Steve Reeves, who played Hercules in the movies, was the number one box office star in 1959. This tall, dark, and handsome actor caused an exercise revolution in the early 1960s as people began to appreciate the weight trained male physique. It was at this time that warming up and cooling down by stretching to prevent injury and improve performance became a fad.
Though this revolution turned out to be a short-lived fad, by the mid-70s a new bodybuilding star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had arrived. The fitness revolution that he began with his movies and best-selling books is still with us. And so is the advice to warm up before exercising and cool down after exercising.
The beginning of this second wave is the one I witnessed. Young, tanned, and all pumped up with veins running all over my body, in the 70s and 80s I used to make fun of people stretching and running in place and using little bitty weights for up to a half hour to "warm up." Maybe it was misogyny I had to outgrow, but it seemed to me that women back then were wasting their time. They spent more time putting on their "uniforms" (tights with thongs or shorts over them, hair spray and head bands, ankle and/or wrist warm-ups, etc.) and warming up to work out than they ever did actually working out!
I'm not kidding; they would do more stretching to warm up than actual lifting of weight or working with machines. Some wouldn't even bother with resistance training. They would just walk on a treadmill while gossiping with the woman next to them and then head off to lunch.
Some of these well-meaning ladies would warn me about my failure to warm up before I worked out. How about you? Do you warm up before you workout? To begin this discussion of warming up, let's find out, my wonderful baby boomers, where you stand on the facts of warming up. So get out pencil and paper and take the following true or false test:
Take The Stretching Quiz!
To find out the answers, hold your mouse pointer over the answer graphic. It will change to the correct answer!
|1. Stretching helps athletes avoid injury.||
|2. Stretching helps athletes perform better.||
|3. Stretching leads to improved muscle performance.||
|4. Strength training decreases flexibility.||
|5. Yoga is a completely gentle and safe exercise.||
|6. Stretching provides a great warm-up for exercise.||
These statements ring true to common sense, but they are ALL FALSE! Don't feel bad if you answered incorrectly. I haven't noticed that the recent research on stretching has affected the advice coming from the general fitness industry, the so-called experts that are asking you to buy their books, videos, and equipment! Even amateur and professional athletes can be seen stretching before working out. So don't feel bad if you scored poorly on this little quiz.
How are ordinary people just trying to get and stay in shape supposed to know the truth if the so-called experts are behind the times? [ANSWER: Read our weekly columns!] The truth is that new evidence demonstrates that this practice not only does nothing to prevent injury, it may even CAUSE injury! London-based physiotherapist Mark Todman agrees that there is no conclusive evidence that stretching protects muscles and goes on to say, "In fact, you can make your joints more vulnerable by overstretching."
The first question that should have been asked of those who advocate stretching exercises as a means to make muscles more malleable is, how is stretching the muscle supposed to make them more malleable? It won't make the muscles any more malleable or increase the elasticity than stretching a rubber band would make it more malleable. The only way to do so would be to change the molecular structure. That is just what resistance training that we advocate does! Resistance training makes the muscles stronger and increases the blood flow, which makes the muscles more malleable and elastic, better able to flex the joints and increase the range of motion.
A major reason for the latter effect is stronger muscles stabilize joints that are plagued with problematic joint laxity that has been caused by over-stretching tendons and ligaments by the very stretching exercises that are supposed to prevent injury! Dr. Plagenhoef expresses this benefit well: "If the joints of an athlete, or anyone, are surrounded and supported by stronger muscles, then the chance of any trauma is reduced. If a joint in question becomes more flexible but without a corresponding increase in muscular strength, injury probability is increased."
What really amazes me is that people, including coaches and other experts such as doctors and university professors, used to proclaim that strong muscles made one slow and inflexible. Oh contraire! I still remember when I was a kid that certain athletes who declared that weight training gave them superior ability-Ted Williams in baseball, Pancho Gonzales in tennis, etc.- slowly began to change this opinion. I can't remember the name of the little 14 year old female swimmer who broke one of Johnny Weismuller's long standing Olympic swimming records back in the 60s, but I do remember the shock on the interviewer's face when he asked what she attributed such a feat to and she said, "Weight training."
