Friday, September 13, 2013

Vibration-assisted stretching

I could never do a full side split, even when I was in my twenties.  I could get pretty close -- a matter of a few inches -- but I just couldn't get all the way into it.  It's a genes thing, apparently.  And now that I'm 67, I find that my side splits are no longer just a few inches from the floor.  If an elephant sat on my shoulders, maybe I'd get there.  But then, of course, I'd also never walk again.
   Nevertheless, working on the side split is still part of my daily Taekwondo routine, partly because it's a challenge and partly because I'm still a tournament competitor.  Several of the forms, or poomsae, that I must perform in competition rely heavily on side kicks, and higher side kicks score better than side kicks that might perhaps threaten an opponent's ankles.
   A couple of months ago I ran across something I had never heard of: vibration-assisted stretching.  I found a reference to this stretching method at Save Yourself, an excellent health-related website published by Paul Ingraham.  Paul and I traded emails, and I began to do some Internet research on the subject.  Turns out there's a fair amount of scientific work being done on the subject of vibration-assisted stretching, so I began applying the concept to my own training as best I could.
   But let's back up a step.  What is vibration-assisted stretching?  The idea is that an athlete -- a gymnast, let's say, or a Taekwondo student -- gets into position for a side split, then applies gentle vibration to each leg while stretching.  The concept, as this non-scientist understands it, is that the vibrations prompt the muscles to contract and relax rapidly, and this in turns allows the stretch to improve without pain.
   So far so good.  I looked online for vibration stretching machines and was able to find a number of fairly exotic items that sold for $4,000 and up.  Maybe you can afford that if you're running a popular gym or a physical therapy clinic, but it's not something your average senior martial artist is going to rush out and buy.
Necessity being the mother of invention, I then thought of a simpler and much cheaper alternative: hand-held vibrating massagers, the kind that the local barber uses on your shoulders after cutting your hair.
   For $28 I bought two Wahl hand-held vibrating massagers.  Two-speed devices, no less!  And then I began using the massagers on my legs while working on my side splits.  Result: my heels are nearly a foot farther apart now than they were a month ago.  That's a pretty big gain in a relatively short time.  Is it really the magic of the vibration stimulation?  I have no idea.  But I learned a long time ago not to second-guess things that seem to work.
   Here's how I do the stretching.  I lie on my back and spread my legs into a V on a wall.  I like to have my butt actually touching the wall to make sure I do as little cheating as possible while I stretch.  I then apply one hand-held massager to each leg, concentrating on the adductor muscles -- the muscles on the inside of the leg that feel the pressure when you try a side split.  Then I let gravity do the rest.  I keep massaging both legs while they gradually come closer to the floor.  I do this for a minute or so and stop before anything hurts.
   I have no idea whether this approach will help you with your own side splits, but I'm pretty well convinced that the approach works for me.  I'm gaining flexibility, and I'm walking away from the training sessions without pain.  At this point in my life I don't really care how long it takes to improve.  My primary goal is not to get injured, since that would cost me weeks or possibly months of training.
   So there you have my poor-man's approach to vibration-assisted stretching.  If you have any thoughts on vibration-assisted stretching that you would like to share with our readers, by all means send them in.
   Train well; live long.