Saturday, February 28, 2009

Active-Isolated Stretching: Better than you might think

The Whartons' Stretch Book

You've been stretching all wrong. That is, if you've been stretching at all. And stretching's not just for old guys, either. The more flexible you can be at any age, the less often you'll be injured. You'll play better, run faster, sleep sounder, and sit more comfortably, all thanks to active-isolated stretching (AIS).

Who Benefits?
Most anyone, really. My brother runs marathons. These stretching exercises do wonders for his legs before a run, and especially if he does them again after a run.

My dad, in his mid-fifties, performs physical labor on his feet all day. Just this week he began AIS in the mornings, and it has been a stark difference of increased energy and feel-goodness for him throughout the day. Now, instead of slugging out the end of the day, he feels like he could work longer if need be.

Me, I recently trained for an ultimate (frisbee) tournament (seven games in two days), and the key part of my training program were these stretches. I did the upper and lower leg stretches, and sometimes the feet. Yep, the feet. Ankles, down to the toes. Compared to last years tournament (only six games), this year I felt some stiffness and sluggishness by the beginning of the end game, but not the rigor mortis stiffness in my legs by last years final game. This year, by the time the last game was over I was ready to play more.

Sleeping Restless?
As people get older, the authors note, they become less active. So when bedtime comes, they may be mentally ready for sleep, but physically they have not had enough activity to be fully ready for sleep. So a tossing and turning throughout the night often ensues. Performing these exercises in bed before sleep can be light enough exercise to prepare the body for rest without being overly stimulating so as to make getting to sleep difficult.

Active Means Active
These are not the static, reach-and-touch-your-toes for thirty seconds kinds of stretching. But it isn't so active as aerobics, either. As for activity level, it's on par with some of the milder exercises of a pilates or yoga routine. When I first began doing these exercises, being a bit inactive in the months preceeding, I would work up a light sweat. But, that's a good thing. As noted by the authors, warming up before stretching is a misnomer. Stretching is the warm up. At least when you do the active isolated kind.

Why It Works
Each exercise focuses on stretching one muscle area by contracting the muscles that work in the opposite direction. This contracting of the opposing muscle, allows the muscle we want to stretch to relax, and therefore stretch it without forcing it to do so. Example: I flex my quads (thighs), and the hamstrings (back of thighs) relax.

Each exercise is performed in reps of 10, and held for 2 seconds each rep. The 2 seconds allows for a healthy stretching of the muscle before the stretched muscle kicks in it's natural protective response to contract, at which point further holding of the stretch would just fight against the muscle we are trying to stretch, and that's not so effective.

Sample Stretch
The book has easy to follow illustrations, as well as written instruction. But following are my own words on how to do one of the exercises:

Lie on your back, both legs bent so your feet rest on the floor. Lift one leg so it is in the air, but bent at a 90 degree angle, your lower leg parallel to the floor. Your upper leg will be perpendicular to the floor. Now extend your lower your leg upward, bending at the knee until your whole leg is straight. Depending on your flexibility, you may not be able to raise your leg fully upright, or you may be able to extend your leg past upright as you stretch it in the direction of your head. Hold for 2 seconds, then return your lower leg to be parallel with the floor, keeping your upper leg perpendicular to the floor (your leg bent at the knee, forming a right angle). Repeat 10 times.

Rope and Variations
The authors do suggest the use of a rope (see cover) to lightly assist with some of the stretches, but it is possible to do them with out it. I do the exercises both ways, with and without the rope. It's a little faster without it (not having to re-secure the rope on my foot for each exercise), and sometimes I just don't have the rope with me. A thicker rope is better, as it's easier to hold. Try a rope approximately 1/2" to 1" in diameter.

If you're not so flexible, you can vary the form of stretches to make them easier. For example, one of the quad (thigh) stretches asks you to hold one foot forward, while bringing the other foot backward as you lie on your side (if that isn't clear, it will be when you see the illustration and read the books description). If that's too hard, just don't hold the one foot forward, and the exercise becomes easier.

Disclaimer: Before beginning any exercise program, talk to your doctor, yada yada. There, I'm legally safe. But if you ask me, if you don't have a broken bone, or a torn ligament, AIS is as safe for anyone as is walking up the stairs. And perhaps safer because when you're done with the routine, your looser and stronger, and more prepared to do what you gotta do.

The Whartons' Stretch Book

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