Flexibility Experiment, Part 3: Method and Benchmarks

04/09/2009 1 comment

(Total reading time: <3 minutes)

After illustrating my issues with common stretching exercises (they don’t work) in the first part of this series and introducing the new method I will experiment with (Resistance Stretching) in the second part, it is now time to lay out how I will test the new stretching method and how I will measure it’s effects (or lack thereof).

Method

I will be doing the Resistance Stretching exercises as described in the book The Genius of Flexibility by Bob Cooley. I will do the exercises once a day, at least six days a week for the next 30 days. I’m allowing for one day off per week in case I feel like it might be too much to do the exercises daily, but I assume that won’t be the case. During these 30 days, I will continue with my usual training routines (weight-lifting and martial arts training) and I will not make any major changes to my diet, sleeping schedule or anything else that might affect the results. I also want to emphasize that I will be doing all of the exercises described in the book and only the ones described in the book. In other words, I will not do just the exercises that could improve the benchmark-results (see below).

Benchmark: Objective Measures

I want to be able to objectively measure changes that Resistance Stretching might cause. For this, I picked out a few easily measurable stretches as benchmarks. The stretches were performed after a very light warm up and were measured as seen on the pictures. I didn’t pre-stretch or do any heavy exercise before measuring.

Split

Benchmark 1: Split

The split, classical representation of Kung Fu-flexibility, has to be a part of this, of course. It also happens to be a special weakness of mine. Even with the most intensive stretching I’ve ever done, I’ve never come close to a full split. To avoid underpants-related variations that might occur with a crotch-to-ground measurement, I measured from the inside of my hip joint to the ground. Result:  46 cm /  18.1”

Sideways Split

Benchmark 2: Sideways Split

The sideways split is a good measurement of leg and hip flexibility, as it involves many different muscle-groups. Here, my current flexibility isn’t quite as abysmal as with the central split. Measured from the inside of the hip joint to ground, I got the same result for the sideways split facing either way: 21 cm / 8.3”

Toe-Touch

S3

This is done with completely straight legs and as a benchmark, I measured the distance from the lowest point of my head, when it was hanging down in a relaxed way, to the ground. On the picture, I have my head lifted slightly, so it doesn’t exactly represent the position that was measured. Distance: 36 cm / 14.2”

Joining Hands Behind Back

Hands behind back

Here, I didn’t take any measurements. I simply tried to get my hands as close to each other as possible, without pulling on them. I particularly wonder if I can correct the apparent asymmetry visible here (my right hand can’t reach upward as far as my left hand).

Measurements (overview)
Centimetres Inches
Split 46 18.1
Sideways Split, left 21 8.3
Sideways Split, right 21 8.3
Toe-Touch 36 14.2

Subjective Impressions

Of course, not every effect of a stretching routine can be measured objectively. Not that I expect it to positively influence every aspect of my life, as Bob Cooley claims it should. But I will take note of and report on what the stretching routine feels like, whether it is easy to keep doing daily and any side-effects that I experience that might be caused by the stretching. Depending on how much happens during the experiment, I will publish one or more posts before the end of the 30 day period.

This post is part of the Flexibility Experiment series.
Part 1: The Problem with Stretching
Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching
Part 3: Method and Benchmarks (currently viewing)
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert

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Flexibility Experiment, Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching

03/09/2009 3 comments

Photo by Sir_Robin12

(Total reading time: 5 minutes)

There are two names most widely associated with Resistance Stretching: Bob Cooley and Dara Torres. Bob Cooley is the guy who came up with the technique of Resistance Stretching and Dara Torres, the famed American Olympic swimmer, is arguably the one person who gave it the best PR. According to Torres, Resistance Stretching played an important role in her training and she claims it improved her swimming performance (see this interview). She has even said that Resistance Stretching was her “secret weapon”, implying that it played a very important part in her training.

