There are two general types of stretching: static (no motion) and dynamic (with motion). Static stretching basically consists of stretching a muscle as far as possible and then holding that position.
Passive stretching involves the use of some external force (body part, partner assistance or apparatus) to bring the joint through its range of motion (ROM). Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching is often a combination of passive stretching and isometric or static contractions.
Ballistic stretching uses momentum rather than muscular control to increase ROM, whereas dynamic stretching involves controlled movements — no bouncing or jerking.
Dynamic stretching as part of a warm-up can be useful to decrease muscle damage and improve performance. Research has shown that an active warm-up or 100 concentric contractions performed just before an eccentric exercise bout can decrease muscle damage.
Also, warm-ups involving calisthenics increase performance. A warm-up consisting of a ten-exercise bodyweight circuit (where each exercise is performed for only 20 seconds) produced a higher vertical jump compared to a warm-up with static or PNF stretching. And as you know, the vertical jump is practical and a good index of leg power.
Church states: “In designing warm-up routines for activities involving movements that require the generation of large amounts of power, such as sprinting and jumping, one should minimize the amount of stretching performed before the activity. Instead, one should rely on a warm-up consisting of easy movements that gradually move the joints to the appropriate ROM for that activity. Exercises designed to enhance flexibility, such as vigorous static or PNF stretching, should not be performed before practice or competition but rather following it so that flexibility can be enhanced without compromising performance.”
When it comes to stretching during warm-ups, you want to respect the following rules:
- Dynamic stretching is useful to simulate the velocity of your training (unless, of course, you plan to only perform isometrics, then by all means perform static stretching) and will help rev up the nervous system in preparation for activity. Just remember to use the pendulum method by gradually increasing speed and range with each repetition.
- PNF stretching is particularly useful to correct a muscle imbalance. For instance, if you plan to start with good mornings and your torso tends to pull to the left as you descend and/or your right hamstrings feel tight compared to your left, perform some PNF stretching on the right hamstrings to even things out.
- Only use static stretching if you have some really tight muscles that, in essence, need to be turned off. The law of facilitation is often recited when referring to these tonic muscles as they tend to rob the neural message during movement.
For instance, if you experience rounded shoulders and you plan to work your back, it may be a good idea to stretch out your chest to liberate greater ROM when rowing or pulling. Since static stretching will disrupt the optimum contraction length and temporarily weaken the fibers, it would be wise to use this form of stretching on antagonistic muscles (such as the chest) prior to working the agonists (which is the back in this case).
In general, static stretching prior to weight training is not recommended. There are certain applications for its use, but static stretching will ultimately sedate your nervous system and make you weaker: two things you don’t want before pushing some serious weight. Dynamic stretching will do the opposite: rev up the nervous system and increase strength!
Furthermore, as outlined in the Sports Performance Bulletin (Jan. 2005), additional benefits of a dynamic warm-up include saving time and freeing up more specific training hours as well as being better prepared mentally:
Training five times a week for 250 days a year, warming up and stretching traditionally for 30 minutes at a time, takes up 125 hours. That is virtually five days of continuous training time that could be put to more specific use. You’ll also be better prepared mentally. A slow warm-up with a sustained period of stretching can switch your mind away from the dynamics of the task ahead. This may be particularly detrimental before a race or competition, when you’ll want to maintain your focus and stay sharp. More subtly, your neuromuscular system may not be optimally prepared if you pursue a slower style of warm-up with lots of stretching. The more focused (dynamic) approach will heighten the ability of your muscles to contract.
Perform the following routine before every workout. It takes 10-15 seconds of contractions to raise the body temperature by 1 degree Celsius and a proper warm-up should raise body temperature by 1-2 degrees Celsius or 1.4-2.8 degrees Fahrenheit to cause sweating; therefore, 5-10 reps per movement is all you need.
When performing dynamic stretches, start slow and shallow and gradually increase speed and rage with each repetition.
