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Body Watch

The Right Way and the Wrong Way

Who knew? Who knew way back when that full sit-ups or the windmill could be harmful? Today, the experts know better.

August 14, 1996|THERESE IKNOIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

High school gym teachers of yore must have all learned their trade in the same place. The boot-camp method of teaching exercise demanded the liberal use of jumping jacks, bouncing toe touches, straight leg sit-ups and any other exercise they could dream up that would hurt as much as possible.

The teachers might have thought they knew what they were doing 10 or 20 years ago when exercise research was practically nonexistent.

Today, the now flourishing field of exercise physiology has proved some of those classic gym exercises to be useless or even dangerous. Plus, as we get older, our joints, muscles and ligaments can't withstand the stresses that our teenage bodies put up with.

Here are several of the worst exercises, along with safer alternatives that will get results quicker and with less pain.

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The Windmill: This is a rapid-fire move that combines twisting the spine, leaning over from the waist and touching the toes with opposite hands. The windmill hamstring stretch manages to combine into one exercise nearly everything that's harmful: quick movement, severe spine twisting and leaning over from the waist without back support. Not only that, it is "totally counterproductive," says Wayne Westcott, national strength-fitness director of the YMCA of the USA. "We can do them for years and years and never get more flexible."

A better idea is the hamstring stretch. Lie on your back. Raise one leg off the ground, keeping it straight. Stop when you feel tension in the back of the leg. Hold the leg in position with your hands. Lower, and repeat on the other side. Always keep your hips on the ground and the back of your neck relaxed.

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Standing Toe Touch: This is another misguided hamstring stretch that tightens the back of the leg more than it relaxes it. This move also puts a strain on the back.

A better idea is the standing hamstring stretch. Place the heel of the left foot on a low stool or box in front of you, keeping the left knee straight. With your hands on your left thigh, bend forward from the hips until you feel a slight tension in the back of your left leg, then change sides.

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Full Sit-Ups: Here again, those hip flexors get another strenuous workout. The abdominals may start the upward motion, but they're idle after you lift your trunk farther than 45 degrees off the ground. Once the hip flexors take over the work, they pull on the lower back, too, adding the potential for strain.

A better idea is the crunch. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest. Tighten your abdominals. Now raise your chest toward the ceiling. Keep your head back in a neutral position. Take two counts to come up to 45 degrees and two counts to come down. Repeat.

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Bicycle: These were a well-drilled exercise aimed at the abdominal muscles along your sides and waist. Remember lying on your back, pumping your heels in and out while twisting the torso as if you're riding a bicycle? Those poor hip flexors get most of the work yet again. And the lower back muscles contract to protect themselves.

A better idea is twisting trunk curls. Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms crossed over the chest. First, tighten your abs; then start to lift the torso as you do in a crunch. To engage the oblique muscles, rotate your trunk slightly as soon as your torso starts to come up. Keep the opposite hip on the ground. Alternate sides.

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Yoga Plough: A real pain in the neck--literally. Unless you're an accomplished yogi or gymnast, flopping your knees over your head puts pressure on the vertebrae of the neck. As your spine ages, the soft, round, jelly-filled discs between the bones become less pliable. Too much strain, and a disc could start to bulge and put pressure on nerves.

Here's a better idea. Lie on your back and interlace your fingers behind your head. Use your arms to slowly pull your head upward, curling your chin to your chest. The emphasis is on "slowly." As soon as you feel some tension, stop and hold the stretch for a few seconds. Keep breathing. Return your head to the ground and repeat three or four times.

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Pole Twists: How many times have you seen or done this for a warmup: You throw a pole across your shoulders, and twist back and forth. "This has been around for decades, if not centuries," says Daniel Kosich, an exercise physiologist who runs Exerfit, a private fitness consulting company in Albuquerque. "I suspect the Olympians of ancient Greece did this with their javelins."

One problem, though, is that the spine and back muscles are too cold to be wrenched around like that. Plus they aren't meant to twist that way. The goal of a warmup is to raise the core body temperature, soften muscles and prepare the body for its real work.

Better ideas are bicycling, jogging or walking. The best warmup is five minutes on a stationary bicycle or doing any other activity easily until you start to feel warm and break a sweat.

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