How Resistance Stretching Works

The principle behind Resistance Stretching is quite simple: You need to be contracting the muscle that you are stretching. Usually, when you are stretching, you get yourself into a position that elongates a specific muscle or muscle-group and try to relax those muscles as you are stretching them. In Resistance Stretching, you will be contracting the muscle while you are stretching it, meaning that the muscle is constantly under full tension as it is being stretched. If it sounds like contracting a muscle while stretching it must be painful, I can tell you right away that surprisingly, it isn’t. It can be pretty complicated, though. Doing Resistance Stretching on your own, you will sometimes have to get into very unusual positions in order to be able to contract a muscle while stretching it.

To quickly try out for yourself what Resistance Stretching feels like, you can try this simple stretching exercise for the shoulders:

Resistance Stretching exercise

Position your arms as shown on the left in the image above and use the lower arm to pull the upper arm into the stretch. All the while, push against the direction of the stretch with the upper arm. Now, for this stretching method, you don’t need to hold the end-position for a long time. Instead, release the stretch again after one or two seconds and repeat the process several times. Try to resist the stretch as much as possible, contracting the muscles in your shoulder and back. It takes some getting used to, but this exercise can give you a feel of how Resistance Stretching works and what it feels like. Take a few minutes to try it out now, before moving on to the next section.

Claims and Doubts

I want to point something out, to avoid misunderstandings: I am not a fan of Resistance Stretching. That is not to say that I have anything against it, either, I simply haven’t decided yet. That’s why I am doing an experiment with it. I want to find out whether I can benefit from it or not and whether I like it or not.

I must say, though, that it’s a bit of a strange coincidence that I even got to know about Resistance Stretching. I was randomly browsing shelves in a bookstore and because I had previously spent some time thinking about stretching and flexibility, Bob Cooley’s book The Genius of Flexibility, immediately caught my eye. I went ahead and bought it practically without looking at it’s contents (it was the only book on the subject of stretching on display in the bookstore). Had I skimmed through the contents of the book, I probably would have left it behind and here’s why: Cooley makes many fantastic claims, all of them unreferenced. For example, he claims that “Flexibility increases your self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect” and also that “Flexibility shows you how to be more conscious of what you truly desire”. Those are just two among many, many such claims in the book. Now, I wouldn’t mind so much if these claims were based on anything non-anecdotal. I just like my wild claims to come with references to controlled trials, I guess. It’s also worth mentioning that Resistance Stretching is also referred to as Meridian Stretching and that it’s built around an elaborate system of different stretching exercises connected to your body’s energy meridians as defined by Traditional Chinese Medicine. Again, I don’t principally have anything against TMC or making such connections, I just don’t like to see them simply made up by someone rather than based on solid research. In short, what I dislike about the book is it’s woo-wooiness.

Still, I have the book and I might as well try it out before dismissing it. I believe that the techniques described can be very effective, even if the theory behind them is off-track (so there shouldn’t be much of a nocebo-effect going on when I do the experiment on myself).

Why Not Solid Science?

You might be wondering now, why I don’t do a stretching experiment based on more solid scientific claims, if I have such a problem with the esoteric aspects of Resistance Stretching. On the one hand, I have been doing all kinds of other stretching exercises for years and they don’t work for me, as illustrated in part one of this series. The other reason is that I have so far not found any particularly helpful research on the subject of stretching. Generally, the research focuses on health benefits of stretching, mostly injury prevention. If you’ve ever read a fitness-magazine, you’ve probably seen articles quoting studies as either showing some benefit of stretching or as showing no effects or negative effects of stretching. Your typical fitness-magazine will basically run these two stories alternately – “The Five Best Stretching Exercises” in one edition and “The Truth Behind Stretching: Why it’s actually bad for you” in the next. For some examples, see this article claiming stretching to be beneficial for muscle growth and this article claiming stretching to be detrimental to performance.

