By Eric Harr, for ORGANIC FOOD BAR Inc.
Sports scientists and elite-level coaches are on an unending quest to maximize athletic performance. Their clients — many of them world-class athletes — depend on it.
One of the best discoveries in the upper echelon of the sporting world might also be the best-kept fitness secret for the rest of us. It's an effective yet simple routine called "active-isolated stretching,” or AIS.
AIS can help you become less prone to injuries, feel more "comfortable" in your body and perform better in exercise and in daily activities.
The stretches people perform vary greatly. Some grown men, for example, bounce like ballerinas before runs, while others contort their bodies into bizarre positions.
There is little debate, however, that if you loosen your joints and elongate your muscles, your body will function more efficiently and with less pain.
That's the goal of stretching: to provide the means for muscle and tendon fibers gradually to relax and lengthen, thus allowing a full range of unencumbered movement.
Still, most people perform the classic "hold for 30 seconds" static stretch. The jury is still out on the benefits of static stretching, and some experts believe it can lead to muscle damage and soreness.
Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport recently raised questions about the benefits of static stretching. Researchers asked one group of college-age men to perform a series of 17 stretches statically while another group did no stretching at all. Static stretching actually produced more soreness and higher levels of creatine kinase, an enzyme associated with muscle injury, than not stretching.
Why? Your muscles have a built-in "stretch reflex" that's engaged after a rapid movement or after three seconds in a stretched position.
When it is statically stretched, a muscle has a natural tendency to protect itself from this motion by contracting back to its normal range. If you continue stretching while your muscle is trying to contract, you're in a tug of war that invites damage.
Only a warm and relaxed muscle will allow itself to be stretched effectively.
Many experts believe that active-isolated stretching, or AIS, is one of the most promising ways to get the benefits of stretching while minimizing its risks.
In AIS, you hold each stretch for just two to three seconds. Then you return to the starting position and relax. After resting for a few seconds, you ease into the stretch again, progressively warming and elongating the muscle in more of a "pumping action."
In this way, AIS works with your physiology, not against it.
Since I began this stretch routine, my body has never felt looser and my athletic performance has improved. A few minor injuries also went away. World championship runner Steve Spence agrees. "I always hated to stretch because it didn't seem to make a difference," he told me. "But now I use this program every day, and I haven't been injured."
John O'Dea, M.S., a health and fitness instructor at the American College of Sports Medicine and a strength-and-conditioning specialist, says, "Because AIS circumvents the stretch reflex reaction, muscle fibers can elongate and release tension more efficiently." Here's how to stretch two common problem areas — your lower back and shoulders — using AIS:
Most of us will suffer lower-back pain at some point in our lives. This routine, done twice a day, may help to prevent, or eliminate, much of that. (Since some injuries should not be stretched -- such as a chronic muscle tear -- be sure to consult your doctor before beginning any stretching routine.)
- Lie flat on your back with your legs straight out. Now use your abdominals to raise your knees to your chest. Physiology dictates that when you contract a muscle group (in this case, your abdominals), the "antagonistic," or opposite, muscle group (your back) must relax. When you can't bring your knees any closer to your chest on their own, place your hands on your knees and gently pull them deeper into your chest while exhaling fully.
- Don't force yourself beyond the point of gentle discomfort. Take your time. The best results come when you are relaxed and breathing deeply.
- Hold the full stretch for two to three seconds, then return to the starting position. At this point your blood is flowing back into your muscles, which are now a little warmer. Do it again, and this time try to increase the stretch by 5%. Repeat five to eight times. Each time you stretch, you ought to be able to go a little deeper into the stretch. This progressive muscle relaxation is the essence of AIS. It also gives your abs a great little workout.
- Stand straight, with your arms at your sides and your stomach tucked in. Keeping your left arm straight, bring it up and across your chest toward your right shoulder so that your left elbow tries to meet your right shoulder. Move it as far as it will go. Then reach around with your right hand and grab your left elbow. Now pull your left arm a few inches more while exhaling. Hold for two to three seconds — then drop your left arm down and shake it out.
- Repeat five to eight times. When you're finished, if you've done it correctly, your left shoulder ought to feel noticeably looser and warmer than your right.
To learn more about AIS, pick up a copy of "The Whartons' Stretch Book: Featuring the Breakthrough Method of Active-Isolated Stretching," by Jim Wharton and Phil Wharton (Times Books, 1996). It will show you step by step how to reap the rewards of this remarkable stretching routine in 10 minutes a day, in the comfort of your own home.