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Flexibility Experiment, Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney from Innovative Body Solutions

11/09/2009 3 comments

I have been doing the Resistance Stretching exercises daily for one week now. This method of stretching took some getting used to and I had difficulties with some aspects of the exercises. Luckily, when I contacted Anne Tierney, a Resistance Stretching expert, she generously gave me input and advice. Anne uses and teaches a branch of Resistance Stretching called Ki-Hara, and together with Steven Sierra, she has trained numerous top athletes. Here are a few of my questions about Resistance Stretching answered by Anne:

Q&A

Q: For some stretches, I have difficulties because my legs are a lot stronger than my arms (naturally). So when I am pulling my leg into a stretch and resisting it, it’s a huge effort for my arms/upper body. Also, I can never fully resist a leg stretch, because if I did, my leg would just remain contracted. Am I doing something wrong?

A: Yes! You don’t need to resist so hard. The arms will never be able to overpower the legs.  Because of the name ‘Resistance’ Stretching people automatically think it means resisting as hard as you can, but really all you need is some resistance, like a 5 out of 10. You want movement!  Resisting too hard will not only stress the arms, but it will also cause the joints to lock up, substitution, etc. You do not want to fight yourself – it is a losing battle! It is most important that the resistance is even and consistent.

Q: I am still used to traditional stretching, where you stay in the stretched position for a relatively long time. Doing six to ten repetitions of a Resistance Stretch doesn’t take very long and I can’t help but wonder “is this enough?” How important is the amount of time the muscle is in the stretched position for good results, in your opinion?

A: If you do 6-10 repetitions of all 16-17 exercises, you will actually get a pretty good workout and feel like you did quite a lot. In Resistance Stretching, we rarely hold a position and if we do it is with a contraction and only for a few seconds. For the most part we don’t hold the stretches, though.  What’s more important is the methodology of why it is working and why holding it there usually just creates an overstretched muscle. Think about it – how many years have you been stretching the “old” way where you claim you “feel” like you are getting more done – 10, 15, 20, 30 years?  How flexible do you feel? Has it changed much? (Nope. See first part of the series) If you follow the philosophy of resisting and balancing muscle groups you could easily gain 2 or 3 inches in 10 minutes. Some people haven’t gained that in 10 years of traditional stretching or if they have they have done it at the expense of the integrity of the joints and strength of the muscles.

Q: I often think that it would probably be a lot easier to do the Resistance Stretches with a partner pulling me into the stretch, so that I would only need to concentrate on the resistance part. When you work with athletes, do you mainly teach them to do the stretches on their own or do you mainly “work on them”, helping them with the stretches?

A: Yes, obviously getting assisted is the best way possible because you can give more resistance, make more dynamic movement/rotational patterns and just get a lot more done – as in life, a little help goes a long way. However, the ones that we have been most successful with have done a combination of assisted stretches plus working on their own. Because again, as in life – a little hard work also goes a long way! Plus the more they work on their own the more they learn about their own body and and can provide more useful feedback to us. The combination of working on your own and working with assistance is invaluable.

Many thanks to Anne for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find more information on Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching on the Innovative Body Solutions homepage, where you can also find Resistance Stretching coaches near you and learn about workshops and upcoming events.

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
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert (currently viewing)

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

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