A systematic review done in 2003 came to the interesting conclusion that: “Due to the paucity, heterogeneity and poor quality of the available studies no definitive conclusions can be drawn as to the value of stretching for reducing the risk of exercise-related injury.” [italics mine] You can find the abstract for this review here.

So, in short, this self-experiment is not based on available scientific research because I could not find any really helpful scientific research on the subject of stretching. Suggestions welcome.

Why Stretch at All?

If stretching may do little or nothing to prevent injuries and it doesn’t even make you flexible beyond after an initial boost, should anyone bother with it at all? The argument can be made that if you have a “normal” range of motion, you should just ditch stretching all together. I certainly know a few people who are fairly athletic and never or almost never do any stretching and it doesn’t seem to be doing them any harm.

For me personally, there are two reasons for stretching: First, many stretching exercises, especially those derived from Yoga, just feel good to do. During the exercises and for a while afterwards, it just feels like I’ve done something good for my body. It’s possible, of course, that this is just an illusion, but that doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a pleasant one. Second, I hope to become more flexible for martial arts, specifically for kicks: My current flexibility just barely allows me to cleanly execute many types of kicks up to about hip-level. Anything above becomes problematic, because I start hitting the limits for one or more muscle-groups. Of course, high kicks aren’t a necessary ingredient for martial arts, but I’d like some in my repertoire anyway.

This is the second post in the flexibility experiment series. You can find the first post here. In my next post, I will outline my self-experiment with Resistance Stretching.

This post is part of the Flexibility Experiment series.
Part 1: The Problem with Stretching
Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching (currently viewing)
Part 3: Method and Benchmarks
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert

Flexibility Experiment, Part 1: The Problem with Stretching Exercises

01/09/2009 5 comments

Photo by Piez

(Total reading time: 4 Minutes.)

I have practiced different styles of martial arts for most of my life and I’ve been a martial arts instructor since 2000. Part of the training regimen of every style I’ve ever practiced was stretching. In all these years of training, I have never become as flexible as I would like to be, so I decided to do a stretching experiment on myself and see if I can learn something new.

What you Expect vs. What you Get

A long, long time ago, when I first started stretching regularly, I knew practically nothing about it, but had certain expectations none the less. I imagined that stretching regularly would make me more and more flexible. Simple enough, right?

I want to quickly introduce two scales going from 0 to 10, in order to illustrate my point:

  • Flexibility Scale: 0 being completely stiff, 5 being able to touch toes and being fairly flexible, 10 being full splits and the kind of flexibility required for acrobats, figure-skaters and the likes.
  • Stretching Intensity Scale: 0 being no regular stretching exercises, 5 being stretching on a regular basis (e.g. Yoga-class several evenings a week), 10 being hours of intensive stretching every day.

Here’s what I expected:

Stretching: Graph 1

I imagined that keeping up a good, steady stretching routine would take me from wherever I was on the flexibility scale all the way to a super-flexible 10, given enough time. Had I thought about this a little more, I would have maybe concluded that I could only reach an 8 or 9 of flexibility unless I stepped up the stretching intensity at some point, but no matter: Both assumptions turned out to be very wrong.

First of all, something initially unexpected but quite natural developed: Over the years of training, my focus changed, my exercise regimens changed and the intensity with which I practiced stretching changed. There were times when I only stretched a few evenings per week, there were times when I stretched every day at home, there was a short period during which I trained Wu-Shu (think of it as Chinese martial-acrobatics) and did very, very intense stretching every day and there were times when I hardly did any stretching at all. Ok, so here’s what that might look like:

Stretch 2

Simple: The higher the intensity of exercising stretching, the more quickly I should become more flexible. When I slack off with stretching exercises, I will stop making much progress, but as long as I keep regular stretching a part of my exercise program, I should keep making progress, right? Wrong. Here’s an approximation of what I actually experienced:

Stretch 3

I was already fairly flexible to begin with. When I first started out with stretching, I made progress very quickly. Within a few months, I went from not quite being able to touch my toes (with straight legs, of course) to being able to firmly plant both of my palms on the floor. I saw the same kind of progress for other stretching exercises as well. After that first burst of progress however, I reached a plateau that has remained practically unchanged for years ever since. Extremely intensive stretching exercises budged my flexibility up a tiny bit and slacking off made me lose a fraction of flexibility. By and large, my flexibility seems to be immune to the amount and intensity of stretching I do.

