By Team ICG® Master Trainer Jim Karanas
Bicycling is a repetitive-motion exercise that can lead to tightness in several major muscle groups.
Static (traditional) stretching gradually lengthens a muscle to an elongated position and holds that position for 20 seconds. When done properly, static stretching slightly lessens the sensitivity of stretch receptors in our muscles. That allows the muscle to relax and stretch to a greater length.
In the last few years, however, several studies have found that doing static stretching before playing a sport actually makes you slower and weaker. This is because the lower sensitivity of the stretch receptors makes us less able to move fast or freely.
Static stretching is recommended after cycling and has a variety of benefits when done properly. Still, many elite athletes in all sports are ditching post-training static stretching altogether, and using “dynamic” stretching as a viable warm-up technique prior to exercise.
In 1995, I witnessed a stretching demonstration by a trainer named Jim Wharton. Using a rope, he taught me a method of flexibility training known as AIS, or Active-Isolated Stretching. Aaron Mattes, a kinesiologist and world-renowned expert on flexibility, developed this technique. I had the good fortune to study with both Jim Wharton and Aaron Mattes. I”™ve used AIS every day for the past 17 years and have trained thousands of students to perform a 20-minute dynamic-stretching routine before riding. Most of them — seriously — continue to do it daily.
Cycling contracts skeletal muscles that attach to bones by tendons. Each muscle has sensory structures called stretch receptors that monitor the state of the muscle and feed the information back to the central nervous system. Stretch receptors are sensitive to the velocity of the movement of the muscle and the degree that it”™s lengthened.
The Golgi Tendon Organ is a stretch receptor located at the insertion of skeletal muscle fibers into the tendon. It provides the sensory component of the Golgi tendon reflex, also known as the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is a protective mechanism that attempts to prevent over-stretching and tearing of the muscle fibers.
AIS uses the body”™s natural stretch reflex to enhance flexibility. Because it”™s movement-based, it also dynamically stimulates blood flow and muscle extension through movement. These factors make it optimal for warm-up.
After a couple of seconds of stretching, a muscle begins to contract as a result of the protective stretch reflex. This is to prevent excessive elongation and a potential muscle tear. The key to AIS is not to continue stretching beyond this point. Static stretching continues, and that”™s why it diminishes performance.
The Active-Isolated Stretching technique involves holding each stretch for only two seconds, rather than 20. The stretch is repeated 8 to 12 times for a progressive muscle release. This degree of repetition dramatically increases blood flow to the muscles to enhance warm up.
This method of stretching is also known to work with the body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints and fascia.
The shorter stretch, however, needs to be coupled with reciprocal inhibition. This is another natural response of the muscle. Contracting the muscles on one side of a joint relaxes the muscle on the other side of that joint. When performing AIS, you actively contract the antagonist of the muscle you are trying to stretch (the agonist). This promotes an enhanced release in the target muscle. The antagonist contraction also stimulates blood flow and generates body heat.
Active-Isolated Stretching does many things that static stretching cannot:
- AIS provides a transition between inactivity and physical exertion.
- AIS assists the pre-exercise warm-up process by increasing blood flow and soft-tissue temperature. This makes is both a stretch sequence and a warm-up technique, and settles the long-running debate in the fitness industry about whether or not it”™s necessary to warm-up prior to stretching. With AIS, both occur together.
- AIS produces supple, relaxed muscles, which have a higher capacity for activity.
- AIS reduces the likelihood of muscle cramping, tightness and pain.
- AIS increases and maintains the range of motion in a joint.
Personally, I”™ve performed upper- and lower-body AIS daily, both pre- and post-riding, for 17 years. I attribute much of my athletic longevity and my body”™s ability to perform at a high level to Active-Isolated Stretching.
AIS is one of the stretching methods most used by today's athletes, massage therapists, personal/athletic trainers, and fitness professionals. AIS allows the body both to repair itself and to prepare for daily activity.
To learn more, simply google Active-Isolated Stretching. An extensive YouTube library depicts the stretching techniques, and numerous websites have images of how the stretches should be done.
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