Now here's where I get into trouble. I think these facts should be a warning concerning the current fads of Yoga and Pilates classes. Since neither of these types of exercise increases muscular strength, they leave their participants susceptible to the possibilities of injury. For even though these methods are usually taught by experienced professionals, there is no way that anyone can know exactly when the tendons and ligaments are being over-stretched. I'm sure that these instructors are doing their best to guess the safest limits of stretching, but it is just a guess!
I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to rely on some other person's guess. I want my exercise regime to be guided by the safest, most reliable and scientific information possible. By the time you feel pain, the damage, however slight, has probably already been done. Most certified instructors, if they're worth their salt, carry insurance, but so what? I don't want the injury to occur in the first place. (Diane: Many of our readers are aware that I enjoy the practice of yoga and believe it has a place in an overall fitness routine. But, even the April 2003 Yoga Journal in an article, "The Trouble with Touch," discusses, "overly eager teachers adjusting students in a way that leaves lasting damage." Remember, only you can determine when a tendon or ligament is overly stretched.)
The bottom line is that the safest and most effective way to achieve joint flexibility, without joint instability, is a program of resistance training that works the joints through a full and pain-free range of motion.
In fact, you can make your joints more vulnerable by overstretching.
Well, what about flexibility? As in most things having to do with human beings, whether it is intelligence, athletic ability, or good looks, flexibility is part nature and part nurture, part genetic and part fitness.
The Five Factors That Determine Flexibility:
- The genetically determined elasticity and the length of the involved muscles and tendons, which can be altered through a well-designed strength-training program.
- The genetically determined structure of the joints.
- The genetically determined level of basic coordination that determines motor control of the involved joints, something that can be enhanced with training.
- The fitness level of the athlete, which is determined by genetics and training also.
- The psychological/emotional state of the athlete, which is determined by genetics and environment. The stressed out or tense athlete will probably be less flexible that one that is calm and confident.
If you still want to do some stretching as a part of your fitness routine, the optimum time to do any stretching is post workout. By that time the temperature of the involved tissue is highest and muscles, tendons and ligaments would be least susceptible to injury.
Warming up before exercise is important for anyone engaged in an exercise routine, but especially important for the over 40 lifters. It not only gets your muscles and joints ready for the demands of your workout, but also prepares your mind. [Diane: Here's a great book recommendation, Mind and Muscle by Blair Whitmarsh.] During the warm-up period the core temperature of the body increases and that leads to an increase in muscle temperature. Once the muscle temperature increases, they become looser and more elastic. In addition, the heart rate and respiratory rates increase which in turn increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles.
As We Grow Older, The Body Undergoes Physiological Changes:
- Joint's stiffen
- Muscles and tendons become less elastic
- Range of motion decreases
- Loss of bone density
- Endurance decreases
- Muscle mass decreases
So, baby boomers, we MUST warm up more than we did in our 20s. The best way to warm up the muscles is to do a few sets with significantly lower weight than your 6-rep maximum. (Use our calculator to predict your one rep max, click here). Doing a couple of sets of 10-12 repetitions allows the joints to lubricate (something especially important for the over 40 crowd to save on joint wear and tear) and the muscles to warm up and prepare to exert maximum effort.
Not only will these warm up sets prepare the joints and muscles for the workout ahead, but also your mindset, a critical element in your overall success. So, get out to the gym, baby boomers, armed and ready to begin your daily mission towards building a legendary physique in an efficient and injury free method.
Train hard, train smart and create your legendary physique.
Richard and Diane
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Copyright 2003. Diane Fields, Member. Legendary Fitness, LLC. All rights reserved.
The advice given in this column should not be viewed as a substitute for professional medical services. Before undertaking any exercise or nutrition program, Legendary Fitness, LLC advises all to undergo a thorough medical examination and get permission from their personal physician.
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Johansson, P.H.; Lindstom, L, et Al. The effects of preexercise stretching on muscular soreness, tenderness and force loss following heavy eccentric exercise. Scand J Med Sci Sports 1999; 9(4): 210-225.
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