Doing it Wrong

Of course, there are many different ways to stretch and perhaps I have just been doing it wrong? Well, while I can’t claim to have tried every stretching technique on the planet, I have practiced a fair range of techniques. Most of the time, I did stretching exercises that were a mix of Hatha Yoga and “western” static stretching. During the time of practicing Wu-Shu, I did a mix of static and dynamic stretching exercises as well as specific strengthening exercises that were also supposed to increase flexibility. Mostly, I did some stretching before exercising and some afterwards. I have done stretching as an isolated exercise some time during the day and I have done stretching as a part of exercise routines of various intensities.

Common stretching exercises don’t seem to work. I wouldn’t be making such a bold statement based just on my own example, though. As a martial arts instructor, I have seen hundreds of students of all ages doing stretching exercises more or less regularly and more or less intensely (depending on what style they were training). Almost everyone I’ve seen made a certain amount of progress and then reached a plateau. People go from an inflexible 3 to a fairly flexible 5 or from a flexible 6 to a very flexible 9, but I’ve never seen someone transform from inflexible to very flexible, no matter how they trained. What’s worse: Some people seem to be naturally rigid and they make almost no progress by stretching.

Does this simply mean that I and all of my students and peers have been doing it wrong? Perhaps. I haven’t given up hope, though. I recently came across a technique called Resistance Stretching, and it has an approach that is completely different from anything I’ve seen so far. I will introduce Resistance Stretching in my next post and outline the self-experiment I will do with this technique. I, for one, am very eager to see if this will make the crucial difference or if it’s just another fitness-fad.

This post is part of the Flexibility Experiment series.
Part 1: The Problem with Stretching (currently viewing)
Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching
Part 3: Method and Benchmarks
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert

Task-Managing Series, Part 1: Introduction to a Self-Experiment

29/08/2009 1 comment

Usually, this is where I would write an introduction on how effective task-management is becoming more and more important in this information-age etc. etc. I hope you don’t mind if I get right to the point, instead.

Goal of the Experiment

I will test out a few different methods of task-management, centred around task-lists or to-do-lists. The objective is to find an optimal method for keeping track of all the relevant tasks in my life. With any kind of task-management, it’s important to find a good balance: A system that leads me to excessive micro-management and distracts me from the big picture is just as useless as one that keeps me focused only on the larger tasks, letting me forget the smaller, maybe mundane but nonetheless important tasks.

The reason I’m doing this as an experiment is that I want to avoid just using the first method that comes along. I suspect that any kind of systematic task-management is better than no task-management at all, so whatever I try first will probably already seem like a fairly good idea. By deliberately trying several different approaches, I wont succumb to laziness and just settle for the first method I come across in a book or on a blog.

Here are the different methods I will test:

  • Having an ongoing list vs. rewriting the list every day (i.e. rewriting any unfinished tasks for the next day).
  • Setting tasks for just one day vs. setting tasks for a few days in advance.
  • Using software vs. writing tasks down on paper.
  • Software I will try: ta-da-list, todoist, OrchestrateHQ

I will try each variation for at least one week to give myself a chance to get used to the method. It’s possible that something seems uncomfortable to do the first few times but then becomes habitual and turns out to be a good solution after all. I wont try every possible combination of the above variations, just the ones that make sense – for example, if I find that using an ongoing list fits me better with one piece of software I won’t test ongoing vs. rewritten lists for every other software as well.

