Sunday, September 12, 2010

Have You Ever Seen A Dog Stretch His Hamstrings? A New Perspective In Exercise Training

We have made significant progress in exercise, sport, and rehabilitation science.  We are slowly finding out many interesting things.  But, it still seems we are missing the big picture with exercise training.  If you look at a basic book on exercise training, multiple components of fitness are mentioned.  Cardio-respiratory capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition are common components of fitness.  Often, we are instructed to make sure you do some cardio, do some weights, and don't forget that all-important stretching at the end of your workout.  Oh, and balance training and some fat-loss training, too.  We have such a myopic view of exercise it is laughable.

Though, have you ever seen your dog stretch before or after he runs?  Does he ever do any strength training?  Yet, he can, at the sight of a squirrel, sprint, cut, leap, stop, reaccelerate, pee on a plant (my dog at least) then jog for many minutes.  How does he do that?  He doesn't follow any of our modern fitness principles, but can easily outperform us.  I don't know about you, but this is eye-opening.  Are we missing the big picture? 

I think we are.  It is often said that you find what you are looking for.  Is that what is happening here?  When we look through the lens of specific fitness components that is what we find.  We need to take a step back and see the big picture.  Exercise is all movement.  Movement is very complex.  We need to appreciate that basic neuromuscular patterns are the basis for everything that we do.  The ability to move is only partially conscious.  How we actually move is modulated by our nervous system, which is constantly receiving internal and external feedback, and adjusting muscular contraction.  Our expression of strength, stability, flexibiltiy, even endurance is predicated by how our nervous system functions.  I know this seems so weird, but it is only hard to fathom because we can't perceive its sophistication from our vantage point, like we can the components of fitness.  Once we appreciate that motor control patterning is the basis of our movement, and the components of fitness are simply manifestations of that, we have a more powerful understanding of rehab and exercise training.  Training movement patterns, properly, enhances the efficiency of that movement (like a golf swing).  As a consequence of those patterns (swinging a golf club) , flexibility and strength change.  In the case of the golf swing, flexibility and strength increase in the golf swing pattern, but not in others.  Swinging the club the oppoisite way is not just awkward, but physically hard to do.  You are working against muscles whose lengths have been set by the patterning of swinging a club one way.  Stretching the muscles that we perceive as tight temporarily increases flexibiltiy, but it resets back to its 'patterned' length rather quickly.  Similarly, sprinters who statically stretch before sprinting are actually slower than if they didn't stretch.  You are interfering with the rapid contraction of the muscles with long, slow stretches.  Alternatively, core training on a ball or the ground doesn't improve torso stability in other positions because it is motor pattern-specific.

I guess a dog never stretches his hamstrings because there is no reason.  If he is running and sprinting regularly, his motor patterns allow him to lengthen and shorten his muscles appropriately in that pattern.  We could learn a lot from a dog. 


Natural Athlete said...

Dogs are strange choice for this argument. My dog stretches every time he gets up from a nap and before every time he lays down for nap which is allot considering how often he naps. He does two stretches this one and that one which appears to stretch the hamstrings.
The stretches are fairly brief, but then he lives a pretty low stress lifestyle composed of sleeping, eating not sure his example applies to me or any other working stiff.

I think the evidence is pretty week for extensive stretching in human subjects but I don't think it is sufficient to dismiss it either and following a dogs example of brief full body stretch prior to or after settling down is probably not a terrible idea.

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...

Thanks for the comment! It is interesting to watch a dog. They have a pretty easy life. Lots of sleeping, some eating, some playing, they have it good! However, I was not arguing for or against stretching (as stretching itself is a form of motor patterning), in spite of that being in the title. My arguement was more for a new perspective on how we view exercise training. Instead of viewing and training components of fitness, we should take a step back and view it through a 'movement lens'. We may stretch after we sit for a while because it feels good. But, why are certain muscles tightening up in the first place? Why do muscles that surround a joint stiffen after an injury?

Steven Rice Fitness said...

A domestic dog is far closer to its natural state than a human, so I don't know that their fitness programs offer much example for us.

However I think you're quite right about neuromuscular patterns and training. The neuromuscular system is far more complex and interconnected than is usually assumed. That's why I am so adamant about functional training, which is to me essentially standing, lifting, and moving the entire body at once, mostly asymetrically.

Anonymous said...

My theory: when dogs "stretch" they aren't stretching at all. They are flexing the opposite muscles, perhaps to reactivate them because they haven't been used for a period of time.

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...

I guess dogs are 'naturally' more sedentary than us. Strength training can and should be 'functional' for optimal carry-over. But, if you are simply striving for aesthetics, then you can see why people ignore training the nervous system.

That is an interesting theory, activating muscles is never considered. They never spend more than a few seconds "stretching" and usually only "stretch" their legs.