One good thing about Exercise Science is; we’ve come a long way baby. Gone are the days of practice with everyone commencing by lining up for toe touches and quad stretches: holding your ankle up and behind you in an unnaturally, uncomfortable position!

Understanding the proper type of stretching before and after activity is essential to enhancing performance and avoiding injury.  When young athletes engage in physical activity, they are often encouraged by coaches and parents to stretch prior to activity.  The goal is to prepare muscles for sports, to enhance performance and decrease risk of injury, including sprains and strains.  In the past, advice regarding stretching has referred to static (or passive) stretching prior to activity. That is, stretching held for 15-60 seconds in a stationary position to improve the flexibility of one muscle group at a time.  However, recent research confirms the benefits of dynamic stretching prior to physical activity in both children and adults.  Dynamic stretching uses functional, activity-specific motions with constant movement to warm-up.  Static stretching then becomes important in the cool down after activity.

A thorough warm-up period is designed to prepare the body for physical activity by:

  • Increasing core body temperature
  • Stimulating blood flow to the arms and legs
  • Enhancing coordinated movement
  • Improving range of motion
  • Developing body awareness of joint position sense and movement
  • Using movement to expand muscle and tendon flexibility

These benefits of a good warm-up, which were once associated with static stretching prior to activity, are now attributed to dynamic stretching activities.  In fact, evidence now suggests that static stretching prior to physical activity and sports may be detrimental to performance involving vertical jumps, shorts sprints, muscle endurance, maximum muscle contraction, balance and reaction time (McMillian 2006).  Studies have also shown that static stretching can result in less force and power production not only in adults, but also in children, especially in jumping and sprinting performance (Faigenbaum 2006).  Because the goal of the warm up period is to prepare the body for specific functional movements related to a sport, dynamic stretching appears to provide that service without being harmful.

While holding a “runners lunge” prior to practice or a game may be a thing of the past, static stretching is still very important for the cool-down phase and should not be skipped. During the cool-down, athletes are led through a program to allow the body temperature to return to normal levels and prepare the body for the healing process.  During vigorous activity, muscle fibers tear at microscopic levels and need to undergo a reparation process that is essential for building new fibers, and as a result, increasing strength.  As muscles cool down, they tend to heal in the position in which they are left.  This highlights the importance of passive stretching after physical activity: low-load long duration static stretching allows the muscles to stay in a lengthened position as the muscle cools down.  This provides a greater length through which the muscle can contract to generate force during the next time activity is initiated.  Thus, static stretching serves a greater benefit to young athletes post-exercise.

When designing dynamic and passive stretching programs, here are some common considerations:

Dynamic stretching programs (Mann 1999):

  • Move continuously, typically in laps for 10-15 minutes overall
  • Vary the program according to the level of the athlete
  • Start slow and progress to quicker and more advanced movements
  • Avoid movements too intense that fatigue the muscles
  • Incorporate the whole body and imitate movements used in specific sports

Passive stretching programs:

  • Stay in one position per muscle group
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds
  • Repeat the stretch 2-3 times per muscle group
  • Address all muscle groups used in the specific sport

Sources:

Avery D Faigenbaum, James E McFarland, Jeff A Schwerdtman, Nicholas A Ratamess, Jie Kang, and Jay R Hoffman.  Dynamic Warm-Up Protocols, With and Without a Weighted Vest, and Fitness Performance in High School Female Athletes. J Athl Train. 2006 Oct-Dec; 41(4): 357–363.

Danny J. McMillian, Josef H. Moore, Brian S. Hatler and Dean C. Tayler. Dynamic vs. Static-Stretching Warm Up: The Effect On Power and Agility Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2006, 20(3), 492–499.

Douglas P. Mann and Margaret T. Jones, CSCS. Guidelines to the Implementation of a Dynamic Stretching Program. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 1999. Volume 21, Number 6, pages 53–55.

Have you ever caught yourself completely out-of-breath while exercising and struggling to suck-in more body reviving oxygen but  you can’t seem to get enough? Most of us don’t really breath as effectively as we could (or should) to get the most out of our muscles when we exercise. Diaphragmatic breathing is actually something babies do naturally and somehow we seem to lapse out of as we get older.

The diaphragm is the main muscle we use for taking in air but it is highly underused. Diaphragmatic breathing can enhance overall core function; the diaphragm and the accessory abdominal muscles play a synergistic / antagonistic role in inspiration, forced expiration, and the Valsalva maneuver (a brief -yet forceful- holding of one’s breath during an exertion). What that means is: muscles in your core assist the diaphragm in it’s expansion (or taking in of air) and others help to stabilize and release (exhaling out) the process. During inspiration the diaphragm actually increases tone, while the abdominal muscles decrease tone (relax out). During exhalation the tone of the abdominal muscles increase (more of a drawing-in maneuver) while the tone of the diaphragm decreases.

How does all of this affect performance? Think of it this way, if you are not breathing correctly you are not consuming the correct amount of oxygen your body needs to perform optimally. Your muscles need oxygen to recover and when you are not breathing correctly they are not recovering to their fullest potential. I see this all the time in the gym and on the field; I see kids just exhausted from running the length of the field after a ball and the first thing I see rise when they start to breath is their chest. Chest breathing is commonly done because the person is breathing through the mouth when optimal breathing is through the nose. This goes with added strength as well; after a heavy set of squats you need to let your body rest; diaphragmatic breathing will help you relax the body to prepare you for the next set. If you want to improve performance in any sport, or setting, start breathing through your nose and belly.

Here is an exercise that will help you start breathing diaphragmatically so that you can improve performance and overall function.

  1. Assume a starting position: supine (lying down on your back), seated, or standing.
  2. Place your hands on your abdomen, or hold a water bottle on it so you can see or feel its movement.
  3. Slowly inhale through your nose.  Concentrate on using your diaphragm.  Think about trying to push your abdominals out.  With your hands, feel the abdomen bulge out beneath them, or see the water bottle rise.
  4. Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth.

Note:  While inhaling, if your hands or water bottle resting on your abdomen are not rising, your diaphragm most likely is not descending, as it should.

Start with at least ten minutes per day.  Try to do it several times a day if you can, but start with ten minutes. Once you have mastered this technique start doing it while in between sets and after a workout so that your body can fully recover.

By Paul Skidmore, CSCS, CHEK Exercise Coach

With recent shows like “The Biggest Loser,” programs like P90X and in Arizona year-round baseball for kids, Americans are inundated with the message that more is better when it comes to sports and fitness.

We are told that the harder, longer and more often we work out the better we are going to be, feel and look. However, like everything in life moderation should be the focus.   As stress goes up in one area of a person’s life i.e. work or school, then less energy must be expended in another area, if not we run the risk of doing serious damage to our physical and mental well-being.

Working out and playing sports, while being a great way to improve athleticism and physicality, can also be an intense stressor to the body.  Therefore, we must understand that it is not always about how much and how many times you workout or practice, but how much and how many workouts or practices you can recover from.  Because if you workout too much you can actually do more harm than good.

Therefore, let me offer this suggestion the next time you feel the need to perform that intense body destroying workout or complete that gut busting practice and think to yourself if your mind and body might not be better served by some intense body replenishing recovery.