Benchmarks

When it comes to deciding which method is the best one for me, I want to rely on more than just my subjective experience. How I subjectively feel about each method is an important factor, of course, but it’s not terribly reliable and so I want to set two objectively measurable benchmarks:

  1. Tasks set / Tasks done per day.
  2. Time spent task-managing.

The first factor is a bit tricky: Ideally, I want to be completing close to 100% of the tasks I set for myself every day. This is easier when I set fewer tasks, but that’s not necessarily beneficial. The goal is to find a method that helps me set an adequate amount of achievable tasks and complete all, or almost all of them. Looking at the ratio of tasks set and tasks completed for each day should help me adjust accordingly.

The second factor, how much time I spend managing my tasks, is simpler: I don’t want to be wasting time managing the tasks when I should be getting them done. A task-managing method that uses less time is therefore always better than one that uses a lot of time.

There is one final benchmark that I will apply to whatever method I settle for: I will report on whether I stick with it. A few months after I have decided on what method to use, I will report on how it went, whether it was easy to continue and whether I modified anything about the method.

Getting Things Done

Since you are on the internet, you probably know about Getting Things Done by David Allen. I haven’t read this book yet, but I intend to – after my task-managing experiment. The reason I am postponing reading GTD is that I want to come to it having already gathered some experience on the subject of task-management. I think this will make it more interesting to read GTD and I might be able to learn more from it this way. If I find the ideas in GTD convincing, I will test them out as well and post about it here.

I don’t yet know what the focus of GTD is. I do know that my ideas for task-managing are mainly concerned with short-term tasks and less with long-term goals and the big picture. I intend to experiment with methods for longer-term task-managements somewhere down the road.

For now, stay tuned for updates on my initial experiments.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment (currently viewing)
Part 2: Optimal Method

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – Why it’s an important book and why you don’t need to feel discouraged by it’s message

29/08/2009 1 comment
2

Picture: Paperback book cover of Outliers

If you work hard, believe in yourself and persevere, you will be successful.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Also, how familiar is this storyline to you: Person from very humble beginnings makes an invention/starts a small business, has a very hard time at first and almost loses everything but manages to finally rise to the top and becomes very rich and successful.

That’s basically the standard success story that you can find in many, many biographical accounts of successful people. The message these stories carry is usually that success was achieved through hard work and personal sacrifice at times and, more importantly, that therefore anyone can make it.

A different perspective

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has the subtitle “The Story of Success”, which may lead you to expect an elaborate version of the standard story mentioned above. On the book’s description on the back cover (“Outliers will transform the way we understand success”) as well as in the introduction, it is quickly made clear that Outliers approaches the subject of success from a completely different angle, though. In short, Gladwell argues that, when it comes to success, circumstances matter. In fact, circumstances that are outside of personal control, like when and where you were born, how your parents raised you and even your family and cultural legacy, may be more important to success than anything you can personally control.

One striking example of this comes from an observation made by Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley, concerning Ice Hockey players: The vast majority of Ice Hockey players in advanced leagues in Canada are born in January. Many more are born in February or March, but there are very few players born in the later months of the year. What seems completely arbitrary at first actually has quite a simple cause: The cut-off date for entering any kind of Hockey league in Canada is January 1st. A child that wants to join a Hockey team is assigned to one according to it’s birth date. As an example, a boy who turns 10 years old on January 2nd will be in the same team with other kids who won’t turn 10 till the end of the year. Obviously, a boy who is 10 years old has a huge advantage over a boy who is, say, 9 years and one month old. But if the two have birth dates that bracket around the cut-off date (e.g. December 2nd and January 2nd), they will be playing in the same league. The boy born early in the year will be taller, stronger, have better developed motor-skills etc. He will be seen as especially talented and his chances of being promoted to a more elite team are higher. This puts the players born close to the cut-off date on a fast-track to success from an early age (see also: Matthew Effect).

The Good News

The book offers many more examples, stories and studies uncovering unexpected and interesting connections between beneficial circumstances and success. All in all, this may be very discouraging. At times you could almost get the impression that we are living in a deterministic world after all. If circumstances matter that much, what’s the point in even trying? If I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place and without extraordinary opportunities, what’s left for me to do?

