By Lori Okami
I’m sure a fair amount of us remember P.E. back in elementary school. Everyone standing next to each other facing the teacher and being told to stretch before running or playing basketball. In fact, that doesn’t really change even going into high school. Most coaches and P.E. teachers will tell you to warm up and stretch before any physical activity. Mainly because performing athletically with cold muscles will usually lead to injury, hence the term “warming up.” This literally means to increase your body temperature and blood flow to your muscles. Without this blood flow, oxygen supply to the muscles will be slightly limited and your muscles may not function as well, which in turn could lead to strains or other injuries. So yes, “warming up” is very important, but is stretching the best way to achieve this—as we have been lead to believe since childhood?
While it isn’t a simple yes or no answer, recent research has shown that static stretching, where you pull and hold a muscle for a certain period of time, actually decreases muscle strength for up to 30 minutes after the stretch is performed. There is an inhibitory response sent by your central nervous system to the muscles involved in this type of stretching, because your muscles are meant for contracting--not for elongation. Typically the majority of people perform static stretching before exercise. They like believe that it will help their athletic performance. However, the benefit is derived when they warm up really well before stretching. Yes, BEFORE stretching.
So what is the best way to increase flexibility, strength and readiness for a workout? The answer is dynamic stretching. This is basically stretching muscles while they are in motion. When the muscles are moving, the body doesn’t send that same inhibitory response, but rather an excitatory response. Keeping in mind that dynamic stretching is best done when you activate the muscles that are going to be used in your following exercise; you want to be sure to use range-of-motion exercises that involve all the corresponding joints and connective tissue. How does one perform a dynamic stretch? An example would be the Straight-Leg March, which is for the hamstrings and glutes. To perform this, kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. This sequence can be performed for about 30-60 seconds.
As you can see, performing this type of stretch not only increases the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, but also works to increase the range-of-motion of the muscle without agonizing in holding a stretch. It also helps to involve other smaller stabilizing muscles and joints, which will help to further prevent injury.
Doing dynamic stretching followed by some static stretching can be beneficial as well. Just remember to do more than just static stretches before exercising.
What is the best way to warm up? Based on recent research and personal experience, I would say that doing some cardiovascular exercise to increase blood flow is a great way to start, anywhere from 3-10 minutes. Follow this with a series of dynamic stretches specific to the muscles being used in your upcoming workout. If you feel compelled to do more, you can add a few static stretches at the end, but ONLY after you have warmed up sufficiently and involved the muscles in dynamic stretching.
Here is a great article for dynamic stretching for running: http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-287--13442-0,00.html
By Casey Okami-Watanabe
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