warm-up (explained and performed in the video, in 8 minutes time), and the following two videos discuss a general pre-workout warm-up and an overhead pressing-specific warm-up (explanations only).

Static stretching

As the NY Times article explained, static stretching should not be done before physical activity. However, static stretching is still very important. Ideally, we should all be stretching on a daily basis, especially those of us that work desk jobs or drive for a living. I’m part of the latter group, which is why I always make time to stretch post-workout and make time for yoga on my non-lifting days. If I don’t take time to statically stretch, I’m stiff, sore, and find it difficult to maintain good form in my subsequent trips to the gym.

So why is static stretching important, especially post-workout? Well, lifting weights involves muscle contractions, leaving the muscles contracted (and damaged) for some time post-workout. Repairing this damage, and restoring this muscle length, is essentially what recovery is. Therefore, if you do not stretch after working out, you are delaying the recovery process, and quite possibly preventing performance gains. Logically, if you leave your muscles damaged and shortened after a workout, can you really expect them to be properly repaired and re-elasticized by your next trip to the gym? When you take the time to go through a static stretching routine after lifting weights, you will jump-start the muscle-recovery and re-lengthening process, enabling your muscles to return to a “normal” state as quickly as possible and best preparing your body for possible performance gains.

I’m not going to get into how you should properly stretch every muscle in your body, but Paul details post-workout strategies in the following video. Static stretching is important, but again, don’t forget to include mobility work and soft tissue work in your cool-down to optimize results.

In the end, both dynamic stretching and static stretching are valuable and should have a place in all of our lives. I encourage all of you to find 15 minutes every day to move your body in a productive manner, whether it be dynamically stretching when you wake up, static stretching after a walk or making time for a full workout or activity class. Stretching will keep your muscles happy and keep you feeling young, even as the years fly by!

For more detailed information on how you should be stretching, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Happy Saturday!

DW

 





Adding Yoga To My Life

9 02 2013

yoga

For the longest time I have un-anecdotally agreed that yoga is a great activity and is something that we should all do. Alas, I’ve never taken steps to actually incorporate it into my life. Earlier this week a friend suggested that I go to yoga with her and I committed to it. I committed so much in fact, that I signed up for one full month of unlimited yoga at this particular studio. Going to yoga once won’t give me a true understanding of how I can benefit from it, so I’m going to give it a shot for a month and see where it takes me.

Looking at my schedule, I’m going to try to go twice a week. I lift weights on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I play soccer on Mondays and football on Tuesdays. Therefore, I believe I can fit in a session Tuesday nights before football and can make time to go on Sundays as well; Fridays will be left for rest.

My hope is that yoga with help me increase my balance, flexibility and joint mobility. My hamstrings have always been a problem spot, as have my shoulders. I’m not holding my breath- again, it is only a month- but if I see any sort of progress at all, this is definitely something that will become part of my regular routine. I am aware that yoga also offers many mental benefits, but I’m honestly not a very spiritual person, nor do I have much stress in my life, so I don’t anticipate getting much on this end. Time will tell.

My first session was 2 days ago (Thursday, February 7th), and here are some of my initial notes:

– First of all, I have never been to a yoga class, and we signed up for Vinyasa Flow (2/3). For those of you that are unfamiliar with yoga (much like I was prior to Thursday), this is an intermediate-advanced class with different holds (often times single-leg holds) that transition from one into another at a fairly quick pace. I should have started with a Level 1 class, but my friend was already registered for this session so I decided to dive in head-first; I could teach a class on Over-Confidence 101.

– As easy as the position should be, Downward Dog is the new bane of my existence. Zero shoulder flexibility + tight hamstrings = bad news bears. I can’t get comfortable in this position, especially when I need to hold it for longer than a few breaths, which is when my shoulders begin to choke me out and all the blood in my body rushes to my head. Super fun.

– I sweat a lot during this class, and I’m not a sweaty guy in general. I sweat significantly more than I do when I’m at the gym lifting hundreds of pounds of weight. I wonder how long it will take my body to adapt to this new stimulus.

