[A short snippet from my book The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg, describing the beautiful moment of lifting a heavy thing.]
You should see my Olympic weightlifter friend in action. First, she steps onto the mat and approaches the barbell—for a few moments she’s merely the friendly, cheerful person I know, walking casually along, a familiar smile on her face. Coming to a stop standing with her toes below the steel bar (which is elevated by the weight-plates at either end) she squats down and takes hold with a wide grip—hands pronated, elbows locked, spine straight, chin raised. Already a transformation is taking place. I’m not simply seeing a friend of mine anymore: I’m now seeing a physiological machine poised to explode into intense action—a kinetic sculpture; an artistic exploration of human capability. Somatic and mental evolution expressing themselves in a playful manipulation of force and matter. Chemical, cellular, musculoskeletal, nervous—every level of physical and psychological organization coming into a finely-tuned, automatically consolidated functional balance.
From this meticulously disciplined starting position (because the lift has already succeeded or failed in its preparation) she takes a deep breath, holds it (making her core a more solid base for what’s to follow by the increase of intra-abdominal pressure) and launches into motion. The muscles of the lower body supply the initial drive; legs extending, hips moving upwards and forwards; simultaneously, her tightened trunk draws backward, pulling her body towards a natural standing posture, very nearly “the anatomical position.” Agonist and antagonist muscles are precisely contracting isometrically and isotonically, locked in a seamless, reciprocal integration of movement—like members of an orchestra upholding their individual parts of a rigidly structured kinetic melody. The bar, rising in her grip as her body rises, slides first up her shins, past her knees as they lock, then to her waist; without the slightest break in the continuity of the movement, she makes a small hop off the ground—a fast-twitch muscle flourish, a subtle, easily-missed token of complete technical mastery of the physics at play—before dropping into a deep squatting position; knees fully flexed and tracking over the line of her toes, weight on heels, crease of hip below parallel to the floor; lumbar region of her back strong and active. Meanwhile, while she made her hop, her upper body was far from passive; shoulders shrugging upwards powerfully, she launched the barbell at the ends of her locked arms; bringing it up from her waist, she takes control of its rise and stops its motion as it comes directly overhead.
By this point, you have already witnessed a dazzling display of neurological communication and control—to say nothing of the counterbalanced muscular strength and diarthrotic joint flexibility involved. But you feel as though you haven’t only seen the movement performed once: rather, you’ve seen the culmination of a thousand (or more) repetitions. Over the course of long practice and entrainment, the complexities inherent have been internalized; their execution is, to a degree, automatic and unconscious, in the sense that they could not be properly performed in all their simultaneous aspects by the conscious mind alone. The brain as a whole, the central and peripheral nervous systems in their entirety, must be recruited. The lifter, for a fleeting instant of powerful motion, is displaying a human brain and body operating at functional capacity; motor cortex output traveling along efferent neurons, winding smoothly into an opposite stream of sensory input, as millions of afferent neurons carry the somatosensory signatures of every muscle’s position in space to a central executive will, a unifying cognition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said that our first and foremost certainty is of our body. Immersed in a universe of mysterious and metagnostic dubiety, we are grounded throughout our lives by the continuity of our somatic experience. The body is the base of all our experiences—we are viscerally certain of it even when we are certain of nothing else. And so it is only natural that in moments where the body and the mind lock into the operational oneness they were born to enjoy, when every cell is working to a common goal—when the spontaneous and intermeshed expression of the body dominates the entire mind and has the whole attention rapt—it is only natural that everything should make sense. Everything is certain, because this moment is certain, and this moment is everything. In the subjective experience of complete functional integration, nothing falls outside the perfection of the execution.
We don’t ask anyone why they want to be happy; happiness justifies itself. In the same way, immersed in the optimality of integrated movement, the movement justifies itself; the experience, the moment, the body, all justify themselves through the expression of their perfection.
I doubt these are the thoughts going through the lifter’s mind, in the instant she’s coiled at the bottom of the squat, back tight, head raised, the barbell held above by perfectly straight arms. The experience of optimality is too complete, too focused, to allow for such meandering thoughts; it’s alive, and it only lives in motion; doesn’t stop to put itself in words. It can only be put in words after it’s already over; and even then, the words are always inadequate.
But the lift hasn’t ended yet. Extending her legs once again—as if attempting to press the floor beneath her away—she rises into a standing posture, the barbell high aloft, the very picture of triumph. Completion. The end of the kinetic score. The orchestra falls silent and only the reverberations remain to tell what has just occurred. Dumping it forward, she drops the dead weight of the barbell from its height to the floor. A quick bounce, a slight roll across the mat, and it is still: disengaged from the hands of the lifter, it has lost its living motion. It, which seemed such an active character in the preceding performance, is revealed to be lifeless without its connection to the honed proprioception of the athlete.
Turning away, she walks from the mat, a wide smile crossing her face. The barbell has returned, essentially, to the spot where it started. Nothing has been changed. But everything has changed. The lifter’s smile shows that she understands this; she, immersed in the motion, conducting the band, felt its relevance, its absolute self-justification. She has acted out the lyrics “Do not die without knowing what your limits were.”
