Thirty-three years ago, at Edison High in Alexandria, Va., we started each period of phys ed with a warm-up. To my mind, it was a waste of time: After the tedium of algebra class (Part 1, and I had to take it twice) I wanted to jump right into the volleyball game. But there was a tincture of virtue wafting over the gym: Stretching was good for you, we were told. And so we did it.
Dressed in our high-top Chuck Taylors and bright red cotton sweats, we -- boys only, the girls were in the "girls' gym" -- were arranged in rows across the basketball floor with one of the season's first-string athletes out in front leading us through the warm-up drill. We did deep knee bends, push-ups and jumping jacks, then sat on the floor doing "butterflies" (feet crossed at the ankles and the knees pushed to the floor) and hurdler stretches.
Thusly stretched, we were permitted to partake of the game of the day.
Flash forward from 1969 to 2002. I'm at rugby practice, standing in a wide circle of players. The stretchmeister has us bent at the waist, touching our toes with quick repetitive motions, bouncing at the hips for a full 30 seconds. We do the same with our legs crossed as we stand, and then we drop to the field for butterflies and hurdler stretches.
For more than 30 years now, I've done these same stretches. And only now I am learning that, like whole milk, something I once thought was good for me is not.
What's changed over the past 30 years is physiologists' understanding of the human body and what the common forms of stretching and calisthenics have been doing to it. Many of the standards -- sit-ups, toe touches, knee bends, hurdler's stretch and more -- have been modified or replaced to reduce the stress they place on vulnerable joints and muscles.
We figured it's time to call folks on their bad habits -- isolate some commonly misperformed stretches and calisthenics and show the perpetrators what they're doing wrong.
For the job, we enlisted Young and Chris Brophy, NASPE's program administrator for research and professional development and a former fitness instructor. We also sought advice from Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.
* Old School: You started flat on your back, legs straight or bent in front of you, hands behind your head; you struggled to sit up, and perhaps even continued to bend your head toward your knees. You repeated this until your stomach gave out.
* New School: "A full sit-up, with the hands pulling from behind the head, tends to put stress on the cervical region of the spine," says Bryant. "And people tend to rock up, tilting the pelvis forward and putting stress on lumbar spine."
Besides, the abdominal muscle -- the object of desire in this drill -- is a short one; it doesn't require that much range of motion. Which is why everyone at the gym these days does "ab crunches."
Abdominal crunches start like bent-knee sit-ups, with your hands at your sides or lightly at the sides of your head, but you come only a small distance off the floor, perhaps 30 degrees, says Brophy. A lot of people at the gym do these rapidly, as if doing as many repetitions in the shortest time is beneficial. It isn't, and the use of momentum to complete the crunch robs you of the exercise's value. Hold each crunch for 1 1/2 to two seconds for maximum benefit.
* Old School: To stretch your back muscles and hamstrings, you stood, feet together with knees straight, and then bent at the waist, attempting to touch your toes -- or even the floor -- with your fingers.
* New School: Flexion exercises requiring you to bend at the waist put a burden on the short spinal ligaments of the lower back to lift you up again; bending this way stretches the muscles that support the spine and weakens them. "You're putting a high load of compressive force on the lumbar spine," says Bryant. "Over time it can create a problem."
If your primary goal is stretching your back muscles, lie on your back and pull one or both knees up to your chest. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. "That way you're keeping your back stabilized and supported and avoiding the forward bending that puts a lot of strain on the low back area," says Brophy.
If your primary goal is stretching the hamstrings, then lie on your back and pull one leg up until it's perpendicular to your body; hold it for 15 to 30 seconds. If you can't easily reach your leg, grip the ends of a towel wrapped around your heel or calf. Oh, and don't "bounce" when you stretch. Bouncing is called "ballistic stretching," and it's been shown to lead to injury. Instead, keep motions smooth and continuous, then hold each repetition for the recommended time.
* Old School: To stretch your quadriceps, you sat on the floor and kept one leg straight in front while bending the other leg back and, like some nimble Gumby, bending it so you nearly sat on your heel. Some people bent both legs back at the same time and leaned backward.
* New School: Are you nuts? We live in an age when "ACL" (anterior cruciate ligament) and "MCL" (medial collateral ligament) are as well known as MRI; think of how unnatural this position is for the knee. "You're putting lateral pressure on the knee," says Young. You don't want that.
The modern substitute is the standing quadriceps stretch: Stand on one foot and pull the other up behind you so that the knee is pointing to the floor. Hold for 30 seconds if you can, with your head up.
Or lie on your side, one arm extended above your head, and pull your top foot up behind you. Do it three times and hold for 30 seconds each time.
* Old School: A favorite at football practice -- with helmets on -- the idea was to loosen up the neck. You slowly rotated your neck so that your chin completed an orbit from your chest to your shoulder to looking directly up to your opposite shoulder and then back to your chest.
* New School: The old way compresses the cervical disks and can lead to nerve damage, according to Bryant. Instead, relax your shoulders and let your chin drop to your chest. Slowly move your head with the motion of a pendulum from right to left, lifting your chin only as high as feels comfortable.
Also, with your head upright, drop your left ear to your left shoulder, or as far as you can go comfortably, and hold it for 10 seconds. Bring your head back to upright and then drop it to the right shoulder, slowly, then hold. Repeat 10 times.
Double leg lift
* Old School: Flat on your back, you raised both legs 12 to 36 inches from the floor with your hands firmly on the floor beside you. Not only does this exercise place unwanted stress on the small muscles of the lower back, says Bryant, it permits the hip flexors and lower back muscles to do all the work instead of the legs or the target abdominals.
* New School: A small adjustment can save a lot of future pain. When lifting the legs, push the lower back into the space on the floor under the arch that will naturally occur when the legs are lifted.
Says Brophy, "If you keep your abdominal muscles held tight and your lower back pushed firmly into the floor, then your whole trunk region is more stabilized."
For maximum benefit, keep the lifts to 12 inches; after that height, it's too easy.
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