– The class was most difficult for my quadriceps and deltoids. Both muscle groups were burning throughout the session. As I mentioned, there were lots of holds, and at times I had to take a few seconds to let my muscles recover. I wanted to be a hero, but this was not the time or place.

– I was informed that ideal yoga attire was a sleeveless shirt, as it permits the instructor to better see your “lines”. I obliged, and I still don’t feel right about it. But hey, at least I wasn’t the one guy in the class that decided to go topless (shocking, I know!).

You're the man, cool guy.

You’re the man, cool guy.

– I was completely unprepared for the singing/chanting/moaning weirdness that occurred at the end of the class. Again, I am not a spiritual person, and this felt very religious and cult-like. I’m doing this for the physical benefits and enjoyed the peacefulness of the experience (especially nap time at the end), but this was a bit much.

– Yesterday was a rest day- my legs were a bit more tired than usual, but nothing crazy- and this morning (Saturday the 9th) I woke up with a very stiff lower back. I’m not sure if I can attribute this to the excessive amount of Downward Dog/Front Bend, or to the 8-hour drive I had yesterday. It could be a combination of both, but I drive a lot most days of the week, so I’m inclined to believe that it had at least something to do with Thursday night’s yoga class.

All-in-all it was a nice little workout, but it is far too early to tell if I will reap any benefits from regular yoga. I am away for work this week, so my next session will be on Sunday the 17th- a proper Level 1 class. I’m eager for this class and hopeful and open-minded that yoga will benefit me in the ways I listed above. I’ll be back with an update mid-March!

If you are a big believer in yoga and have any advice or feedback for me about your experiences, I’d love to hear from you! Don’t be a stranger!

Happy yogaing!

DW





Mobility: The game-changer

4 01 2013

Old-Lady-SplitsWhen I started lifting back in university I would head to the gym, take 2-3 minutes to statically stretch the muscles that I was about to use, and jump right into it. Once I was finished my last set of accessory work, I might spend another minute or two on stretching, but I’d typically have to run to “class” (ie, nap). Oh, those were the days. In hindsight, I should have taken an extra 10-15 minutes out of my day to work on tissue and joint mobility, but my priorities back then were slightly different (ie, napping). Gradually I got into strength training, and with higher intensity came more stress, and more stress led to injuries.  For a few years I lifted through the pain as best as possible, but as I got older and the pain got worse, I needed to try some new strategies if I wanted to continue lifting heavy things.

I began incorporating a dynamic warm-up pre-workout and a static cool-down post-workout. This is something that I do to this day, something that I swear by, and something that everyone lifting weights should buy into.  I could bore you with my recommendations, but Eric Cressey does a fantastic job of detailing the characteristics of an ideal dynamic warm-up here. I immediately found that starting with a dynamic warm-up reduced the number of injuries sustained during my work-outs.  Coupled with some simple post-workout static stretching, my body began to feel a lot less like it was held together with popsicle sticks and scotch tape.

The final piece to the puzzle was working on my specific tissue and joint mobility issues. I owe a big thanks to my long-time training partners and strength titans Jordan and Paul for introducing me to Kelly Starrett’s Mobilitywod.  This website has hours of well-explained, video-documented mobilization techniques. This information can be beneficial to any human being (especially those that work desk-jobs), but it is an absolute-must for any serious lifter.  Taking a few minutes out of your day to treat your body right can go a long way to preventing injuries and to simply feeling better in your own body.

Don’t know where to start? Skeptical about the results?  Start with these 6 exercises. It will take 15-20 minutes out of your day, but I assure you that after a few days, you’ll notice a difference in how you feel, and especially in how you lift. Yes, a resistance band is required for some of these stretches, but don’t use the lack of a band as an excuse. Do the 10-minute squat test (do it in 1-2 minute intervals if you’re finding it difficult at first) and the couch stretch, modify exercises 1 and 3 by performing them without bands, and use a pole or rope or whatever you can find for exercise 2. Or better yet, get your own bands here! Remember to test your range of motion before starting and again after. You’ll be impressed with the results.

To quote one of the greatest movies of all time: If stretching is cool, consider me Miles Davis.

Time for a nap.

DW