My girlfriend & I have joined forces on an ebook geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether newbie or veteran, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.
(My girlfriend is a professional Bikram yoga instructor, and blogs here: http://yogamattes.com.)
You can see other sample chapters from the ebook about sweating, hydration, electrolytes and nerves either here on Planet Beast or over at her blog. Most of the chapters we’ve put up have been in order, but now we’re taking it out of order to share some basic information about the role of stretching in health and fitness. Again, the ebook is geared towards Bikram yoga students, but any kind of athlete could benefit from the info.
Proper stretching has a host of benefits for the body. When done regularly, stretching can help to improve range of motion (ROM,) can help prevent injuries and arthritis, relaxes the muscles, can increase flexibility, improve posture, help prevent hardening of arteries and increases blood-flow. Those who stretch regularly benefit more than those who stretch occasionally, and those who perform a variety of stretching exercises benefit more than those who only perform only one or two. By both those criteria, a regular yoga practice is just the ticket.
Types of stretching
There are actually four different types of stretching: ballistic, dynamic, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, and static. Static stretching is the only kind we do in Bikram yoga class. As the name implies, static stretching is performed by stretching the muscle until a gentle tension is felt and held for a certain amount of time, or until muscular release is felt, without any movement or bouncing. The hold is static. This is an important distinction, because bouncing and moving “to get farther into the pose” is a common mistake made by beginners. This is ballistic stretching, which is an entirely different animal. Ballistic stretching exercises are a thing, but they are not at all like yoga exercises. Yoga poses are not designed to be performed ballistically, hence it is not safe, biomechanically, to treat them that way.
Physiology of Stretching
To understand the tight, pulling sensation experienced during stretching (called passive muscle tension,) it is necessary to look at the physiology of the muscles themselves, simplified to the aspects most relevant to our discussion. An individual muscle is made up of bundles of individual muscle cells. When you think of a body cell, you might imagine a little round glob with a single nucleus. Muscle cells, however, are different than other body cells. They are long threadlike things, which is why they are also called muscle fibers. They are incredibly thin—10 to 100 nanometers—but they generally run the entire length of the muscle they comprise, and can contain multiple nuclei. So, for instance, the individual threadlike muscle fibers that make up your biceps run the whole length of your upper arm; those that make up your hamstrings run the whole length of the back of your thigh, etc. We’ll see why in a moment.
Inside the outer membrane of the threadlike fiber is an even thinner fiber. This tiny inner fiber is called the myofibril. The myofibril, in turn, is made up of individual microscopic contractile filaments called sarcomeres. These sarcomeres facilitate the movement of skeletal muscles (the muscles that move your skeleton; the ones you use all day every day, whenever you do literally anything.) When the muscle fiber is stimulated to contract, these tiny overlapping filaments pull together. On and on down the chain, they pull together, causing the entire muscle to contract towards its origin point and pull against its insertion point. And because the skeletal muscle is anchored to a freely moving joint, the contraction pulls on the joint and causes its angle to be either increased or decreased, depending on what that particular muscle’s “job” is.
Think of a bodybuilder flexing his biceps. As his elbow bends, the biceps muscle suddenly looks larger and rounder. What’s happening? The microscopic sarcomeres inside the muscle fibers are pulling together and overlapping—rather than resting laid out along the upper arm in a long chain, they are piling up: the muscle is contracting. That same contraction is what causes the elbow to bend. Contracting towards its origin point in the shoulder, the muscle pulls on the opposite end—it exerts leverage against its insertion point in the elbow and causes the straight arm to bend. That’s why each muscle fiber runs the full length of the muscle—so they can exert a pull all the way from origin to insertion.
The cause of the passive resistance felt during stretching was once supposed to be extracellular (in the connective tissues,) but a study by Magid and Law demonstrated that it actually comes from within the myofibrils themselves.
What this means is, when you’re stretching, you’re stretching against the elastic resistance of those microscopic sarcomeres. And due to neurological safeguards against injury, it is normally impossible for adults to stretch most muscle groups to their fullest possible length without extensive training, due to muscle activation of antagonists as the stretched muscle reaches the limit of its normal range of motion. While stretching is highly beneficial to the body, over-stretching is detrimental. The body is wired to protect itself against over-stretching injury, and the upper limits we experience in our flexibility are often not mechanical limits at all but rather due our body’s hardwired resistance to the stretch itself.
Stated another way, some of the increases we see in our ability to stretch with practice are not due to increased capacity to stretch but rather increased neurological stretch-tolerance in muscles. Safe, effective stretching increases stretch-tolerance within a healthy, biomechanically sound range, thereby improving range of motion, better aligning joints and relieving chronic muscle tension. Another benefit of stretching is that it stimulates the production of synovial fluid (the fluid that pads and lubricates freely moving joints.)
