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Friday, November 2, 2012

The Value of Stretching

***A note up-front, stretching is not just for athletes. It's for anyone with a body. However, since this is a fitness blog I will focus my comments on sporty-folks.***

An athlete who has gone to a chiropractor or massage therapist as a result of unexpected pain will at some point hear the analysis "your (name of muscle or muscle group) is/are tight." While I am happy to take your money, hammer away at "knots" and then re-schedule 10 more sessions to "get it out," I would rather help people help themselves. Knowledge is power, and my wish is for everyone to have power over their own well-being. Therefore I offer these pearls to you.

Important things to know about muscles: 
  • the action of a muscle is to contract, which causes a joint to move, thus a muscle in perpetual contraction will eventually move a joint out of its normal position = sharp pain
  • blood vessels and nerves pass through muscle bellies, between muscle groups, and between muscles and bones, thus a muscle in perpetual contraction will eventually interfere with blood flow and nerve endings = numbness, lack of strength and pain
  • a muscle will maintain the state of contraction that is the most useful or commonly needed by its owner = gradual development of muscular aches, "knots," lack of flexibility and range of motion
  • a muscle lengthens under two conditions: first, when catalyzed by a different muscle's contraction = "strengthening a weakness"; second, when mechanical elongation is coordinated with sustained, relaxed breathing (ie. a "stretch") = pain-prevention, resilience of joints and self-care
This makes two things important for athletes:
  1. preparation before practice to ensure unrestricted motion during specific skill training
  2. actively and passively releasing muscular contraction during and after a practice session
In my opinion this is the Value of Stretching: Prevention, Self-care, Common Sense.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Like putting on a hat and gloves before going outside in freezing weather, prevention is a small act with small cost that saves us from potentially enormous problems.

In terms of stretching, it is the extra 15 or 20 minutes of sprawling on the mat and breathing after a workout that ensures relaxation later in the day and restful sleep at night. To their credit, most athletes own their self-neglect while paying me big money to help them breathe and stretch for 60 minutes or more. They usually come to me after the second night of no sleep due to muscular tension, or when the pain has kept them from working out at least once. (Note the time:cost investment in both cases)
One thing that is certain for all athletes, not stretching thoroughly has a cumulative effect which eventually impinges normal structural and vascular action, and inhibits every day activities. An athletic career without debilitating injuries is a rare one indeed, but is not impossible.

Self-care = self-empowerment. It requires learning. It requires time. It pays off exponentially.
The link here is almost 17 minutes of video showing Denis Vasiliev doing his post training routine. Notice how many breathing cycles he commits to each position.
video by firefire999
In a recent Girevoy Sport seminar, Denis made special mention of the importance of warming-up sequentially before using the competition weight, and recommended immediate muscular recovery upon setting down the weights. Anything that needs to be released should be done as soon as possible while blood flow is abundant.
(See also my blog of Sunday, February 5th, 2012 "No-Brainer Return-To's")
At the risk of ruffling some feathers, I assert that self-care is not popular because it requires self-responsibility. It is a personal study and is rarely prescribed by specialists. The good news is that resources are abundant. Restorative and Yin-style Yoga classes are excellent avenues for athletes to gain knowledge with guidance. Self-empowerment begins when you practice outside the yoga studio, look deeper into your habits and amass information to meet your personal needs. Public libraries and YouTube are readily available. Also, word-of-mouth recommendations are worth investigating.

Common sense, or, "I knew that."
Once you have a stretching routine, a vital part of self-care is solo-practice. This will help you understand a flow and drop deeper into stretches that are more useful to you. Here are some pointers.

Time and space must be given for stretching, ie. not in a room full of furniture or equipment. The most opportune time to stretch is after exercise.
Another choice moment is before engaging in evening activities such as a meal or watching television.
Be unrestricted in your movement when stretching. Remove jewelry, belts, shoes and anything that will confine you.
Over-training will sabotage an athlete's performance goals. Days off of training can be dedicated to deep stretching, breathing and mobility exercises.
Control the environment as much as possible during a stretching session. Calm music or silence are conducive to relaxation. Set a timer to allow your mind to rest.
Finish stretching with a few minutes of "corpse pose," or being supported by the Earth in unstructured stillness. This is the last thing in Denis' routine, the last thing in a yoga class, and often considered the most important component of a mind-body practice.

Please leave your comments and personal stories here.
Best wishes for your journey into stretching!
Christian Goldberg


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  2. Great article Christian. I think it's important to distinguish "stretching" from "warmups" as you reinforce in your classes in terms of preliminary joint rotation exercises followed by post-workout recovery stretching. Moving the joints before working out warms them and moves fluid around, preparing them for activity. As you frequently say in class, stretching muscles after working out allows them to begin relaxing and helps to avoid cramping and stiffness later.

    The fitness science you and Steve Kotter have been teaching for years is finally getting alot of popular reinforcement in the news. This Fresh Air interview with New York Times Fitness blogger Gretchen Reynolds echos alot of your fitness advice and emphasizes joint warmups, not stretching before exercise. She also makes the point that the worst thing for one's fitness can be sitting in a chair writing about fitness! ;-) See:

  3. Thanks for making the distinction, Jon! Without having read Ms. Reynolds' blog, I find it gratifying to be saying things that other "experts" are saying. Some of it is common sense, but since it hasn't been taught in public schools, people tend to question these preventive measures for athletes.
    By compiling personal experiences and expert opinions for yourself, Jon, you are taking every day self-care into your own hands. I think that's great! Please keep sharing your findings!