Every day I see articles about the affordability of stretching boutiques as well as the effectiveness. Magazines like Men’s Health and Shape magazine to name a few. One article said it was a waste of money and I totally agree. I disagree on the article’s suggestion for what is best as well. This one article spoke of doing limited stretching and how stretching could negatively affect elite athletes. The biggest problem with stretching is most people that teach stretching doesn’t understand the difference in stretching and strengthening. The stretching we were taught in school and fitness centers is not stretching and unfortunately, the same is true for most physical therapy clinics.
Too many times prospective clients arrive in my clinic frustrated with stretching after months of trying the stretching techniques they were taught, which,unfortunately, had little to no positive effects. There are clear reasons why the stretching we are taught over and over rarely works. Though it may feel good for the moment, the problem will continue long term.
First, stretching is not about the pressure, but about letting go from the brain. Most people stretch with the idea that if we apply enough pressure the muscle, it will give up and release. The human brain was designed to protect you. Remember the, “fight or flight syndrome” we learned in biology. Our ancestors needed that to escape from the Saber Tooth tiger. In our world today, we are not running from a wild animal, but when we feel pain, the endorphins kick in to stop the pain. The same is true when we stretch our muscles with pressure. The brain knows its you pulling, but the endorphins overrides the desire to pull which will force you to let go. At that moment is when people believe they are not flexible. The best way to use the brain in stretching is feel the whole stretch as you slowly and gently apply pressure, breathe out, hold no more than 3-4 seconds, and then repeat it 8-10 times. By stretching this way, your are teaching your brain that you can move in the desired direction. The reason for holding 3-4 seconds is that every muscle has a stretch reflex. Think about the last time someone pull your arm and you retracted your arm for fear they could break it. That is the stretch reflex. Breathing out helps relax the body and the repeating 8-10 times allows you to slowly extend the muscle a little farther each time. Your brain will learn that the muscle can extend to full extension without damage. Currently your brain thinks that if you extend to full extension, you will tear the muscle. As long as your brain feels that, your body will fight.
Why is stretching important anyway? Strength training improves the density of your bones and strength of your muscle. This activity also shortens the muscle causing your joints to lose spacing, which reduces lubrication in the joint. This will lead to injuries. While the strengthening makes you stronger, stretching allows you to improve your range of motion to generate more power, but more importantly, stretching will prevent injuries.
Many pro athletes endure injuries that seem to take a long time for a world class athlete to heal. I have clients, age 50+, doing the same sports, getting the same injuries, and we are able to get them back in days or at most 1-2 weeks. It’s frustrating to try to understand how we cannot figure this out. There are hundreds of studies on strength training, and almost nothing on stretching. I was told by a physician once that muscles were similar to nutrition, there is far more money in teaching how to lose 10 pounds than how to maintain the weight loss. Fixing injuries are more profitable than keeping people from them.