June 6, 2014


What use is stretching?

On the eve of releasing the new Stretch Therapy products I find myself reflecting on how this material may be used and who it best be used by. In the making of these programs I have realised that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what ‘stretching’ is and what it might be used for. Adding to my perception of the need for clarity is the recent increase in interest in something which is generally referred to as ‘movement’, as an activity of its own, and the lack of general understanding of the relationships that exist between ‘range of movement’ (ROM) and movement itself, with its additional skills of timing and precision.

Speaking most generally, many of our students want to acquire new movement patterns (like going to pole dance classes or they begin to study a martial art) but they find they simply can’t put themselves into the required starting positions. For example, suppose a movement pattern begins in the full squat, and you can’t actually do a full squat keeping your feet flat on the floor, what do you do? So one way of looking at our stretching work is to see it as a series of graded solutions to an infinite number of movement challenges of this type. Another good example is a movement pattern that begins in the full bridge position: if you can’t do a full bridge then you can’t even begin. There are hundreds of other examples.

And all of this became very clear in the filming of the new products because in each of the products (Master the full squat, Master the forward bend, and Master legs apart, for example) we needed to begin at the beginning. So let us talk about the full squat for a moment: ankle and hip ROMs (and leg muscles that are simply holding too much tension for the knee joint to fully close) are the limitations to being able to squat all the way down with your feet flat on the floor. The question then becomes, ‘in order to get into the starting position, how can we loosen the ankles, hips and the lower back’ so that the starting position becomes possible? This is why I referred to stretching and range of movement: just to start to learn a new movement pattern assumes that the capacity to put oneself in any starting position is there. Very often it is not.

And exactly the same constraints apply to learning any kind of gymnastics or other strength training: is there sufficient range of movement available? To put it another way, if you cannot get yourself into the starting position, how can you acquire the strength that is necessary to complete the movement? Well, what most people do is they cheat; if you get away with the cheat you’re good to go but many people force themselves in the process, trying to speed up the process. Think of the overhead squat position (where one is in the full squat holding a weighted bar overhead). This position requires the range of movement for the full squat but, in addition to the flexion movement in the shoulders and the extension that required in this thoracic spine all at the same time. How are you going to get that? Unless you are already close to being able to do this practising the OHS by itself will not be the most direct route to the ROMs you need.

One of the great attributes of the Stretch Therapy system is that you can find a solution to any range of movement problem you find yourself in. The ST system explicitly spans rehabilitation for problems like neck and back pain all the way through to someone trying to refine the full side splits—and everything in between.

Movement as an activity has become extremely popular in the last five years or so. It is also the case that ST has incorporated a huge amount of additional movement into its system because we have been working with movement teachers ourselves (plus many of our teachers are also teach movement). The ST system explicitly fosters this kind of cross-fertilisation. I also want to say that we were doing many similar things a long time ago, too (consider the ‘Unnumbered Lesson in Stretching & Flexibility, and all the ‘warm-ups’ in the same book), and we were hardly the first. We have excellent movement teachers here in Australia; Craig Mallett and Simon Thakur are two who I know personally and work with regularly.

If you want to start moving like these guys can, you will need the fundamental tools that allow your own body to firstly acquire the range of movement that these activities require and this will mean removing any restrictions to that range of movement. This is exactly the point at which you’ll need our work. I have worked with many tens of thousands of students over the last 30 years. I cannot recall a single one that did not have a restriction in his or her body at some place. Removing the restrictions is exactly what the ST system is all about. Once a restriction is removed the body can be positioned bio-mechanically optimally and then new movement patterns and whatever strength is required to support these can be learned safely and efficiently.

Now I realise in describing things in these terms I am generalising and glossing over many, possibly great, chasms; this is the nature of discursive discussion. But we have been paying very close attention over these last few years to the problems that many people have had in trying to acquire specific kinds of strength, whether it be in the Olympic lifting world or whether it be in the men’s gymnastics world. Very shortly we will be releasing the program Master the full back bend. And the last item in this program is a brilliant exposition by Olivia on our approach to how to perform a very common exercise (in gymnastics, it’s called the arch body hold and in other systems has other names, like Shalabhasana in Yoga). And the critical difference between our approach and most others is the development of the capacity to feel precisely what’s happening in the body and which parts of the body are involved in whatever one is doing. Once this awareness has been developed it is then used to a particular purpose. Let me illustrate.

The arch body hold for many people is felt only in the lower back, in a cramping or spasming kind of way. This is because of two main factors: one, there is insufficient extension, or backwards-bending ROM, in the whole body (and so all the posterior chain of muscles are having to work much harder than they need to and hence the muscles involved are much closer to their failure point than an analysis of the weight of the body parts suggests), and two, the glutes (as the main extensors of the legs in relation to the spine) are simply asleep. Effective cueing is about waking up this connection and is more important for many people than any other single factor. We have cued literally hundreds of beginners in the arch body hold and none of them have experienced any lower back pain. But it is not just about cueing: it is about effective breaking down of a whole body exercise into its component parts which are themselves related to range of movement and specific activation patterns.

