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Mind + Body: Stretching's New Rules
Your current stretching routine actually may be tightening your muscles.
Text by Michael Behar   Illustrations by Aaron Ashley

Illustration: Pectoral exercisesNever liked stretching to begin with? Good. Because certain moves may be hazardous to your health. While not as bad as a pre-workout cigarette, a plethora of recent studies (including one that tracked 1,538 Australian army recruits through basic training) has shown that conventional pre-exercise stretching has no measurable benefit to athletes, and some researchers believe it may even increase risk of injury.

Through functional magnetic resonance imaging, a breakthrough way of watching muscles in motion, sports docs are studying whether deep, static stretching—e.g., propping your leg on a fence and holding it there until it burns—inhibits your muscles' ability to contract quickly. They compare its effects to yanking repeatedly on a tightly coiled spring until it goes limp. The result: muscles that can't contract as efficiently, which increases your risk of a strain or tear should you catch an edge skiing, for example, or slip during a trail run.

Researchers also found that the "good pain" felt during a deep stretch is actually a defensive response—the "myotatic reflex"—that may leave your muscles tighter. Even yoga and Pilates have come under scrutiny. "It sounds incredible," says J.C. Andersen, a professor of athletic training at the University of Tampa, "but science shows us that the more flexible a muscle tissue is, the less energy it can absorb."

Still, physical therapists and trainers, such as Jim Wharton, Phil Wharton, and Nikos Apostolopoulos (see Stretch 1, below, and Stretch 2, next page), maintain that it's critical for athletes to preserve their range of motion. The key, they say, is to stop overworking your muscles and, instead, focus on low-impact moves that warm them up while preserving their elasticity.

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Stretch 1: The Wharton School—Keep It Moving
"A muscle is like a rubber band," explains Jim Wharton, who runs a physical therapy clinic in New York City with his son, Phil (www.whartonperformance.com). "Stretching it in any forced position is going to weaken it." Instead, the Whartons concentrate on short, isolated movements that are held for only a couple of seconds. "It's just enough to get the blood flowing before activity and then flush out the waste products afterward," he says.


PECTORALS (See Illustration Above)
Stand with arms extended out to the sides, slightly below shoulder height, elbows locked, palms facing forward. Swing your arms forward, touching fingertips at waist level. Then gently swing them back as far as they can go. With each stretch, swing a little higher, until you reach shoulder height.

Benefit
: Lengthens chest muscles, increases oxygen intake. 

Hold
: Touch fingertips for two seconds

Reps
: Ten


Illustration: Hamstring exercisesPOSTERIOR LEG MUSCLES
Lying on your back, loop a rope around the arch of one foot. With your knee up
and bent at a 90-degree angle, gently straighten your leg until it is perpendicular to the floor, contracting your quad muscles as you finish.

Benefit: Relaxes the hamstrings and calves, which tend to stiffen from constant use. 

Hold: Two seconds

Reps: Ten, each side


Illustration: Lateral exercisesLATERAL FLEXORS
Stand with arms relaxed at your sides. Raise your left arm, and place your hand behind your head. Bend at the waist to the right, then return to the starting position. Complete all reps to the right before switching to the left.

Benefit:
Loosens the trunk muscles for increased balance.

Hold:
Two seconds

Reps:
Ten, each side











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Pick up the March 2006 issue for more secrets of the Southwest, nine Caribbean adventures, the best gear for runners, and our World Class outfitter trips.









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