To stretch or not to stretch...?
When I ask my clients about the main reason they want to start Pilates, increased flexibility is always amongst the outcomes being sought.
More than anything, I think people associate being bendy and mobile with being young and unrestricted, but apart from certain amount of flexibility to assist with daily activities, and the fact that it can sometimes feel pretty nice to stretch, its contribution to healthspan & longevity is pretty limited, when compared to the benefits of strength training and cardio.
Also, 50% of flexibility is hereditary, so some people's range of motion will be by default greater than others. It is the amount of collagen and elastin in our tissues that determine how much we can stretch them, and this cannot be really changed, no matter how much stretching you include in your life. It is also, the shape, depth, length and angle of the bones connecting in your joints that will dictate your range of motion. In other words, some people will never be able to perform the splits, or very deep squats, because of their anatomical design.
According to research, stretching is not considered to be an effective strategy for injury prevention or remedy for DOMS (soreness after exercise) - something that I hear people mention when forcing their bodies into deep stretches after a workout.
So let's talk about stretching...
There are two main kinds of stretching that exist along a spectrum from passive to active. On one end, we have what most people think of when they think of stretching, which is relatively passive, statically held stretching (think: a seated forward bend or pigeon pose).
Passive stretches explore flexibility—which is a joint's absolute range of motion, or how far it can bend in one particular direction.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have active stretching, which requires muscular effort. The video below is a good example of a moderately active stretch for the side body—the stiffer the band, the more muscular effort required.
Dynamic stretch is a type of active stretch. It involves moving parts of your body in a controlled way and gradually increasing reach, speed of movement, or both. It is great as a warm up for active workout.
Then, there's mobility, which is a bit of a buzzword these days.
Mobility happens when flexibility and muscular control work together and many Pilates exercises require and improve your mobility.
When you pull on an elastic band it wants to spring back. This constant tensile feedback is a form of external resistance that requires more muscular effort within a stretch.
Now, the old paradigm, especially within yoga community, was that passive stretching—and relaxing as much as possible—was the panacea for pain.
If something hurt or felt “tight,” the solution was to stretch it, increase its end range, and improve its flexibility and despite the unpleasant sensations, we would endure them, in the name of getting more flexible.
What I have learned and what current research supports, is that tight feeling so many people are inclined to “stretch” might resolve sooner by placing more load on our tissues (think active stretching, or rather eccentric strengthening – getting the muscles to contract in its lengthened position – see the video below.)
Muscle tightness is really just the brain’s way of protecting us from some kind of change that it predicts (validly or invalidly) as a possible threat. Often the sensation we feel originates from compression of tendon or ligament against bone or other structures.
That "tearing-like-your-hamstring-will snap" feeling stops you from going too far into range of motion—which should make you wonder how “going deeper” into a stretch could possibly help a “tight” muscle.
Passively stretching "deeper" may not solve the problem and may actually increase your sensitivity.
By gaining better control of our joints, through active stretching and eccentric strengthening — with the help of resistance bands, sliders, or any equipment, we can more effectively alleviate this constant perception of tightness.
Knowing this doesn't mean that stretching is bad. It can still feel enjoyable, but we don't have to push through the pain in order to relieve pain, and there are ways to increase your mobility that won't make you grimace in discomfort.
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