For example it will be simply impossible to cue the glutes in a strong extension movement if, at the same time, the hip flexors are already under stretch; this is “simple” neurophysiology. The nexus is something called the reciprocal inhibition reflex (Sherrington’s second law): that a muscle cannot be activated voluntarily if its opposite (or antagonist) has reached the end of its range of movement. The solution is to increase the range of movement of the antagonist before attempting to cue the action you want. Almost all of the ST exercises use a combination of reflexes to maximise their effectiveness. I have written about this extensively elsewhere but I will mention simply that each exercise uses the reciprocal inhibition reflex; every exercise is organised to reduce the apprehension reflex to a minimum; and we use the post-contraction inhibition reflex to momentarily increase range of movement. All are well documented and have sound scientific bases.

But it also must be said at this point in the discussion that not all is happy in science-land. The rise of the scientific method in routine discourse and the rise of evidence-based medicine in our nation’s health systems has led to the presumption that scientific understanding is actually necessary for best practice. This is very rarely the case because, in my experience, best practice is usually years ahead of scientific understanding. Just because there is no scientific evidence or justification for something is no argument against its potential usefulness. Asking for this kind of evidence before embarking on a course of action, with the sub-text that this is necessary in order to begin practising something, will lead you far astray. Before scientific understanding (causal/analytic) is the empirical method; empirical is a fancy way of saying ‘suck it and see’. In other words, experience and observation usually come before causal understanding; this has been so for the entire history of science and is unlikely to change any time soon. My feeling is that the motive behind needing a scientific reason to do something—over the direct experience of trying something—is more about one’s attitude to uncertainty than anything else.

And, because of this misplaced reliance, we have a small body of unimpressive research into stretching, and which has allowed people to make all sorts of bogus claims ‘like stretching will not affect one’s propensity for injury’ or that ‘stretching will not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)’, for example. It is absolutely accurate to say there is no scientific evidence to support these claims but it is also accurate to say that there’s no scientific evidence that supports the counter claim: the fact is that research has simply not been done and, speaking properly, science therefore has nothing useful to say on those subjects.

When I say “the research hasn’t been done yet” what I really refer to is the time periods of the existing studies (usually a university semester; way too short to be able to have any meaningful conclusions) and the actual methods used in the research itself (research design; the ‘stretching’ techniques used, etc.) And on that latter point, I mean that very little of this research is in any way specific about exactly what sort of stretching was used and how the stretching was varied to suit the particularities of each of the individuals in the study. I have never seen a single reference to this critical point in any paper I have read on this subject.

I mention this last point because we have found that adapting a stretch to the actual in-the-moment experience of the individual is simply the most important determinant of whether or not a stretch is going to be effective. And this is precisely the reason why a sets and reps approach to stretching is always going to be ineffective when compared to a system like ST. In this system, the quality of, and the depth of, the experience in the moment is the key focus.

So getting back to the forthcoming Stretch Therapy products. A program like Master the full backbend which will have an extreme backbend as its end pose, begins at the beginning as all systems must do. The full pose is broken down into what I call a vocabulary of flexibility which initially is based around single joints. To illustrate, loosening the hip flexors is absolutely fundamental to any decent backbend. In fact, tight hip flexors are the cause of most of the cramping and pain that people experience when they first tried to do spinal extension movements; this is because the muscles on the inside of the curve being made by the spine have a tendency to go into spasm (just like when you point your foot); we have found that the general rule is that any muscle asked to do work at the contracted end of its range of movement is liable to spasm; something that we demonstrate on every workshop we run. This is not a design fault by the way; it is simply the way the body is organised. Add to this tendency the hip flexors’ inhibition of the glutes, and you begin to understand why so many people have problems with backward bending. What follows is a brief meditation on other aspects of ‘stretching’.

To start, the acquisition of flexibility by adults is a completely different problem set than with children. Adults, by definition, have experienced their second growth spurts, usually (but not always) in their late teens. There are many reason for this critically important difference, and these can be discussed on the Forums if anyone’s interested.

The key point here is that standard methods (like “hold a stretch for 30”) will not be effective in changing any present patterns that adults have. This is because to a considerable extent, these patterns have become ‘set’ in an adult; this is completely different to the conditions in a child’s body.

For adults, a different approach is required. I can say that I have tried every approach that has been written about, and many that have not. What I want to share with you here I have not written about (apart from oblique references in my past books) but personally have found to be of the deepest importance. What follows are the core conditions for an adult to change his/her body–mind in a way that observers would describe as “he/she has become more flexible”.