Dynamic Stretching Routine
1. Prisoner Squat
2. Prisoner Split Squat
3. Toe Touches
4. Waiter’s Bow
5. Side Bends
6. Trunk Twists
7. Arms Vertical
8. Arms Vertical Alternating
9. PNF Pattern
10. Arms Horizontal
11. Arm Circles
12. Shoulder Shrugs
13. Head Tilt
14. Head Rotation
15. Wrist Flexion/Extension
16. Wrist Circles
Another excellent method to rev up the nervous system involves vibrational training. I had a chance to try the Nemes unit a few years ago. A simple 30 second circuit on this machine and I was wired afterward. Some of the benefits of vibration therapy include:
- Increased muscle strength, particularly explosive fast-twitch muscle performance
- Increased flexibility and range of motion
- Reduced joint and ligament stress and reduced potential for joint and ligament injury
- Enhanced blood circulation
- Positive stimulation of the neurological system
- Increased capability for burning body fat
- Secretion of endorphin hormones, such as serotonin, as well as growth hormone and Testosterone, and neurotransmitter response
- Pain suppression
If you’re still not convinced, check out this excerpt from Jordan et al.:
The effects of vibration on the human body have been documented for many years. Recently, the use of vibration for improving the training regimes of athletes has been investigated. Vibration has been used during strength-training movements such as elbow flexion, and vibration has also been applied to the entire body by having subjects stand on vibration platforms.
Exposure to whole-body vibration has also resulted in a significant improvement in power output in the postvibratory period and has been demonstrated to induce significant changes in the resting hormonal profiles of men.
In addition to the potential training effects of vibration, the improvement in power output that is observed in the postvibratory period may also lead to better warm-up protocols for athletes competing in sporting events that require high amounts of power output. These observations provide the possibility of new and improved methods of augmenting the training and performance of athletes through the use vibration training.
Hmm, I wonder if that would be useful for a warm-up?
Now, I know there are some reports in the literature that indicate no ergogenic effect from vibrational training pre-exercise. For every study that shows a positive, you’ll find one that shows a negative, but not in this case. The balance is tipping far toward the benefit side pre-exercise. This trend applies to static stretching as well. Take for example the most recent edition of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Vol. 22, No. 1, 2008), there were three research papers dealing with various effects of static stretching and all three were unanimous with their results.
Holt and Lambourne, 2008 – Static stretching negates the benefits from a general warm-up when performed immediately before a vertical jump test.
Winchester et al., 2008 – Performing a static stretch protocol following a dynamic warm-up will inhibit sprint performance.
Bazett-Jones et al., 2008 – Six weeks of a static hamstring stretching protocol (i.e. 4 reps x 45 secs. x 4 days/week) did not improve knee range of motion or sprint and vertical jump performances. Chronic static stretching use is questionable and has neither a positive or negative impact on athletic performance. It should be restricted to post workout/practice.
Bottom line: if you have access to a vibrational training machine, try it out. There’s sufficient evidence to indicate that it will work, but you’ll never know unless you try it for yourself. The biggest issue with these machines, though, is cost. In the past, I just could not justify thousands of dollars for such a small application. I’m happy to say that prices have come down considerably. For instance, Soloflex now offers a whole body vibration platform for only $395. This is the machine that I own, and I’ve never had any problems with it.
Ultimate Workout Tip #5
Perform a dynamic stretching routine before every workout. To increase the effectiveness, try conducting the circuit on a vibrational platform. Remember to use the pendulum method and 10 reps or less per movement is all you need.
Set Your Body
Activating the long cervical extensors can help reposition C5 and C6, two vertebrae in your neck which enervate the biceps. This will increase curling and pulling strength. In fact, it may increase biceps strength by as much as 10% according to Poliquin, so try this technique just before back and biceps exercises.
Sit on a Swiss ball. Walk forward until only the back of your head is supported on the ball. Keep the hips up and make sure to accentuate the rib cage. Now try to hold that position for up to a minute. You may not reach that duration the first time; just work up to it gradually over sessions.
To make the exercise easier, lean the back of the head against a wall. Use a rolled up towel or pillow for comfort. To make the exercise more difficult, try it on the Swiss ball but hold a plate or dumbbell on the chest to increase resistance.
Holding a plate on the chest will make the exercise more difficult. Do this only after you’ve accomplished a full 60 second hold with your bodyweight only.
It is very important that you perform the neck bridge before upper body training only – never before lower body training. Shortening the upper neck muscles can actually impair lower body flexibility; whereas, releasing tension in the suboccipital region of the head can lengthen hamstrings and increase hip range of motion.
Researchers used PNF (or active resistance) stretching to examine the effect of upper neck muscles on hip joint range of motion. Stretching the hamstrings caused 9% increase in hip extension range of motion as measured with the passive ‘straight leg raise’ (SLR) maneuver. Yet stretching the small suboccipital muscles (which connect the occiput with the upper two vertebrae) resulted in almost twice as much (13%) increase of hamstring length as measured with the same SLR test.
The explanation for this extraordinary finding has probably more to do with the neurological importance of the suboccipital muscles. These small muscles have the highest density of muscles spindles in the whole body (and apparently on the whole planet!) and have a major sensory function for antigravity organization. Via the so called ‘Tonic Neck Reflex’ (which we share with most other mammals) an extension of these muscles tends to trigger a tonus decrease of the hip joint extensors.
