Back in my college years, along with practicing Iyengar and Sivananda yoga, I studied dance, including modern, ballet, jazz, African, Butoh and more. The part of class I loved the most was doing the warm-ups. I totally sucked at the combinations and the jumps, so once the warm-ups ended, I often dashed out of class without being noticed. Those first 20 minutes just felt so good! They melted away my stress and chipped through my body frozen from my winter-logged Chicago campus.
I now understand from an anatomical and physiological standpoint why I loved those first 20 minutes of warm-ups so much. And I am even happier to report that the art of dynamic stretching prior to any athletic endeavor (even yoga!) is now making national headlines.
What is dynamic stretching?
Dynamic movement implies that the body never stops in a still or static position, but the body just keeps moving from one motion to the next. This type of action improves circulation and warms up the tissues of the body.
One of the best ways to understand the natural process of dynamic stretching is to watch a cat wake up from a nap. It progressively moves its body every which way, one motion tumbling into the next in a primal organic sequence. The cat will intuitively improve upon the effectiveness of its dynamic stretching by contracting its muscles while it is lengthening them to maximize the internal friction and hasten fluids back into the muscles, connective tissues and joints.
For a great example of a dynamic pre-yoga or pre-athletic warm-up, click here.
Why does it feel so good?
When we move our bodies fully, encouraging motion into every joint and muscle fiber in the body, we aid in loosening up adhesions that regularly grow between the sliding surfaces of muscles all over our body. When we are stagnant, we literally grow internal moss all over our musculature. This “inner moss” is fascia, an important connective tissue webbing that strings our body together. However, fascia can grow like an inner scab over places in our body that are not utilized for movement. Sometimes this is helpful, for example in protecting a muscle that has been injured. However, fascia does not distinguish between an injured muscle and a “lazy” or underused muscle. It will just grow and continue to restrict movement unless it is regularly mobilized, as in a massage or specific motions that help activate heat and stretch within the muscles, tendons and connective tissues.
When we dynamically stretch away our restrictions by breaking apart our tension areas, we feel better physiologically and psychologically! (Check out this video by Gil Hedley to learn more about the break up of stagnant fascia with stretching.)
How does it improve performance?
Dynamic stretching warms up and excites our “fast twitch” and “intermediate twitch” muscle fibers — these are the specialized fibers within our muscles that contract at a fast rate to maximize power and force. These need to be trained and turned on in order to make fast movements on the playing field or dance floor. Dynamic stretching has been proven to stimulate these responses within our muscles and dramatically increase a body’s effectiveness in competition.
What about static stretching?
Static stretching implies that a body is at a still point and the muscles are held under consistent pressure for a duration of time. Physiologically, it calms down the responsiveness of those fast-twitching muscle fibers and diminishes their power. This is the ideal type of stretching after athletic output, as it calms the nervous system, resets and improves the resting length of muscles, and effectively rehydrates muscles and connective tissues so that you are less sore the next day.
Targeted static stretching should be done after exertion to also address any imbalances or repetitive stresses that your sport demands. For example, a golfer who is always twisting to one side can end up developing a patterned scoliosis in the spine if he or she doesn’t address the over-contracting on one side and the over-lengthening on the other, which is caused by the repeated abrupt rotations of their swing. This is also true for tennis players who tend to overuse their dominant side. Runners regularly suffer training imbalances from the repetition of their stride. Static stretching helps to reset their joints so that their stride actually improves for the next day’s run (after their dynamic stretches of course).