Understanding that the passive resistance felt during a stretch comes from within the muscle itself illustrates an important principle in safe stretching: when stretching a muscle, it should be relaxed. Contracting the muscle, as we’ve seen, pulls the sarcomeres together, whereas stretching pulls against those sarcomeres. Thus, attempting to stretch a contracted muscle is physiologically unsound, because the muscle will be physically unable to stretch and the tension will be transferred to surrounding connective tissues. Ligaments and tendons do benefit from gentle stretching, but yoga poses are not designed to safely allow connective tissue to bear the full brunt of the stretch. That is not the intended effect of any pose. And yet, stretching against tight, contracted muscles tends to transfer the brunt of the stretch in exactly that way, potentially making the pose more conducive to causing soft-tissue injury. In short, you’re doing it wrong.
Not many people take a lot of time to warm up before a workout. It seems like, unless they’re in a class (like a martial arts or yoga class) where gentle stretching and warming-up is part of the routine, and there’s an instructor leading them through it, people would just as soon jump straight into lifting or cardio without taking any time for simple mobility exercises. But taking time to properly warm-up mitigates risk of injury, improves circulation to muscles and joints—which improves performance—and gives you a few minutes to shift mental gears from whatever you have been doing out in the world all day, to whatever you’re about to do in the gym. Give yourself a good warmup as part of your next workout. Give yourself that chance to check in with your body and gently test how everything is moving and feeling today, and give yourself a chance to bring your mind into the room, so you’re fully present when you get down to your first deadlift or squat or whatever.
Part of the problem is that, unless they’ve learned it already, again in a context like martial-arts or yoga, most people don’t HAVE a go-to warmup routine to use. They don’t know any good ones, ergo they just don’t do it.
BLAMO—GUESS THE FUCK WHAT. Here’s a general purpose warmup and whole-body stretch I generally use before a workout. Call it routine A, if you want—we’ll take a look at routine B later. I’m putting it up here, free to a good home. Do as many reps of all this stuff as you want, take as long with it all as you want.
· First off, hold a full squat for a while. (Feet a little over shoulder-width apart, ass to the grass or as close as you can get it. A couple minutes at the bottom of a squat is all the stretching for hip flexibility you need. Come up every now and then for a second if you feel like you need to get the blood moving back down in your legs, it’s no problem.
· Walk around shaking out your arms, legs and shoulders to get the blood flowing; throw in some light trunk-twisting, and some swimming motions with the arm/shoulders—breast-stroke and back-stroke. Do that for as long as you want. When I’m leading the warmup for a martial arts class, we stick with swimming-motions for a good 30 seconds to get our shoulders ready.
· Walking, lift your knee way up with each step, grabbing it with both hands and pulling it towards your chest. You’ll especially feel the stretch at the attachment of the hamstrings and glute. (Day after Leg Day, this stretch is hella uncomfortable.) Remember this about all stretching: it isn’t like lifting! Nothing should be done hard. Think 50% intensity, max. You’re not trying to rip your body open, you’re trying to increase natural range of motion gently and steadily. Also, breathing always normal. Normal breathing is breathing you don’t even have to think about. (Mouth closed, inhale/exhale naturally through the nose.)
· Walking, lift your foot up behind you with each step, reaching back to grab it around the instep and pull it in like you’re trying to crack a nut between your calf and hamstring, stretching the quadriceps. Make sure you keep good posture, chest up, shoulders back, little arch in the lower back to increase the stretch.
· Step forward into a lunge, gently sinking down as deep as you can go. Put both arms up over your head and lean to the side away from your bent leg. Keep stepping forward through lunges, leaning side to side in alternate directions each time. You can break perfect lunge form in these to increase your stretch in the hip—that is, bent knee going beyond the line of your toes is fine, it’ll bring your hips down further and give a better stretch. you’re not lifting any weight, so don’t worry that it’s bad form.
Now back to the shoulders. Find a broom handle, straight walking stick, PVC pipe, whatever. (If you need to, you can even use a towel—holding either end and pulling it tight, not hard, just enough to maintain tension.) Grab it with both hands, about as far apart as you would hold the barbell doing an overhead press. Hold your stick up over your head, and move it backwards as far as you can. You’ll feel the stretch in your front, anywhere and everywhere from your anterior deltoids down the front of your body, depending on your level of flexibility. Gently pull your shoulder blades together, arch your back a little. Hold it however the fuck long you feel like.
Holding the stick the same way, bring it in a big arc down to one side—now one arm is behind your head, one arm is out to the side. don’t let your elbows bend. same deal as before, don’t do this hard—your goal isn’t to tear your body apart. Hold the stretch for a while. Do both sides, as many times as you want.
• Finish with another full squat, again holding it for a couple minutes. Seriously, holding a squat like this will up your hip mobility like you wouldn’t believe. Another thing you can try, is reaching up to grab something with your hands so you can “hang” from it while you’re holding the squat. I just set the barbell in my squat rack at the right hight to use for this. That’s a pretty easy way, but you can use whatever you want. You’ll get a great stretch in your back and shoulders that way. Gentle, gentle, gentle, everything gentle. It’s a warmup. It shouldn’t be hard.