Well, there is one chapter in the book describing the so-called 10000-hour rule and it contains a crucial message to everyone trying to “make it”. The ten-thousand-hour rule originates from a study conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues at the Berlin Music Academy. Examining the lifestyles and habits of the musicians the researchers found one fundamental, crucial difference between those considered world-class and those who were merely very good musicians. That difference is the time they had spent playing their instruments. The researchers found that the best musicians simply had been spending more time each day, since longer, practicing with their instrument. No musician was exceptionally good despite not putting in too many hours and no musician was sub-par despite investing many hours into practice. The study seems to suggest that there is no such thing as talent among musicians and the conclusion was that, on average, one must put in about ten-thousand hours of practice in order to reach the skill-level of a world-class expert.

Now, there are two things to keep in mind here: First, it depends on what exactly you do during those ten-thousand hours, i.e. how effective your practice/training is. This is something Dr. Ericsson has also studied and I will elaborate on this in future posts. Secondly, ten-thousand hours is a lot of time. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it: “[…] The people at the very top don’t just work harder or much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

To give a brief idea of how much ten-thousand hours are: If you deliberately practice a skill for a whopping three hours every day (including weekends), it will still take you almost ten years to get ten-thousand hours under your belt… Still, the findings from Dr. Ercisson’s and similar studies imply that there is truth to the whole “anyone can make it” thing.

Reorientation

Though I picked out this ten-thousand-hour rule as a hopeful example, the main message of Gladwell’s book remains: Circumstances matter and many contributing factors to great success are outside of personal control. This is, to my mind at least, undoubtedly true and I think it’s a message worth spreading. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in personal progress, I believe that humans are incredibly flexible and adaptable and that just because you have been one way for x years does not mean you cannot make a change anymore. I believe that you can positively change almost every aspect of your life, no matter where you come from and where you were born. Outliers does not contradict any of this, but it does show that we might be getting our ideas of what wealth and success mean from the wrong sources. What Outliers shows is that you will not be as successful as the worlds Bill Gates’, Warren Buffets, Richard Bransons etc. unless you are helped along by very beneficial circumstances. It shows that hoping to become like the biggest stars in the world might be too much like hoping to win the lottery, even if we are willing to make a great effort.

It also shows that we could be recruiting many more great athletes if we had more than one age-tier for young players to enter leagues and teams. Will someone get on that, already?

For more great reads, see my Recommended Books page.

Categories: Books Tags: , , , , ,

Please excuse my horrible English

25/08/2009 Leave a comment

Photo by Markus Rödder

Photo by Markus Rödder

I have a rather odd linguistic background. I grew up and live in the German speaking part of Switzerland, which means that I mostly speak Swiss-German and I also had to learn German, in order to be able to read books, write properly and gain the ability to communicate with at least some of the people outside Swiss borders. Since my father is Irish, I spoke English at home, at least part of the time. I read in English much more often than in German. I practically always buy books in English and spend a fair (too fair?) amount of time on the Internet, mainly the English part of it.

The result of all this is that I have a reasonable English vocabulary, but much too little practice in actually using it. I have a weird accent when I speak English and I am next to clueless about English grammar.

One reason for me to start this blog is to practice English writing. On the one hand, it offers me a chance for simple learning by doing and on the other hand, it will encourage me to learn a bit about punctuation, proper syntax and such. I also hope to improve my writing style and learn to deliver content in well-rounded, clear and entertaining way.

It won’t be a just-rambling-on-about-myself blog, though. I will write about self-developement experiments, as well as post about things on the broader subject of making progress successfully. I hope to build an interesting and useful source for anyone looking to make effective changes in their lives, without succumbing to the usual self-help babble and fruitless “top ten ways to improve your whatever” lists.

Until then, please excuse my horrible English.

Categories: Rambling