Stretching

Slow static stretches are relaxing and help keep you limber as you age. I think it is best to learn these from a qualified instructor like a yoga teacher that can correct your form. When you’ve learned a simple series of them you can do them at home. There are also good beginner instructional videos for stretching, and classes at gyms and adult ed centers. I found free videos on Amazon.com with titles like “Full Body Flexibility Stretches For Beginners”, and searching for “stretching” on my county library’s website had 88 results for dvds. My fellow blogger at Life is now just post a video of a nice routine on the “Yoga With Adriene” channel on youtube. Adriene seems like a nice and knowledgeable teacher. There are a lot of good resources out there.

Static stretching is not the only way to stay flexible. Clarence Bass describes his morning routine which takes all important joints through their ranges of motion (www.cbass.com/getupandmove.htm). Suzanne Wylde’s book Moving Stretch: Work Your Fascia to Free Your Body describes an alternate approach where you more your body through various positions with muscles lightly resisting each other. Muscles that are stretched while tense are in eccentric contraction, which provides a good stretch for their surrounding connective tissues (fascia). There are also some introductory videos of her approach on her website: www.movingstretch.com. Suzanne’s technique is not the only way to stretch fascia but she claims it is particularly effective at it. I’ve tried some of her introductory videos and found them to be relaxing.

Resistance training exercises with full range of motion (like a full squat) provide flexibility as well. I read somewhere that the flexibility of all athletes on the US summer Olympic team was once tested. Gymnasts, not surprisingly, were the most flexible. But the weight lifters came in second. So much for the stereotype of weight lifters being “musclebound”!

There is some controversy about stretching. Is is really a good idea as a warmup? Is static stretching the best or are there better alternatives? There has been a lot of research on this subject which is covered in detail in the recommended book Stretching Scientifically: A Guide to Flexibility Training by Thomas Kurz. There are also useful articles online by Brad Walker at https://stretchcoach.com. Both these sources discuss various kinds of stretches and contrast static vs. dynamic stretching, giving tips on where they fit in. And they explain the difference between safe ways of doing dynamic stretching and the outmoded “ballistic stretching” that was in vogue in my youth.

Much of the emphasis is about stretching for athletes. It turns out there’s substantial evidence that stretching as a warmup, as you’ll see runner’s do, for example, is not the best idea. It can injure cold muscles that haven’t been warmed up some other way, and temporarily at least, it can impair performance. A better way is to do a light dynamic warmup, like some easy jogging followed by “strides” for running. To warm up for hiking I just start out easy, often the terrain lets you do this during your hike because it is less steep at first. There’s one hike my group does that slaps you in the face with a steep hill pretty much right away. For that one I either warm up on my bike riding to it, or make sure I go for a brisk warmup walk in the parking lot first. For biking I “spin” easily at a high cadence in a low gear for the first few minutes of a ride. For activities requiring large range of motion like martial arts (or punting in American style football) involving high kicks, the warmup is more involved, and I recommend Thomas’s book as a good guide.

But athletic performance, injury prevention, and warming up are not my main purposes for stretching. Instead, I am after keeping my flexibility as I age (so far so good, including winning back the flexibility in my repaired shoulder) and relaxation. For these, I prefer stretching at night, when my muscles are warm from the activities of the day. The relaxation from this leads to a better night’s sleep. But sometimes I take a yoga class in the morning, and make sure I warm up for it first. That’s easy for me because the class is held at about a 15 minute bike ride from my house. If I ever had to drive there instead I’d make sure I did a brisk walk to warm up instead, with some arm swinging thrown in.

I mentioned in my previous post that I do about 30 minutes of stretching at night. That is more than the minimum needed to stay limber, which I’d say is more like 10 minutes. But I find some of the stretches enjoyable so when I learn a new one I like on a video or in a class, I’ll sometimes add it to my routine, so mine has grown over time.

