Stretching: The Truth

.. what it is, what it isn't, and how to do it effectively (without injuring yourself..!)

Why do we feel a need to clarify something so simple and seemingly self-explanatory?

Well, along with everything else regarding movement, it's become a topic we have to discuss at all because our lifestyles have made it pretty much optional.

Stretching as an exercise seems to have been around since ancient Rome, Greece, and of course, India, as with yoga.

Yet there are those who would say that stretching, as most of us do it, is not only unnatural (as compared to say, 'pandiculation', a type of active stretching that all animals with a spine do, like when yawning. So, here's your word for the day. You're welcome.)

And, of course, it is possible to stretch to the point of injury.

There is also the problem of the inversely proportional relationship between flexibility and joint stability .

In other words, one can reinforce the elasticity of a muscle/tendon structure into such a state as to become incapable of stabilizing a joint, as in the case of 'hypermobility')

So, you see, stretching can be a tricky business.

Part of the problem is that we are still trying to understand the optimal applications of exercise, but only from the perspective of our own sedentary culture, rather than within the broader context of human movement across all cultures and history.

Or, more to the point, what human movement would look like without the limitations of walls, floors, chairs, cars and other developments.

Our belief is that stretching has become a means of offsetting muscular adaptations that become tense and tight from a lack of well-rounded, whole body movement (I know, duh, right?)

However, one of the main arguments against stretching is that it really does nothing to offset any of this.

I will say that, as far as the waywe think most people approach stretching, this is probably true.

We believe, like with many of our' culture's approaches to health, concepts have become so oversimplified and misunderstood as to be use inappropriately.

So, regarding this particular practice,we 'd like to offer a few basic bits of info:

1) Not everything 'tight' needs to be stretched. In other words,  a 'tight' muscle can be due to it being chronically contracted (shortened) or chronically overstretched (lengthened).

2) Stretching a muscle should not be applied in a manner similar to reshaping a wool sweater that got caught in the dryer. Going to the burn is rarely a good idea, and is what can lead to tendon tears, scar tissue and even greater restriction.

3) The elasticity of a muscle (the capacity for it to actively extend longer than its resting state, and then return to that length) is determined by sarcomeres - long, fibrous proteins within the muscle fibers that slide past each other when a muscle contracts or relaxes.

A muscle that is held or used in a perpetually shortened position (like a calf muscle) will actually adapt to being shorter through a process called sarcomerolysis, which is basically the body cannibalizing some of the sarcomeres, like taking links out of a chain. This allows for a more efficient neutral resting state, but also decreased elastic range.

4) It is possible, with consistent lengthening input to produce an effect called sarcomerogenesis, which is the regrowth of sarcomeres back into the chain.

The key here is consistent input.

As we've stated, stretching alone will not typically produce any lasting changes.

In fact, passive stretching (that is, extending a relaxed muscle into a stretched position with no other muscles countering with contraction - think of stretching your quadriceps by pulling on your foot, as opposed to contracting your hamstrings to lift your foot toward your butt) is more likely to trigger a guarding reaction which only reinforces a tight muscle.

I do use passive and active stretches in my restorative exercise work as a means of illustrating what's really happening when you move one body part away from another, or what happens when you 'cant'.

But, two things about this:

1) I do stress the need for consistent 'elongation' input. In other words, our bodies adapt to what they're doing most frequently. We do the stretches, both for the purpose of supplementation, and to know what we should be moving.

But the changes (read: adaptations) really only occur when we are using our muscles in extension throughout the day. If you're doing your calf stretches regularly, great! But, if you're still wearing heels 8 hours of the day, you're kinda working against yourself.

2) I also teach mindful passive stretching. Functionally, we have two muscle lengths: the actual end range where any further stretch will create a tear. Before that, is the 'easy barrier' - the place where muscle tension starts to register and the reactive guarding mechanisms perk up. Between these is the sweet spot where either you will reinforce those guarding mechanisms by trying to blow through them, or you can relax and ease into the tension mindfully and allow the barriers to release.

This requires practice and some degree of body awareness which varies from person to person, and again, will not necessarily create instant changes, but will be a lot more effective over time.

(PS - another restriction to gaining length may be the presence of scar tissue in a ligament or tendon which may benefit from a technique known as 'cross fiber friction' - which Bill is skilled at providing or teaching his clients to do.)

So, while we're not ready to toss stretching out as archaic and misguided, we do hope this helps you apply it more effectively.

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