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by Marty Hull

Large Muscle Stretch Guide

6 Great Exercises for Improved Training

Why Stretch?

Stretching a muscle causes the fibers in the muscle to lengthen. Longermuscle fibers generate more contraction force than shorter fibers. Duringexercise, muscles produce lactate. Lactate causes the muscle fibers toshorten. This reduces contraction force. This is what we feel as fatiguedevelops and our muscles begin to "tighten up." If you begin the exercisewith longer, well-stretched muscle fibers, you will be able to generategreater contraction forces for longer as lactate builds up. You will be ableto exercise more aggressively for longer.

The following stretches for the upper leg, hip and lower torso may seem tohelp in only subtle ways. But as a swimmer, these six stretches will easeyour flip turns and breaststroke kick recovery, and improve most of yourkicking movements because your legs will move to better kicking positionswith less effort.

Because these muscles are some of the largest in our bodies, they requirehigher forces to be stretched effectively. One of the easiest ways to stretchlarge muscles is to use the weight of your own body. To do this safely it isimportant to provide support with your hands so the weight of your body doesnot create excessive stretching force.

1 Hamstrings

The toe-touch stretch. The wonderful degree of flexibility shown in theinset photo should be your goal. How do you get there? Over-aggressivestretching may cause pain. By stretching both legs at the same time, you mayexperience significant pain before you get to stretching forces which aregreat enough to effectively stretch the muscles. Instead, by stretching oneleg at a time you will be able to concentrate more force on one leg beforeyour pain threshold is exceeded. Lace one leg back and one leg forward. Whenyou bend forward, the stretching force will be concentrated on the forwardleg.To stretch, bend forward slowly, applying force very gradually to theleg. Allow the weight of your body to stretch the leg. Be sure to supportyourself with your hands either on the ground or using a chair. Remain inthis position for one to 1.5 minutes. Then stretch the other leg. Do not holdyour breath when stretching. Inhale before you start the stretch and slowlyexhale as you move farther into the stretch.

For increased effectiveness, while bent forward in the stretching positiontighten all of the muscles of the upper leg for four to five seconds. You mayneed to bend a little at the knee to contract effectively. Then relax theleg. As you relax, you should be able to move farther into the stretch. Trythis technique several times with each leg. This technique of contracting andrelaxing helps with other stretch positions also.

2 Forward Splits

Place one leg forward and one back. Use the hands for support. Graduallylower yourself into the stretch. Continue stretching for one to 1.5 minutes.If your hands do not easily reach the ground, then place a chair on eachside. Place a hand on each chair seat for support. Gradually lower yourselfinto the stretch. Push yourself back up out of the stretch with your handswhen finished. Do the stretch again with the other leg forward.

3 Splits

For this stretch, again use the hands for support. Place one foot out toeach side, gradually lower yourself into the stretch. Stretch for one to 1.5minutes. If you can't place your hands on the floor, then place both hands ona chair seat and usde it for support. Use your hands to press up out of thisstretch when finished.

4 Back Arch Stretch

Lie on a mat. Place your hands in a position you would use for push-ups.Slowly press your shoulders up and leave your hips on the ground.This willstretch the back. To avoid concentrating too much stretching force on thelower back, leave your stomach on the mat as you push up. This will bring theupper and middle protions of the bakc into the stretch.

5 Modified Lotus

Sit on a mat. Grab your feet with both hands. Pull the feet in toward yourmidsection while pressing outwardly on the inside of the knees with yourelbows. Press out for 20 to 30 seconds, then relax. Pull the feet in a littlecloser, then press out again with the elbows. This stretch helps increase hiprotation.

6 Quad Stretch

Stand on one leg. Hold onto a pole for support. Grip the left foot with theleft hand. To stretch, pull the foot forward with the hand. To enhance thestretch, contract the quadriceps muscle. Hold this contraction for four tofive seconds. Then relax the leg and stretch again. Stretch for 30 to 40seconds. Repeat several times. Each time you relax, try to pull the footcloser to the buttocks. Stretch both legs.

If you have already included the stretching exercises from the previous sixarticles in SWIM, it is becoming obvious that you may not have time to doeach stretch aggressively each day. A very effective stretching philosophy isto divide the stretches into several groups of five or six stretches each.Pick one group and do these stretches very intensively for one week so youmake progress on them. For all of the other groups, just spend enough time soyou maintain the flexibility you already have. The next week, concentrate onthe next group and do maintenance stretching on the others. Continue torotate through the groups in this manner. In a few months, you will showimprovement not only in the stretches, but in the pool.