Stretching: Does it increase flexibility?

My regular pilates clients know that I am not a fan of static stretching unless there is a particular issue that needs managing. I um and ah about this in class, as it’s not part of the Pilates repertoire, and we can work on muscle length and range of motion during a well-balanced Pilates session without ‘stretching’.

However, many of my clients just love a good stretch, so giving them some of what they like is a good thing, right?

People stretch for lots of reasons;

  • Because someone told them to
  • Because it’s part of a pre-workout routine
  • Because it feels great
  • Because a muscle is stiff
  • Because its a habit

I start to think about stretching at this time of year, as proactive patients book assessment or treatment appointments in preparation for their new year training programmes.  Every January people begin their training for the London marathon before the Christmas decorations have come down. A flurry of determined solo runners are stretching their hamstrings and calves before pounding chilly winter pavements. However, science tells me that this doesn’t prevent tight hamstrings. Most of what we know about stretching may be based on wishful thinking or outdated science, so why do so many people think its essential to improving flexibility and preventing injury.




Stretching, what actually happens 

Although we don’t fully understand what happens during a stretch; it’s clear that it doesn’t actually make muscles permanently longer. During a stretch, muscle fibres and tendons length and elongate, but this will not create a sustained lengthening of the muscle because they (muscles) attach to bone and those can’t get longer (in adults). It would be like the resistance band often used to aid stretching getting longer and longer and eventually becoming s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d out, losing its elasticity, this would not be beneficial for joint stability, or strength. So, here’s the scratching head question (or is it just me?! ) if muscles don’t actually get longer as a result of stretching, why does it seem to increase people’s flexibility? Or does it?


Here’s the science bit

There does seem to be some agreement between scientists that regular stretching trains our bodies to be more tolerant, delaying the signal that tells us that we have stretched too far.   Its all down to the body’s control mechanism, our nervous system which works like a conductor deciding how far we can safely stretch. The nerve fibres and nerve endings scattered throughout the muscle and tendon are the body’s emergency brake and warning system, so if a stretch doesn’t feel safe they will fire an alarm signal, “the OUCH that hurts” which we register as pain and resistance.  These signals are asking you to stop or reduce the stretch as they believe the muscle is being damaged. Other signs that you may be overdoing the stretch include breath holding raised eyebrows or being unable to speak or whimpering in discomfort.


Can stretching cause harm?  

In one study researchers found that performing static stretching before lifting weights may cause people to feel weaker than expected during their workout.  While another published study demonstrated that stretching before exercise is not only unnecessary but may, in fact, be counterproductive.


Can stretching help?  

We can help some muscles to become more “flexible” with repeated exercises which are aimed at retraining the nervous system to be quiet, a process known as stretch tolerance.   Regular stretching changes your perception of pain; we can learn to tolerate greater elongation to some extent, fascinating!  So that when the stretch is repeated, you don’t mind as much, but you haven’t changed anything about the way your joints or muscles move. This could also explain why stretching doesn’t seem to prevent injury. Simply put you feel less discomfort which makes it possible for you to get into more challenging positions or explore a more significant range of movement or motion.


Increasing flexibility 

Although several studies found that static stretching does modestly increase suppleness, this is not the most effective way of improving flexibility.  It may be possible to lengthen muscles, by contracting them while lengthening which is an eccentric exercise.  Some of the most flexible athlete’s are ballerinas and gymnasts, who do exactly this type of exercise/movement hundreds of times in a workout.  Pilates also utilises eccentric exercise, lengthening and contracting muscles at the same time to help find their natural length.  This idea is also used in rehabilitation with a technique called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).




What about aiding muscle soreness

Stretching does not provide any lasting pain relief, nor does it prevent soreness either. Muscle soreness after exercise or activity is the result of micro muscle fibre damage, which just needs need time and a little movement to heal.


Self-help, what can you do

Twenty-first-century life often involves spending all day sitting; at work, to travel and in our leisure time too, resulting in the nervous system and muscles become habitually limited in their range of motion. Our bodies are highly skilled at adapting to the postures and movements we most frequently use, especially the muscles at the back of the thigh because we squash the hamstrings when we sit down.

If you want more flexible hamstrings, calves, hip joints or back, you need to stand up, sit, squat, walk and change positions frequently throughout the day, every day, for all your life. Or of course you could always do more Pilates 2 – 3 times a week is optimal, but hey you know I’m biased.




Summary

Stretching appears to be good for … more stretching. Oh, and of course: its a pleasant ritual for many people,  It’s simple, it feels good,  but I don’t believe the habit is doing much more than a daily back scratch ( but that can be delicious too). Most people who stretch remain as stiff and inflexible after they have stretched, but if it makes you feel good, grab a resistance band, breath and enjoy.


Note: This is for guidance only, it should not be regarded as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment given in person by an appropriately trained health professional.

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