Monday, January 13, 2014

An Introduction to Working Out: Part 7 -- Stretching

Having been running this blog for a year, I'm going to go right back to basics. This is going to be a brief series on general principles and methods of exercising, and as new year resolutions are right around the corner, this should be a helpful go-to guide. In it I'll cover:

Part 1 -- Goal Setting
Part 2 -- Resistance Training Focus
Part 3 -- Cardiovascular Training Focus
Part 4 -- Selecting Starting Loads
Part 5 -- Selecting Starting Exercises
Part 6 -- Warming Up
Part 7 -- Stretching


If you've noticed how imbalanced a lot of resistance training programs are, then it might not be a surprise to you that stretching is typically just as bad. The problem likely originates in a poor understanding of why your should stretch in the first place.

A general understanding that was common amongst personal trainers back when I first became one was: if it's too loose, stop stretching it and start strengthening it; if it's too strong, stop strengthening it and start stretching it. Now, this concept has problems (for example, tight muscles are often still weak, and strong does not imply immobility), but the basic idea and priorities set here are still worth thinking about when it comes to a stretching program.

Many people don't stretch at all, leaving tight muscles tight. Many people stretch everything equally, including muscles that are tight and muscles that are loose to the point of dangerous joint instability. Many people stretch only a certain group of muscles, because those are the only stretches they know, or because that's what feels good to them, even though they have other muscles that need stretching.

I should note that stretching because it feels good is, well, good. Go ahead and do it. But in order to stretch productively, be conscious of what muscle imbalances you have and how your stretching impacts these imbalances.

Let's get into some of the different purposes for stretching, and how you would do it in that circumstance.

Warming Up

This has been touched in Part 6, but warm up stretches should generally be dynamic, not static (unless static stretching is needed to get you safely and comfortably into the right positions for training).

>> Dynamic stretching means getting into the position for a stretch, and then exiting that position again with little to no hold. For example, a dynamic hip flexor stretch could be getting into position for a lunge stretch, and then dropping your hips back a couple inches a second later to take the tension off the hip flexor. Pulse in and out of the stretch for 10 or so reps, and do the same on the other side. Alternatively, swinging your legs from front to back is a great dynamic stretch for your hip flexors and hamstrings (depending on the intensity with which you do this, you could call this ballistic stretching which, in 5 years, I have not been able to find a clear, consistent definition for).

Improving Muscle Flexibility

This is a fairly obvious reason to stretch, just as getting stronger is an obvious reason to lift. The primary method here is classic static stretching, but we'll also look at a more advanced method.

>> Static stretching means to get into a position that puts a muscle on stretch and hold it. As you hold a stretch, especially in the first 10 seconds or so, your muscles will start to relax, which in turn will allow you to move deeper in to the stretch. For a purely muscular stretch, a good static stretch duration is about 30 seconds in most cases, however you may need to hold it for longer than that in some circumstances.

>> PNF stretching is short for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching (if it helps, even I had to look that up to make sure I got it right). There are various PNF protocols, but the way I generally do it is to take a static stretch and wait until the initial muscular resistance has dissipated (so 10ish seconds) and then, once in a fairly deep stretch, have the client push back against the stretch (typically with me opposing them, holding them in position). The goal is not to actually move out of the stretch, it's simply to push back against the stretch. I'll typically have the client keep pushing back for a count of 6, and then relax. As you relax, you'll ease into an even deeper stretch than before. The theory goes something like this: by contracting in what feels like a stretched position, and then relaxing, your proprioceptive system resets the neural mapping on what a tight stretch is, so neural inhibition against a deeper stretch is reduced. There are, of course, certain risks here, as you're neural mapping is there for a reason, but often in beginners we are more inhibited than we need to be, which is where PNF stretching has its place.

These next two reasons for stretching, and the practical applications thereof, are issues that you hopefully don't need to deal with. Don't assume that because they're different (and thus have a mild cool factor to them) that you should be doing them.

Improving Joint Mobility

Often muscle flexibility and joint mobility are interchangeable issues, because often muscle flexibility is the limiting factor to joint mobility. However, this isn't always the case.

>> Joint stretches often put joints in uncomfortable positions. You might feel like you're about to enjoy a solid dislocation. You might find that muscles that clearly aren't being stretched feel like they are. Joint stretches are a whole lot of fun which should be avoided unless they're genuinely necessary. Joint stretches are often held for 2min or longer. Sometimes they're even locked in with a brace (as is the case when having braces glued to your teeth) for a very extended stretch. I strongly advice against self-prescribing these as they deform tissues such as ligaments and the joint capsule, and unlike muscle (which is, you know, elastic and stretchy), these tissues don't necessarily shorten again afterwards. This is something you should probably only do if your physio prescribes it.

Mobilising Nerves

When I was a child, the popular thing to do on hamstring stretches was to get your leg straight, bend at the hip until you get a stretch in the hamstrings, and then point your toes back at you to stretch your sciatic nerve. To this date, I haven't found a single good reason to do this, although admittedly I haven't looked very far for one. Something that is practiced by physiotherapists, however, is nerve gliding.

>> Nerve gliding does not aim to stretch a nerve, really. Instead, it aims to get a nerve moving healthily through its sheath. An example of nerve gliding that I did for a while last year you rehab my shoulders leading up to my first powerlifitng competition was to start with my arm reaching out to one side, my palm facing up, my fingers pointing down, and my head tilted towards my arm. In one fluid movement I'd then curl my hand and flex my elbow bringing my fingers to my shoulder while tilting my head away from my arm. Again, the goal here is not to stretch the nerve, but to mobilise it. If your nerves are moving normally, then there probably isn't a need for these. If there is a need for it, you'll probably know about it, because you'll be sitting in your physio's office.

Well, that's a wrap. 

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