With the 2012 summer Olympics on the horizon, top athletes' workouts are becoming big news. One of the hottest trends enjoying a resurgence is resistance stretching—a technique used by Allan Houston (NY Knicks), Dara Torres (12-time Olympic medalist in swimming), Jason Werth (Los Angeles Dodgers), Michael Gebhardt (Olympic windsurfer), and CB Burnside (X-Games), among others.
Resistance stretching uses tension on the muscle while it's in an elongated position, not just when it's being contracted like in typical weight lifting. It can sound a little strange, says Alexandra Williams, M.A., of Fun and Fit, because "it incorporates a strengthening aspect throughout the full range of motion, so the muscles are contracting while lengthening!" But enthusiasts say the results are worth it, with gains not only in increased flexibility but also in strength and functional mobility.
Williams loves resistance stretching so much that she uses it regularly in her own workouts, as well as with her clients.
"I have tight hamstrings," she says. "[To loosen and lengthen them] I put my hands under my heel then press my heel against them as I pull my knee toward my face. Then I hold the press for about 10 seconds, releasing to an elongated leg and hamstring." You can do the stretches yourself, as pictured above, or with a partner for added resistance.
Amanda Brooks, a personal trainer and author of Run to the Finish, swears by Ki-hara, the type of resistance stretching developed by Dara Torres' trainers to get her in gold medal shape. "Ki-hara has been great for increasing my range of motion, which allows me to have a more efficient running stride," she says.
While the benefits are amazing, people who've tried the Ki-hara technique say it can feel very different from traditional exercises and even be painful at first. But don't let that stop you from trying.
"While ki-hara can be painful during the process, my muscles felt alive and filled with energy the following day," Loudin says. "These sessions allowed me to work through muscle imbalances that had been creating running injuries."
The timing of your resistance stretching sessions is also very important. Research shows that stretching before exercise is not only unnecessary, but in some cases it can be detrimental. If done after exercise, it can increase flexibility and also help with performance (i.e., running), Williams says. Brooks adds, "Steve [Sierra, Torres' trainer] is really big on ensuring that you do some form of these exercises every day. It's about consistently helping your muscles to make the connections and work to their fullest potential."
Ready to try it for yourself? Click here to check out a workout developed exclusively for SHAPE by resistance stretching expert Michael Schiemer, B.S., CPT, of Frugal Fitness.