September 3, 2009

Flexibility Experiment, Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching

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

Part 5: Update and Subjective Impressions
Part 6: Before and After

Shane