One’s pattern of flexibility is actually one’s “self”: one’s personality, self-beliefs, fears, and so on. One’s emotional self is precisely this pattern. When we talk of body language, this complex patterning is what we refer to. The way a body is held, in any moment, communicates this internal state to the person with whom one is interacting (or observing).

The essential conditions for flexibility to change have two parts. One is the exploration of new ranges of movement, and the other is how this can be ’embodied’ (retained in the body and incorporated in the activity in question).

There are environmental conditions that one must consider, too. When stretching, heat needs to be kept in the body: the work of remodelling fascia is best done by slowing the rate of heat loss. All one needs is tights and tracksuit pants. Ambient heat is no help here: the human body is expert at shedding heat (the result is that no matter what exercise is being done, or what the ambient temperature is, the human body core temperature hovers around 98.6 F, unless something goes wrong, like rhabdomyolysis).

Only a very narrow window of increased temperature is required to open the window to changing one’s patterns (2 degrees Celsius). To put this in perspective, a lukewarm bath is 40 degrees C (a fraction above body temperature) and a scalding hot bath that you could not immerse yourself in is only 44 degrees. The point is that the reactions that we are trying to influence in the body change radically over very small temperature variations. This ‘window’ can be opened by slowing the body’s normally very effective temperature shedding strategies by wearing the recommended gear, and worn on the bottom half of the body only. Presently, the mechanisms behind these changes remains unknown; what we can say, experientially, is that warmth in the muscles works.

A side note: when using the Contract–Relax approach to increase ROM, as long as additional contractions can be performed, and new ROM explored, we are working on the somatosensory cortex and what tension it believes is necessary or useful. We are remapping what the unconscious part of the brain believes is the appropriate length-tension relationship in the various body parts. But when no more improvement in ROM can be achieved, we are now up against restrictions in the fascial structures themselves. Maintaining as much heat as possible in the body allows gentle and slow fascial remodelling. The way this is done is to back off slightly from the maximum ROM end position, and wait—minutes, for some muscle groups (this requirement depends on relative muscle size). Subtle movements (“pulsations”) at the end of the range of movement can help you become familiar with the new position; you will find that this can help you relax more deeply in it, too.

The second and equally important point is that flexibility cannot be achieved by force or by intensity. I know this is counterintuitive to a degree, because we have to exert some force to provoke any change (in strength training or in any other) and in flexibility work, effort is needed. But, and this is a huge but, the force is used only to make, or re-make, the connection to that part of the body. Once the force has been applied, the body has to be brought to a state where it’s willing to let this protective tension go. All humans have perfect flexibility while under anaesthetic; as they regain consciousness, though, individual patterns re-manifest. The point is that force cannot change the pattern: the trigger to change this is not consciously available to us.

In fact, in the ST system, we use the bones, muscles, and fascia only to remap the brain; this is what provokes the changes we regard as “becoming more flexible” in the short term. Further, heat allows the fascia to be remodelled once the elongation is experienced. Both are necessary. Effort is only required to the extent needed to provide the proprioceptive feedback to that part of the brain that decides how much tension to maintain in any body part, and its pattern around the body. As well, the degree of force that is required to bring this change about cannot be known ahead of time. Personally, now, I need 80–100% contraction force; other students need only 10%, and any level above 50% in these students actually has the opposite effect (the body experiences the force in the stretch as a direct threat, and literally creates additional tension to ensure the elongation does not happen). The capacity to tolerate more tension (hence stronger intensity of the stretching experience) can be learned; but it cannot be imposed: it has to be allowed, and can only be experienced, and embodied.

To achieve this goal of knowing ‘how much’, each individual’s attention has to be turned inwards. No teacher can do this part of the process. Unless the brain and sensory being is directly involved in the experience of stretching, it will not be effective. The most important questions for the acquisition of flexibility: What does that feel like; where do you feel it; and how can you relax further into it?

Only an individual can answer that question and—critically—determine the time it takes to relax into the beginning of a stretch; the most effective contraction time, and how long to spend in the re-stretch. Each will unique to the individual. It can only be experienced, then learned, by each person individually; it cannot be reduced to a formula of number of seconds, or number of reps, or percentage of maximum strength in the contraction. This does not come naturally to anyone with a ’sets and reps’ approach.

As an aside, this is the hardest point to get across: there is no formula for adults; only an approach. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it! This uniqueness of response is also the reason why the research into stretching has provided so little illumination: all modern research relies on statistical analysis of groups. Such research has nothing to say about any particular individuals comprising such groups (and of course whether you are in group A or B!). In other words, a statistical approach has literally nothing useful to say here. Our method begins, and stays with, each individual.

The author thanks Dave Wardman for comments and vulgarities! And he suggests further reading:

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