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Old 06-27-2010, 07:00 PM   #1
Thomas Osborn
Dojo: Aikido of Northampton
Location: Holyoke, MA
Join Date: Jul 2009
Posts: 108

6/27/10 NOTE: There has been a lot written lately about the negative impact of doing stretches before physical activity. I would argue that the problem arises from doing stretches wrong. I remember doing PT in the service and before sports. The rule was "no pain, no gain". We were push through the pain and to bounce the stretch to get that extra inch. I can distinctly remember two groin pulls and more hamstring and back pulls, even when I was in my late teens/early twenties and in the best shape of my life. [Ah! But a memory now.]

I want to explain my approach to how I start most classes, what most dojos call "stretches", and why I do my starting exercises the way I do. This has been a development based on my own failing body's response to several versions of pre-class stretches and a couple of things I have read. Many of these vets are older and most have physical issues ranging from arthritis to serious disabilities earned in combat. Most of my technical information comes from an article by Roger Cole "a mindful stretch", in Yoga Journal, August, 2009.

Cole describes the biomechanics; "Your nervous system uses the stretch reflex, a specialized reflex that regulates the length of your muscles. When ever you elongate a muscle beyond a certain preset length or unconsciously stretch it to fast, this reflex makes the muscle automatically contract so you can't lengthen it any further." It is this "automatically stabilizing function" that essential in daily life; e.g. standing erect, but also results in pain when stretching.

Cole further explains; "The stretch reflex is initiated by sensors, called stretch receptors, which are embedded within muscle. Whenever you stretch a muscle, you also stretch the sensors, which stimulates them to send nerve signals to your spinal cord. These signals electrically excite spinal nerve cells called alpha motor neurons. If the excitation is strong enough, the alpha motor neurons send return signals back to the stretching muscle. If the return signals are strong enough, they make the muscle contract, preventing it from lengthening any further and often bringing it back to it's original length." Thus, the end result of "stretches" can be pain, and worse, a tightening up of the muscle which can lead to stiffness of movement and possible cramping or pulled muscles.

The first thing I have done is to modify my language. The first ten minutes or so of class I call warm ups, I do not say "stretch you arm", rather "extend". I start off, as most dojos do, with breathing. I use this as an opportunity to get them to relax to their center. I use the five points for inhaling through the nose; relax the glutes, expand the lower abdomen, upper abdomen, diaphragm and upper chest. In exhaling through the mouth, unlock [relax] the muscles, starting with the scalp, face, shoulders, upper back, chest, lower back, and settling the energy obtained by this unlocking in the hara [abdomen]. I often remark that this unlocking lowers the center of gravity and allows greater flexibility and speed.

I find it important to speak in practicalities, stressing the "body physics" and improvements in strength, balance, movement, etc. Hopefully, at some point the vets will discover "ki", but there isn't enough time in six short weeks, 12 classes, to bring it up directly.

From breathing I do somewhat traditional "stretching" movements, working from the feet up. However, I stress smooth, slow movement, no bouncing, relaxing into the extension, focusing movement in each particular muscle group. I do each movement two or three times, focusing on breath; the first time very mild extension, the second a midrange extension and the third time extending just to the point where "stretch" is felt, then holding it, taking a deep inhale, and exhale slowly as they relax/unlock into the extension. I emphasize that at no point should they go past their "comfort point". As we move to a different muscle group, I have them picture tapping into the store of energy they have accumulated in their center. Because of the limits of our dojo we don't do any floor work. But if we could, I would use the same principles.

Guys often remark how much they look forward to the neck exercises, or the wrist movements, or that they could never even get close to their toes before. A couple of people have said the only reason they keep coming is a great way to relax and get ready for the day.

I realize I have a special group of people with some unique issues and needs. But I think any dojo, or any sports group, should take a serious look at the "stretching" routine they use. If people want to do traditional "stretching", it would best be done after class, when the body is thoroughly, warmed up.

(Original blog post may be found here.)
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Old 06-27-2010, 08:15 PM   #2
Dojo: Aiki Shoshinkan, Aiki Kenkyukai
Join Date: Oct 2001
Posts: 813

Great stuff. We don't do stretches at the start of classes either, but we do kokyu to warm up. Not as comprehensive as what you've done in terms of how many muscles groups are being targeted, but it gets the job done. Relaxation is the key to injury prevention.

Draw strength from stillness. Learn to act without acting. And never underestimate a samurai cat.
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Old 06-27-2010, 09:29 PM   #3
Michael Varin
Dojo: Aikido of Fresno
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 567

I think it has been demonstrated scientifically that static stretching of cold muscles does decrease athletic performance.

It sounds like you are still using static stretches, but are trying to get people to have more body awareness while doing them.

I no longer begin classes with static stretching. I like to use movements that get blood flowing into the muscles and work on mobility.

Although, in my personal practice, I do use static stretches and yoga.

"Through aiki we can feel the mind of the enemy who comes to attack and are thus able to respond immediately." - M. Mochizuki
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Old 06-27-2010, 11:01 PM   #4
Janet Rosen
Janet Rosen's Avatar
Location: Left Coast
Join Date: May 2002
Posts: 4,339

Michael Varin wrote: View Post
I think it has been demonstrated scientifically that static stretching of cold muscles does decrease athletic performance.

I advocate a combination of activities that warm the muscles and provide for gentle range of motion through each joint's normal range, which if done slowly and fully also ends up taking each muscle just to a gentle dynamic stretch w/o provoking a stretch reflex.

In reading Thomas' OP, it sounds like he is taking a pretty balanced approach that should not provoke problems nor cause microtears.

Last edited by Janet Rosen : 06-27-2010 at 11:03 PM.

Janet Rosen
"peace will enter when hate is gone"--percy mayfield
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Old 06-28-2010, 06:28 AM   #5
dps's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2006
Posts: 2,415

It is better to do stretching at the end of class.
Stretching at this time allows the connective tissue to reshape itself around the muscles that have been enlarged by exercise.


Go ahead, tread on me.
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Old 01-31-2017, 05:51 PM   #6
fatebass21's Avatar
Dojo: Westminster Tenshinkai Aikido Dojo
Location: Fountain Valley, CA
Join Date: Oct 2004
Posts: 280

Thanks for this post

Chris Sawyer
Training day is every day
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Old 02-19-2017, 10:13 AM   #7
fatebass21's Avatar
Dojo: Westminster Tenshinkai Aikido Dojo
Location: Fountain Valley, CA
Join Date: Oct 2004
Posts: 280

Was thinking about this a little bit couldn't depend on what type of stretching we're doing that decides whether it should happen before or after class. Specific stretches for things like the lower back and the core may not necessarily be a bad thing before class whereas then stretching independently hamstrings may be a different story and something that is not wise to do until they are fired up

Chris Sawyer
Training day is every day
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