To stretch or not to stretch? That is the question.
Stretching is the most common way people improve their mobility. While it can be helpful, stretching is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Here we examine the pros and cons of stretching, including some common myths. We also consider some ways in which stretching could be doing more harm than good and some safer alternatives. Feldenkrais could be a safer and more effective alternative for some people.
Stretching Following Periods of Inactivity
When we have been sitting, standing or lying in one position too long, it is completely natural to stretch our muscles and joints. Any time we keep a muscle group in a shortened position for a prolonged time, we pre-dispose that muscle group to shortening, resulting in muscle imbalances.
Stretching can be a really helpful way to maintain our range of movement and prevent stiffness which often occurs as we age. However stretching can’t completely compensate for long periods spent sitting in poor postural alignment. Maintaining good posture, especially when we are inactive, and taking regular breaks from sitting are also essential to our optimal health and mobility.
Stretching Does Not Reduce Injury Risk
However, contrary to popular belief, there is actually no scientific evidence to support stretching prior to sport as a form of injury prevention. Many people have held onto this myth for so long that it has been accepted as fact, even among the scientific community. Instead try doing 5 or 10 minutes of warm up exercises for the muscle groups you will be exercising. These should be slower and gentler than the exercise you are preparing for.
“No Pain No Gain”
Even more concerning is the ‘‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy. Any perceived benefit of such intense stretching is likely to be caused by the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. The relief is short-lived and can mask damage. The reason that intense stretching is risky is because it can result in micro-tears in the muscle. The end result could be scar tissue, which will make the muscle even tighter.
Static stretching involves taking a muscle to its end of range and holding for 10 to 30 seconds. This can be repeated up to 4 times. Any longer than this does not yield additional flexibility. Research indicates that it does not necessarily increase muscle length. Instead it appears to be due to an increased tolerance to the sensation of stretching.
Active stretching is a form of dynamic stretching which involves smoothly and evenly moving a muscle to the end of its range and back, without bouncing. Research indicates that it is equally effective in achieving short and longer term improvements in range of movement compared with static stretching. One advantage of dynamic stretching is that it does not reduce muscle power immediately following the stretch.
6 Situations Where Stretching Can Be Harmful
The following are situations where you should avoid stretching, along with some safer alternatives to help improve mobility.
- Recent acute injury, such as a pulled muscle or sprained joint. Stretching can increase tissue trauma and inflammation leading to delay in healing. Instead, try gentle range of movement exercises in the pain-free range.
- Prolonged or strenuous stretching of neural structures can cause nerve damage. While nerves can stretch to a small degree, over-stretching can lead to temporary or permanent nerve damage. Instead ask your physio to show you how to do ‘flossing’ exercises, where you move a nerve back and forth without stretching it.
- Sore muscles a day or two after unaccustomed exercise. Gently exercising the affected muscles instead works better to relieve the pain, because it helps with the removal of lactic acid from the muscles.
- Static stretching Immediately before sudden or intense muscle contractions for example lifting weights, sprinting or high jumping. Research shows a decrease in the contractile strength of the stretched muscles immediately after stretching. Instead try dynamic stretching and an activity specific warm up routine.
- Joint Hypermobility (commonly called ‘double jointed’). People whose ligaments are more elastic than average often have muscles which feel very tight, but are actually long (which means they have a larger than normal range of movement). Stretching can result in hypermobile joints being even more unstable. Instead try self-massage techniques
- Ballistic Stretching is a type of dynamic stretching that involves rapid bouncing at the end of range. It is risky because each stretch is so quick there is not enough time for a pain response to be triggered. As a result muscles or ligaments can be damaged without your awareness. Instead try active stretching – take the muscles being stretched to the end of range and back, slowly and smoothly, without bouncing.
Feldenkrais and Stretching
In the Feldenkrais Method we often achieve an increase in range of motion without stretching. Stretching implies going to the end of range and then pushing a bit further into the resistance. In Feldenkrais we don’t usually go all the way to the end of range. Instead we improve the smoothness and evenness of movement within the range of absolute ease and without pushing into resistance. We start to notice places where we are holding excess tension and we consciously look for where and how to reduce unnecessary effort.
Instead of focusing on a single joint or muscle group, Feldenkrais helps you integrate the movement of the whole body. Every muscle in the body is connected to other muscles through a web of white fibrous connective tissue called fascia.
Fascia is made of similar fibres to ligaments (which hold joints together) and tendons (which connect muscles to bone). It has a high tensile strength and is very slightly stretchy. Tightness in the fascia is a major cause of being stiff. Stretching doesn’t usually address this, but instead targets muscles and joints.
The fibres of our fascia have specific directions, as do the bundles of fibres that are within our muscles. Through the fascia, the sole of the foot is connected to the lower back and the tongue is connected to the abdominal muscles.
Moshe Feldenkrais had a deep understanding of the fascial planes that course through the body. In Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, we move in a very wide variety of directions and this ensures that we gently lengthen our fascia, not just our muscles.
The body responds beautifully to gently repeated movements. Instead of trying to force our bodies to conform to an ideal, we explore many the many possible movement directions. In the process we find what is most biomechanically efficient for our own body. This might be a little different for each person, because structure varies slightly from one body to another.
Parasitic movement – like cycling with the brakes on
In particular we want to avoid ‘parasitic’ movement. This is when we are subconsciously contracting muscles that are not necessary for the action we are trying to perform. Examples include gripping your steering wheel, phone or toothbrush extra hard, clenching your jaw and holding your breath . Sometimes we are even trying to move in the opposite direction to the muscles that we are tightening. It’s like trying to ride a bike with the brakes on.
Parasitic movement often occurs during the beginning stages of learning a new skill. Think of how much your muscles tightened when you first started learning to ride a bike!
Inhibiting the action of a muscle is a higher skill for the brain than activating it. For this reason it takes time to ‘unlearn’ habits of muscle tension that lead to pain and stiffness. But the great advantage is this: when you change your habit you won’t need to stretch anymore to be free from pain and tension.
And a bonus is that the process of learning new movement patterns through Feldenkrais is incredibly relaxing and enjoyable!
The above is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical treatment. Please see your medical practitioner or other health professional for advice and treatment. Jodie Krantz