When Stretching is Detrimental

A year ago I would not even imagine writing about such a topic, but life lessons have a way of changing even the most ingrained beliefs. I am writing this story down so hopefully I will not forget the lessons I’ve learned from it. When I wrote the key to flexibility is untimed stretching seven years ago I was firmly convinced that it wasn’t really possible to stretch too much.

However, in January of 2015 I learned of Gymnastic Bodies and was inspired to learn all I could from the creator of that program Coach Christopher Summer. I purchased the foundation courses and progressed quite rapidly through the first dozen or so levels in each area until I found a point where I was challenged and did my best to stay focused on that path.

In May of 2015 I ran the 2 mile ‘fun run’ portion of the Whiskey Row Marathon (in Prescott, AZ) in order to make sure my son who has seizures would be able to complete it successfully. Even though we stopped a few times and I made him slow down a bit, my hip flexors were very sore afterwards (I do not run normally) and I felt powerless to make them feel better. I tried stretching a bit, but mostly just tried to avoid doing things which caused pain.

The next month I attended a gymnastic bodies seminar in Denver at Awaken Adult Gymnastics, which is basically a 2 day workout for about 8 hours a day, interspersed with lectures from Coach Sommer about the program and how it works. I had not fully recovered from the run, and my hip flexors were sore again especially after doing leg lifts on the wall bars near the end of the second day.

I spoke to Cory Fair at the seminar about how to deal with the issues I was having and he suggested I try switching to bent leg lifts for awhile. So I did that and over the next few months the pain subsided and I felt I was getting stronger. In the fall I was back to doing straight leg lifts again with no discomfort.

Then in December I was inspired to make it my goal for 2016 to build up to a Manna, which I had never been able to do before. I decided I would try to follow the path that Coach Sommer laid out in his blog at Manna – An advanced static strength element, and my starting point would be step 4 in his list, the elevated middle split hold.

I quickly realized that doing the elevated middle split hold caused me pain in my hip flexors, so after a few weeks I decided to do it only once a week instead of daily. Then I decided to focus on some other ways to build up my hip flexors so I added leg lifts (on my pull up bar) and lunge stretches (with and without holding my foot up in the back) to my daily routine in place of the elevated split hold. Later I discovered that if I did an elevated split hold with my legs bent I could focus on pushing my hips forward without stressing my hip flexors so much.

This past week I listened to the interview between Coach Sommer and Tim Ferris and decided I need to stretch more (one of the topics discussed was how elite athletes stretch in order to get stronger), so I started doing side splits as well as lunges with and without holding my leg up in the back for 30 seconds each twice a day. I was only able to do this for a couple days before my left hip flexor (the weaker one) began to hurt so bad I had trouble sleeping at night.

One of the first things I learned from Coach Sommer last year was that connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, even cartilage) takes much longer to heal than muscle because it is avascular (ie no blood). That is why he structured his training program to go a full 12 weeks before advancing to a different exercise level (though within the 12 weeks there are changes in sets and reps). He talks about using an “adaptive load” over time to build up connective tissue, which to me means do conditioning which is less that what would hurt (ie no popping or cracking of joints and no pain) over a few months before increasing the load.

He talked a lot about the brachialis tendon in your arm since people can hurt that going from a bent arm cross to a straight arm cross too quickly. I actually experienced pain in my brachialis after going down in a cross while focusing on straight arms one day, but was able to recover within a couple days of not stressing it.

However for some reason I never thought doing the splits or lunges could cause any problems. I was wrong. The hip flexors (and other connective tissue in that area) are not muscles and should not be treated as such. When muscles are sore stretching them and massaging them helps increase blood flow and reduces recovery time, but connective tissue requires a different approach. When it stops hurting to walk up and down the stairs and get in and out of the car I will likely start some bent leg raises again (as long as it doesn’t hurt – striving for an adaptive load).

When the pain is not present for all everyday activities I will start doing the side split stretch series again once a week (not twice a day in my weakest areas like I did last week). My chiropractor just told me this morning to try laying on my back in bed and gently moving my leg off the side in order to allow gravity to create a gentle stretch (for a couple minutes at a time 2-3 times per day), so I may do that for awhile before any other more active stretching or strengthening.

In summary, there is a big difference between pain and muscle soreness, and when connective tissue feels sore it is really pain and should be treated with kid gloves. I will take this seriously now. 🙂

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Conditioning is key but competition still requires practice

Last weekend I had the opportunity to compete with several other alumni from Arizona State (8 of us in total) at the annual Maroon and Gold competition at Aspire in Chandler, AZ. It was a lot of fun to be there, and I felt like an honored guest.

This year I learned about Gymnastic Bodies through a handstand contest and got excited about shoring up weaknesses through extensive progressions. I went to a seminar in Denver and had a great time, learning more about coach Sommer and the program he built for adults to get in shape (no matter what their background is).

The leg exercises I learned from the gymnastic bodies program enabled me to try vaulting again (first time competing on a table instead of a horse!) and I’ve been doing basic tumbling for a few months now. I also have several progressions planned for adding more difficult (and valuable) strength moves on rings.

I developed a daily routine for conditioning this year which I do at home every morning, but one piece I haven’t really included yet is endurance. It showed in my Rings routine, where I was going strong until right before the dismount I fell out of a handstand. To help with endurance I will increase my repetitions of circles on pommel horse when I get to do that at the gym and make sure I don’t miss handstand holds (for at least a minute, building to 2 minutes) in my morning exercises.

