Thursday, January 31, 2008

90 days to make it a habit

My Teacher taught me all kinds of things. I will pass one idea on that will help you in your stretch goals. Perhaps the idea will apply to other goals as well. He once told me it takes ninety days to make a habit. If you practice everyday for ninety days, the act of practicing will come naturally, and you don't have to "work" to fit it in your day.
The most common thing I hear from patients and students is that they cannot stick with the program they set out to accomplish. Their effort falls short, with all the usual justifications: fatigue (I am tired when I get home from work) boredom (I just can't do the same routine all the time), forgetfullness (I was going to stretch but started watching American Idol), you get the idea.

If you push past the excuses and do it anyway, after ninety days, your routine will become second nature. Your stretch will improve, but you still have to work at improving it. The ACT of stretching will have become a habit, and great things can come from that. Just getting down on the floor to stretch will be easy.

Now, the rub: If you stretch for sixty days, and take one day off, the next day you stretch, it is not day 61. IT IS DAY ONE! That's right. You have fallen short of the goal of making stretching a habit. Not that your actual flexibility has been hampered by a few days off. Not at all. That is not the subject of this post. If you want to make stretching a habit, you have to work at it. Something to ponder.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I heard a "pop".....

There are different kinds of "pops" you might hear when stretching seriously. I will attempt to define what you might experience in a given stretch, and if what happened was good or bad for you.
1: You are stretching your groin, for example, and as you push your knees down, you hear a pop. It does not hurt, and all of a sudden. you get down further than before. Your muscles feel warm. What happened? You probably tore an adhesion between your muscles. Muscles should slide along each other. From a lack of stretching, or due to an old injury, you can have the connective tissue surrounding one muscle get adhered, or stuck, to another. If you stretch and tear this adhesion, you will be helping your stretch, and rid yourself of scar tissue between muscles.
2: You are practicing the sideleg stretches, for example, and you hear a pop behind the knee of the extended leg. Your extended leg is locked, there is a little pain, but not unbearable, you are not sure if you should continue. What happened? You probably tore a tendon, and you should probably stop and fold your leg into itself and let it rest for a few minutes. If it does not hurt after you get out of the position, it's probably ok. If it continues to hurt, stop and rest it. Tendons attach muscles to bone. You do not want to damage that connection. If there was a little bit of an adhesion and it let go, no problem. But if you did some damage, stop immediately. Rub out the muscle, maybe ice it. We would put a martial arts linament called teh tah chu on such injuries, which helps to heal muscles by bringing blood to the area.

3: You are practicing the splits. One of your legs is not quite straight as it should be. You hear a loud pop behind your knee, followed by pain. You probably tore a ligament. Ligaments attach bones to bones. Tearing a ligament is almost always due to improper stretching technique, or getting into a stretch too hard and fast. Ligaments have poor blood supply, and when they heal, they often heal with a lot of scar tissue (if you really tore it up badly). Stop your practice and rub out your knee. You might need to see a health care professional if it does not feel better in a few days (for these type of injuries, massage and acupuncture are most helpful).

These are just examples, but are common types of injuries that can occur when stretching. Go slow, and pay great attention to detail, and you will minimize, if not eliminate, any injury potential.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How Long Do You Hold Each Stretch?

That depends. I hold the stretch with the emphasis on my proper posture (straight back, for example, in the seated leg stretch). I observe to see if I am adhering to the principles of stretching as outlined by my Teacher to me. I wait until the muscle releases in that position then go down further. This may take a few seconds for stretches that I am proficient in, or several minutes if I have had an injury or if it is a muscle group I have neglected.

Lets take a practical example. Check out page 2 on, which shows groin stretches
There are three areas that are being stretched here. Inner groin, outer (lateral)thigh, and back. I find that when I first get into the position, one of the three (let's say back) is tightest. When that releases, which may take a minute, I come forward, and feel the inner groin. When that releases, I feel my outer thigh. There is no rule as to which I feel first, it can be any of them. Each may take a different amount of time to release. Then when all three have released, I usually hold it for another few minutes.
Another training technique I use is different times for different body sides. Example: my right hamstring was always looser than my left. I got into the habit of holding the left side for a longer time than the right side to correct the imbalance. So, if I stretched over the right leg for two minutes, I stretched over the left for three. You will be amazed at how you can correct imbalances this way. Give it a try!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Children and Stretching

I am often asked about stretching routines for children. I taught karate to children for many years, and found some stretches needed to wait until the children had a foundation built with their flexibility and balance. This was not an age factor, but an experience factor at work. An eight year old who had trained with me for two years was more experienced than a nine year old who just started classes.

