Let’s face it: No matter how many times we’ve been told to “trust, then verify”, we still accept common ideas as “truth”.
Human beings struggle with the truth. When it comes to facts, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re just trusting by nature or too overwhelmed to confirm every detail. Unless we understand the impact of factual actions, we can overlook what is fact and what is fiction.
Bad guesses or poorly designed programs have the potential to harm our athletes – either acutely (no, you can’t learn to swim by balancing 600lbs above your head) – or down the line by diminishing skill mastery during/of overall daily living outcomes.
So where do most people get off track? What distracts us from the truth? And how can we actually know the difference?
Actual Facts: Are actually happening.
Here’s an easy way to know what makes factual sense so that you stick to the actual facts. (Yes, the actual facts.)
Just the facts. Nothing but actual facts.
Them: “ We stretch to warm up!”
Me:“ “Do we? Why?”
Them: “…it’s important to warm up muscles and stretch them out!”
Me: “Is that what is actually happening?”
Ah, actually happening. If we value the results from proven facts, we need to start to ask ourselves if what we believe is happening…. is “actually happening”. Not happening in theory. Or because someone heard it was true. Knowing wether something is “actually happening” is the litmus test for effective programming. And except for when it is based on science, do what you must to keep it clear of your programs.
Actual facts – the ones that are actually happening – they are the only facts that matter.
Easy Stretch. Less complex activities are automatic, (like eating cereal in a pre-coffee sleep state.)
Stretching before exercising. It really “one of those ingrained things” akin to “…part of this complete breakfast.” It seems right. It fits together so logically. But if we looked closely, part of what complete breakfast? And what are we actually doing when we have our athletes stretch?
Answers need context. Here are three things we know about our athletes with autism;
- Thing One: They have strength deficits
- Thing Two: They have stability deficits
- Thing Three: They have motor planning deficits
In relation to stretching, Thing Three isn’t that much of a big deal, but Things One and Two are biggies. Static stretching, which is mostly what we’re discussing here, is the temporary elongation of a muscle that also involves a contraction of the antagonistic or “opposite” muscle. For example, if we’re stretching the bicep, there is tension created in the triceps as an automatic response.
Let’s talk stability. We see a lot of compensatory movement in the ASD population. Tina will step over the hurdles but there’s internal rotation at the hip. Julian will squat and his upper body collapses inward. Tina and Julian are “doing” the exercises, but deriving sub-optimal benefit from them.
One of the most egregious example of stretching is the forward reach stretch pictured below.
Most of our athletes with ASD have poor trunk stability, which typically results in too mobile a low back. This is where low back pain (lordosis) usually arises. So our athlete’s low backs already flex too much, not that they should be really flexing at all. And then this stretch puts them into more flexion.
The same thing tends to happen with the overhead reach stretch.
The amount of times I’ve seen this implemented is just silly. And you see those kids in that stock photo up there? It never looks like that. And those kids in that stock photo don’t even need to be doing that stretch.
Most of what’s going to happen when we have our ASD athletes attempt this stretch is they’ll put extra pressure on the knee with that right hand and start rotating in with the trunk with their heads turning towards the floor. Most young people don’t need to stretch their lats, and side bends are a relic of the 1980’s.
We’re far better off providing our athletes with movement prep activities that provide a warm-up for more challenging versions of those exercises. Hurdle steps, bear walks and crawl variations, short hops, and medicine ball throws will engage the muscle groups responsible for more strength-focused activities (squats, hinging, pulling, pushing).
Practicing the movement pattern first will likely lead to more focus and better technical performance of the primary exercises.
Most of our Autism Fitness warm-ups look something like this:
A) Hurdle Steps x 4-6
B) Bear Walk Forward/Backwards x 10ft
C) Sandbell Slam x 4-5 (4-6lb Sandbell)
D) Overhead band walk
So we get practice with most of the major movement patterns, create some mobility, and open up the thoracic spine. All without promoting compensatory movement, extra strain, or a lot of nothing at all.
There are plenty of people who continue to include static stretching activities. The argument I typically receive is
“I know you don’t like stretching but…” I’ll take the blame for pointing out the flaws but not for the evolution of human biomechanics. I was busy that day.
We also have to consider time. Usually I have my athletes for 45-60 minutes 1-2x a week. Maximizing the use of this session time is priority uno.
If strength, stability, and motor planning (which I will henceforth refer to as SSMP) are the most critical goals, they should be prioritized accordingly. Our mobility warm-ups are usually no more than 8-10 minutes and that includes multiple variations of hurdle steps and med ball throws.
Our athletes deserve access to the best programming. And for the best programming, we have to rely on and evidence-based practices and the best available information. I don’t make this stuff up, I just bring it up.