HOW CAN I GET MORE FLEXIBLE?
Why am I “Stretching” but not changing long-term? Is there something better than “just stretching?”
For long-term flexibility, YES there is more to it than “just stretching.” And yes, change is possible.
“Stretching is perhaps one of the most controversial fitness subjects of present day.” While you can find a wealth of articles explaining different types of stretches, you’ll also see that fitness and wellness practitioners disagree on IF and WHEN they are useful, particularly the stretch-and-hold style of stretching. You might also be surprised to know that I teach two-minute techniques that increase flexibility without “stretching” at all. Some of these are in my Franklin Method® workshops, and sometimes I’ll throw some into a Pilates group class or solo session. While we have long been taught that stretching makes muscles longer, “that might not be true.”
In my personal and professional experience, certain types of “stretching” has benefits. BUT we don’t create long-lasting flexibility from “just stretching,” because we are not looking at the whole body and addressing the right problems.
The great thing is Pilates can be such a great tool for change, especially if you start with a few solo sessions to truly understand your body and know how to change it. I can share my personal experience: I did not start a Pilates practice until age 37 and had very little flexibility due to Scoliosis and years of running and working at a desk. After a year, I rediscovered flexibility that I had not seen since my teens. I have been teaching since late 2007 and am loving it.
Let’s agree that FORCED stretching is “not the way to achieve your athletic goals” and has a high injury rate. Have you ever strained into a position like the photo above? Two problems with forced stretching are: 1) We can damage soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments — even make the joints unstable. 2) Forced stretching can actually make us LESS flexible. Why would that be so? Our MUSCLE SPINDLES react to forced stretching by basically signaling the muscles to contract. Muscle spindles can be found in the FASCIA, which is a type of connective tissue that wraps around muscle bellies as well as individual muscle fibers. By the way — fascia is gaining widespread attention in the fields of Athletic Training, Bodywork, and Physical Therapy, and especially with Graston Technique® (more on this in the Manual Therapy section below).
Did you know? “Stretching” alone often does little to improve your long-term flexibility. How many times have you “stretched” a sore or “tight” feeling low back; calf; or set of hamstrings, only to feel as if that tightness quickly returned or simply did not go away? It’s because the source of the tightness was not addressed. What do I mean by that? We have to look at the entire body and identify these sources:
First: It’s your Posture . POSTURE + TIME = TENSION. We train our muscles with the things that we do daily. We can influence our bodies in a good way, or a not so good way. So it really helps to identify the things that we do all the time, especially if it’s work (or school), and our favorite activities (sports, crochet, video games, and more).
Many of us in the industrialized world have developed quite a slouch AND tail-tuck from years of sitting at desks, in cars, and on comfy couches. There are a lot of adverse health effects from poor posture, not just tight and painful muscles. Even “carpal tunnel?” Yes, it’s possible. You might have also heard the term “text neck,” which has exploded especially in the young, because of hand-held devices and lap tops.
The slouched posture with a tail-tuck creates chronically imbalanced muscles in the body which can impede us from being able to touch the toes or do a “back bend.” Over a long time, this posture can also make it difficult to reach upper shelves. These are all connected, because of the way this common posture affects the muscles and joints. There are other common postures that will create a different type of chronic muscle imbalance. That’s why an Intro Evaluation in Pilates is so useful. Posture can be evaluated in just a few minutes, and just a few questions about your favorite sporting activities, your work, and old injuries gives us a good foundation to help improving the way you feel in your body, including flexibility.
I can show you in about two minutes, how a change in your posture affects your flexibility. And I sometimes throw this into a group class.
Second: You haven’t addressed the weak muscles, simply by “stretching” ones that feel tight . Let’s take someone who cannot touch their toes. Quite likely, they will notice hamstrings that feel tight, and possibly discomfort in the low back. But in stretching hamstrings, this does not address the thing that goes along with it — weak hip flexors! The hip flexors help balance the hamstrings. In basic Anatomy, we call them opposing muscles — and we have to strengthen opposing muscle groups together for better health.
I must add here something about stretching that often is a source of misinformation. When there is low back pain, often times people will talk about a “Psoas Stretch.” But it’s really not that simple at all, because we are talking about a complex series of muscles that help to support the spine, hip, and leg. And in fact, a “Psoas Stretch” is not necessarily effective, or even what we need.
How do we change our posture and muscle balance? Well, my favorite method is Pilates. (Mine is Modern and influenced from my studies in Advanced Bodywork and also Osteopathic Sciences). I tell people all the time how I improved my Scoliotic spine with Pilates and got much more flexible in the process.
Pilates also uses Dynamic Stretching, which is well-accepted as beneficial. In this type of “stretching”, you keep moving – and your muscles contract and stretch, and contract, and stretch… rather than just holding a position. And we often use light spring tension (for example on the Cadillac or Reformer), and can also use tension bands (especially added to Mat exercises and home exercises). We Pilates teacher often like to say, “Pilates is STRETCH with STRENGTH and CONTROL.” Oh.. and BREATH too!
Speaking of which…
Third: It’s your Breathing Patterns. Another thing that has developed in this modern world is shallow breathing. Besides the mental tension which often arises from shallow breathing, we create a lot of tension in the neck, chest, and also the pelvic floor. This affects your spine and all your joints, as well as your overall mobility. I teach this all the time in Pilates class: Flexibility, especially in the spine, can be improved with better breathing.
I teach the HOW and WHY in detail in my Franklin Method® workshops. In a Pilates class, I can help you feel the difference in just a few minutes, how a change in breathing affects flexibility. And just imagine if you can improve your breathing throughout the day. We breathe approximately 22,000 times per day, 2/3 of that during our waking hours. Imagine how much more quickly you will improve if you simply re-discover how to BREATHE fully (by the way, watch how a toddler breathes. They are truly functional breathers).
A combination of mindful movement and manual therapy like Graston Technique® helps a lot! Graston Technique® is becoming increasingly popular in the Athletic Training world and has a growing number of practitioners who are Physical Therapists, Chiropractors, and Licensed Massage Therapists.
While the science behind this amazing technique is still developing, the idea is that adhesions in our connective tissues can impede muscle function and your overall flexibility, and the treatments help restore more optimal function. As a Certified Graston Technique® Specialist, I have been using it to treat chronically tight muscles on friends and clients who are competitive runners and outrigger canoe paddlers. And since 2018 I have been bringing this into the Pilates world. If you are dealing with actual pain and restricted range of motion, this would be a good time to get assessed by your Physician, and I can provide referrals to Physical Therapists who perform this technique.
To sum up: I will not pooh-pooh all stretching. In fact, I do certain types of “stretches” after running, BUT they are vastly different from the ones that we did in high school track and cross-country. I’d love to see you in person for an Intro Evaluation so we can get YOU started on your quest for greater flexibility.
Pilates Method Alliance, Nationally Certified Pilates Teacher
STOTT PILATES® fully Certified Pilates Instructor
Franklin Method® Level 3 Certified Movement Educator
Licensed Massage Therapist (MAT #6286), Board Certified (NCBTMB #307766-00)
Certified Medical Myotherapist
Certified Graston Technique® Specialist