For starters, I recommend a routine for children that involves only seated stretches. We don't want to bring in the balance component too early. Otherwise, the attention for detail (straight back, feet parallel while standing, for example) get sacrificed in the effort to twist, bend, etc., while standing. If you look at the stretches on the first few pages have seated stretches for a reason. It is really most beneficial to just work on a muscle at first without having to worry about falling!
Next, it is most important to help children with their posture first, and then let them go down as far as they can in a given stretch. When I taught kids, there was always a little friendly competition between the kids to see who could "go down further" in a stretch. While they tried to go lower than each other in the splits, for example, I would remind them to lock their knees and pull back their toes (see splits).
I would reinforce the ideas that would prevent injuries to their joints. The most common mistake I found children would make is best shown in this picture on top, the extended leg is bent. The correct way is below, with the leg straight and the toes pulled back. If you are working with your kids, this is a good place to start.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You stretch COLD? Pt. 2

I decided about ten years ago to test my stretching theory: if you stretch cold, you lengthen the muscles permanently, and your stretch is always there for you. First, a little background story:

(Just for clarification, in my bio it states I am a black belt in Tang Soo Do, which is a Korean style of karate. In blog entries, I will often use the generic term karate because that is the term most people are familiar with).: When I started karate, I was 15 years old, and very skinny and tight. In a few months of practice, my stretch had progressed to the point where I could get through the class and do most, but not all the skills required of me. But I was not good at them. Of the kicks, moves, takedowns, that I could perform, I needed a LOT more flexibility to be able to do them correctly. What was holding me back was my body. My teacher told me I was very tight.
I worked halfhearted on my stretching, I was most interested in the punch/kick aspect of karate. Normal for a kid like me. When I made black belt, the classes intensified, and within a year I was painfully feeling my limitations in stretch. So, I took a month off of karate practice, and locked myself in my room at home. I did three or more 45 minute stretch sessions a day, working only on the stretches I COULD NOT DO. I did them cold. I did them slow. I paid attention to what hurt. My goal was to lengthen my muscles. In one month, I could get into center and side splits, lotus and all the related lotus exercises, plow, you name it.
That was in the mid 70's. In 1997, I decided not to stretch for two (2!) years, to see what would happen. In 1999, when I sat on the floor to stretch, I found that all of my flexibility was there!!
It didn't feel that great the first time, but I could get into the split and lotus and everything else.

You stretch COLD?

A common question posed of me is, "Should I warm up my muscles by running, skipping rope, etc., before I stretch? Won't I pull a muscle if I don't warm up? I read In Wikipedia you should always warm up before you stretch, and that must be right (:0). You stretch COLD?" Yes, I do. And always have.

I have found through personal experience that if you stretch when you are cold, you will see how tight you really are. If you warm up first, your muscles fill with blood, and it is easier to stretch. There is no argument to that. You will probably stretch farther and get deeper into your postures when you are already sweating. However, if you can get your muscles to lengthen without "warming" them up, your gains in stretch will be more permanent. Your flexibility will not be dependent upon breaking a sweat first.

When you stretch when you are "cold", it takes longer to stretch. It will probably hurt more, but not necessarily. The "hurt" is the cold muscle struggling to lengthen. If you go slowly, as I STRONGLY suggest, the hurt goes away. You must be patient. Do not bounce, or throw yourself into the position. The action of stretching will warm you up anyway, so the stretches you work on later in your routine will come easier than the first ones. You still won't be as warm as if you skipped rope or ran around the block, but the end of your routine will be easier than the beginning.

My reason for doing the stretching cold was practical. I grew up in New York, in a rough neighborhood, and the winters were cold. If someone wanted to start a fight with me, I could not say, "Excuse me, before you try to kick my ass, I have to stretch first." I needed my body ready, regardless of the weather, time of day, my level of fatigue, to be able to use my martial arts skill to defend myself.

In other things in life, I need my body ready without having to prepare first. But it takes time and effort to get it that way.
Tomorrow: Part TWO, the great cold stretch experiment!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

tight vs short muscles

Hi, thanks for following me over here to Blogger, I think it will be an easier way to blog more often.
For those of you who have not read my last post, here it is:

One of the topics that comes up frequently is the subject of tight muscles. People tell me that it hurts when they stretch. Of course it does. When you stretch properly, you are microtearing muscle fibers, so that when they repair, they come back longer and stronger. A bodybuilder is not happy with his workout unless he is sore when he gets done. He has torn muscles fibers, and they will grow back stronger, and hopefully, shaped to the degree that he sculpts his physique.
Same with stretching. If you pursue it with great intensity, you are going to get sore. You may find muscles you did not know you have. You will find that those muscles you did not know you have, are the ones that cause you the most problems.
Now the rub. Sometimes, certain muscles are short. It can be congenital. Some people don’t have chronically tight hamstrings, they inherited them (quick, blame someone ;0). It does not mean those folks can’t stretch them out, it is going to take longer.

I once worked with a few kids that had short muscles. A young woman had EXTREMELY tight hamstrings from cerebral palsy. She just could not bend forward. I would stand behind her with my leg, and just to hold her up. Over a few months, she could barely reach forward, there was restriction, but no pain. When the muscle started to elongate, she felt pain. She hated it. But she was happy she could do it. After six months, she could grab her foot. She went from having shorter muscles, to having tight muscles. The short muscle phase did not hurt when she stretched. She just could not do it (in this case, reach her toes with her leg stretched out in front of her). When it began to lengthen, she felt the pain of tight muscles. She stretched until she experienced what I like to call “Happy Freedom”, the place where her body no longer was a hinderance to her movement.
Food for thought while you are stretching, eh?