The key takeaway for me at the competition is that I need to practice full routines more. On Pommel Horse I had trouble with the transition between the initial forward travel and the rest of the routine because I haven’t practiced it altogether, only in parts.

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Underweight to Overweight

For much of my life (especially after college when I stopped working out 15-20 hours per week) I have had trouble keeping weight on my body. I remember during a physical exam for a life insurance application years ago that I was told being less than 135 pounds (at my height of 5’6″) was a health risk and raised my premium rates. During college I was somewhere between 140-145 pounds with 3-5% body fat, but within 6 months after graduating I had lost 10 pounds, and a couple years later I was only 128.

Due to this background I always made sure I ate enough food, and if it was evening and I was even mildly hungry I would eat more, so I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night starving. Over the past few years since I began working out again more regularly I’ve been able to stay closer to 135, but in the last couple months my habits changed a bit.

We recently purchased a home near a gym where I now coach boys three nights a week from 5-8pm. This means I’ve had to eat something before and afterwards because I miss dinner. Our new home is also very close to a Culvers hamburger and ice cream fast food restaurant, which is new in town and hence has many specials to entice customers. This led to eating a Culvers deluxe double sandwich between 8:30 and 9pm at least once or twice a week for a few weeks, in addition to eating 3 meals and a couple snacks during the day before practice.

I didn’t think much of it until I stepped on the scale a couple days ago and saw I was 139.6 pounds. I have been working out recently but not enough to believe that was all muscle. Then yesterday while unpacking boxes my wife found a couple pictures of me with my shirt off which were my “before pictures” for the body for life challenge we started in the fall of 2000. I compared myself now to then and realized that I’ve put on some additional weight that is not useful except for keeping me warm.

After considering the situation for a little while I came up with the following plan:

  • After practice I will not stop and eat anywhere, but only have some fruit and light snacks to make sure I can sleep. My main dinner will be before practice around 4-4:30. Eating too close to bedtime doesn’t give your body time to digest and utilize the energy so it just stores it as fat.
  • I will make a point of not finishing food the kids have left on their plates unless I acknowledge that as part of my meal or snack. Conscious, intentional eating is good for me.
  • I will stop eating when I feel full, there is no prize for having a clean plate. Being overstuffed makes it hard to digest food, which causes all sorts of trouble.
  • I will make sure Willow (he’s almost 2) gets into his crib and out of our bed every night so I can sleep. I always eat more when I don’t sleep well.
  • I will continue to increase my activity at the gym when I coach, at a sustainable pace.

I know it will take some time to get back to a healthy balance, but I was pleased to see progress even in one day (I lost a pound the first day). As for how I’ll be able to tell when I’m in balance, I should be able to see my stomach muscles (ie 6 pack) without flexing, regardless of how much I weigh. 🙂

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When it’s useful to have a coach

After a couple years off from competing due to the birth of our 6th child, I was invited to compete with a group of alumni from Arizona State at the 2014 NAIGC Nationals in Chattanooga, TN. It had been so long since I competed on pommel horse that when I fell off I asked the judge where I should get back on. That’s the point in the video above when Scott and Riley come over and everyone laughed. The judge had a very surprised look on his face too. 🙂

The alumni team I was a part of (ASU Team C in the roster at the meet) made it to team finals so I got to compete twice on each event. I did much better in the finals on Rings and Parallel bars, and I was happy that my PBar routine counted for the team score (top 3 scores on each event count toward the team score) in finals.

During the march in ceremony I felt a little famous when someone called my name as he passed by. It turns out I had given him pointers about his mushroom circles when he was in high school a couple years ago, but I hadn’t met him in person before.

I had a great time and I’m hoping there will be another ASU alumni team competing next year I can be a part of. Since my daughter will be working out 3-4 days a week starting this summer I’ll have more time in the gym, so I hope to win a medal next year.

The team finals detailed results are posted at www.naigc.net/NationalsResults/2014/Team_Finals_Session_Men_teamdetail.php, team preliminary results for our session are posted at www.naigc.net/NationalsResults/2014/Session_4_Men_teamdetail.php, and the rest of my routines are below (2 more in the prelims and 3 in the finals).





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How I learned Free Standing Handstand Pushups

I always thought it would be great to be able to do handstand pushups without needing a wall for support, but since it wasn’t a skill I could get credit for in a routine I never took the time to learn it. However, since I’ve returned to gymnastics with a much different perspective about time (I’m not restricted to a school competition schedule, and I don’t expect to be ever done with gymnastics anymore) I decided to focus on it.

The first step was to be able to hold a handstand for as long as I wanted, which for me required a great deal of wrist flexibility and of course practice. Then when I was ready to start working on handstand pushups I decided to change my head position so they would be straighter handstands. This caused a delay because it was a whole new body position for me to get used to.

Once I had a straight handstand hold for at least 10-20 seconds, I began trying handstand pushups. I soon figured out that I had to learn how to move between two balance points – one is the handstand and one is a bent arm handstand (almost a headstand but with my head off the ground) – while keeping my balance. This is similar to walking, where you lean your center of gravity from one foot onto the other, and each side is a balance point.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I was able to do 10 in a row without falling down one way or another, and the video above includes a demonstration in my backyard. Now I try to make sure I do at least 10 in my daily exercise routine. As the saying goes, “use it or lose it”.

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