Stretching vs. Yoga

The postures of Hatha Yoga are forms of static stretches. In the hands of a good teacher yoga can be an excellent form of stretching and relaxation. Often classes end with a short meditation in a lying down pose which is a good introduction to meditation. The disadvantage I can see of yoga is that sometimes practitioners can be enamored with getting into more advanced versions of poses, which their bodies may not be ready for. More is not always better with flexibility. Thomas Kurz discusses some detrimental examples of too much flexibility in his book Stretching Scientifically: A Guide to Flexibility Training. This should not be an issue if you find a good yoga teacher. I fell into the trap of thinking more advanced is better when I thought I was doing a good job with the triangle pose because I could put my hand on the floor, but in so doing I had my hips in a not-so-beneficial position. I was fortunate to have this corrected by my teacher. Now my hand is more up near my knee but the version of the posture I do is better for my hips and back.

Yoga can go beyond stretching to be a relaxation and self-improvement methodology. It also has a nice philosophy that goes along with it. There are lots of inspiring books on people who have changed their lives for the better by practicing it. I recently read a book Warrior Pose by Brad Willis. Brad was a highly successful international correspondent who hurt his back severely in an accident falling from a ladder, and had to retire prematurely on disability. He ended up addicted to pain medications for years. But he cured his back and got off the meds, turning his life completely around, through practicing yoga.

I find I cross over the line from just stretching to something more when I do it mindfully. I used to do my stretching routine while watching TV. It kept me limber, and was relaxing. But now I do it in silence in a dedicated session. The room where I do it is pleasant with a nice view. The relaxation benefit is much greater, and if I meditate afterwards I get very relaxed. I also attend a group yoga class weekly for 50+ students at our city fitness center. It is a small enough group that I’m getting to know the other students so it has a nice social aspect also.

It is especially useful to be mindful of your breathing when doing yoga. Many teachers emphasize visualizing “breathing in” to the part being stretched, which is relaxing.

Stretching Science

The science behind stretching is interesting. Muscles have receptors in them called spindles that sense the amount of elongation. This is equivalent to “strain gages” engineers use. But there is also the “Golgi tendon organ” that senses force in the tendons the muscles are attached to. This is like “load cells” used by engineers. In order to prevent muscle tearing, when a muscle is nearing its current limits of flexibility, the spindle will cause it to contract, which stiffens it against further elongation. However, the tendon organ is also monitoring the force, and can send a signal to relax the muscle if the force is too high, which can override the spindle signal. Preventing tendon rupture is more important than muscle strains. But it takes a few seconds for the feedback from the tendon organ to occur. This is why static stretches with long holds are effective: stretch a muscle up to a little beyond what’s currently comfortable and it will stiffen up as the spindle sends feedback. But patiently hold it there for more than a few seconds, and the tendon organ fires, and the muscle relaxes and you can go a little further into the stretch. This can be a pleasant feeling if you’re not overdoing it. I remember a yoga teacher in a class I took having us hold a stretch until, as she called it, “the magic happens”.

Another interesting wrinkle about stretching is “reciprocal inhibition“: where the muscles on one side of a joint can relax to allow contraction of those on the other side of that joint. An easy way to see this is with the elbow joint. The biceps want to flex it, the triceps extend it. So if you wanted to stretch a stiff biceps, you could use your triceps to extend the arm, and the biceps will relax. In this case the triceps is the “agonist” muscle and the biceps is the “antagonist”. Science-based stretching techniques like proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) take advantage of the stretch reflex, the tendon organ, and reciprocal inhibition with combinations of stretching and contraction of agonist muscles and antagonist muscles, and can be very effective in improving range of motion

Of course you could drive yourself crazy keeping track of all this as you stretch, but it’s not really necessary. More straightforward techniques like static stretching will do fine to keep us limber. But it’s interesting (at least to an enginerd like me) to know the “whys” behind stretch techniques.

9 thoughts on “Stretching

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