My suggested conclusion for body workers and movement therapists: if a client shortens the upper neck, his hamstrings will stay short no matter how much he wants to stretch or lengthen them. Whereas if he lowers the tonus of these upper neck muscles (either passively via myofascial manipulation or via active ideokinetic movement facilitation) lengthening the hamstrings and increasing hip flexion range of motion will be much easier.
This fits also with a verbal report I heard from Hubert Godard about an interesting research in Italy: runners on a treadmill would unconsciously increase their running speed when a bioelectrical device on their neck lowered the tonus of the upper neck muscles. Whereas increasing the tonus of these muscles made them slow down their speed, although they were not aware of this and perceived their speed as constant. So a stiff occiput-neck connection will tend to ‘put a break’ into the legs via shortening of the hamstrings, and a long and loose occiput-neck connection will take ‘the break out’ by lengthening the midrange of hamstring length and will make the legs swing much faster and easier. – Robert Schleip
Set The Scapula
Performing behind-the-neck pulldowns with a tube or band is a great way to counter the ever-so-popular scapular elevation that many people experience. It’s excellent for scapular depression and is great prior to upper body training to help set the scapula and save your shoulders from unnecessary wear and tear while increasing strength.
It’s pretty easy to perform. While holding on to a tube or band with your arms extended overhead, simply perform a pulldown motion behind the neck. Try to pull the elastic apart as you pull it down. Hold the bottom contraction for 5-10 seconds and perform 10-12 reps. Start at 5 second holds for 10 reps and work your way up to 10 second holds for 12 reps over successive workouts.
Set The Hips
Setting the hips prior to lower body work can definitely improve performance. Ever notice someone’s knees dipping inward during a squat? You should have; it’s quite common! According to strength and conditioning coach, Mike Robertson, exercises that strengthen and develop the gluteals are required to correct this condition. For instance, light squats with a mini-band placed around the thighs, just above the knees, is a great option as it teaches you to recruit the gluteals while squatting. Start off with just your bodyweight and focus on hinging the knees outward throughout the movement. One set of 15-20 reps before training is all you need.
Mini-band walks are another option. Simply double wrap a mini band around your ankles and start walking. Make sure your toes are turned out slightly and the core is braced throughout. Here, 15-20 strides should do the trick just make sure to stay tight and tall, and concentrate on the glutes throughout the movement.
Finally, glute bridges work quite nicely as well. Like the behind the neck pulldowns, 10-12 reps of 5-10 second holds will do.
Ultimate Workout Tip #6
To improve posture and ultimately performance, set the body with neck bridges and behind the neck tube pulldowns prior to upper body training, and use either band squats, band walks, or glute bridges before lower body training.
Play With The Nervous System
Overshoot The Load
An effective warm-up method involves utilizing postactivation (aka post- tetanic facilitation/potentiation). By gradually ramping up your low rep warm-up sets beyond your working weight, it will increase strength for your work sets. There are different ways to really tap into those high-threshold fibers such as performing eccentrics or heavy supports with loads that are greater than your working weight. Another way to play with your nervous system is to add chains to the bar, which will naturally slow down the concentric speed (although the intent must always be fast). Then remove the chains for your work sets and you’ll go through the roof!
Want to trick your body even further and lift even more weight? Do your warm-up sets with oversize grips then perform your work sets with regular handles and watch your strength soar! The TylerGrip is a great tool for this purpose.
Plyometrics can be very useful during a warm-up, but be careful. They place a tremendous amount of stress on the nervous system, and if you do too much prior to training, it will kill performance. On the other hand, if you do just the right amount, it can potentiate your strength! In general, though, plyometrics are best reserved for athletes. Various jumps, push-ups and medicine ball throws can be used, but make sure to perform no more than 5 repetitions per set.
Ultimate Workout Tip #7
Depending on your level, there are several neural tricks to improve strength and performance. Beginners can start with oversize grips for their warm-ups and then use regular handles for their work sets. Advanced trainees can take it a step further by employing plyometrics and overshooting the working load with eccentrics, heavy supports, and chains during their warm-ups.
What you do beforehand can make or break your workout. For the ultimate workout, you must start at the right time with the proper nutrients in place and some assistance from a proven, effective pre-workout supplement. Start the training session with the right amount of soft tissue work and an appropriate form of stretching. Then, set the body, activate the nervous system and go to it. Follow these steps exactly as outlined in this article, and you will experience a great workout and all the benefits that follow.
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