If You Stretch A Muscle, You Lengthen It, Right? Wrong!
There are a great many myths perpetuated in the yoga and fitness world- one food will magically make you lose weight, you can spot tone areas of your body (6 quick moves for toned...), and that some miraculous pill will destroy belly fat, amongst others. The worst offender, right now, is the myth that stretching actually physically lengthens muscle fibers. (Quick, google stretching and see what you find! "Increasing flexibility through stretching is one of the basic tenets of physical fitness." was a wikipedia find)
How many classes/teachers have you been to where someone told you that you had tight hamstrings/shoulders/etc.? And that you needed to lengthen them with stretching/yoga? (I have been guilty of thinking and saying these things too!) And to go with it, yoga often perpetuates the idea that the more frequently and intense you stretch something, the more open (lengthened) it will get. In fact, it does not work this way at all! I did not come up with this research, in fact, a yoga therapist/teacher/biomechanist did (Jules Mitchell!), and in studying the Science of Stretch, is challenging our conventional (and inaccurate) view of stretching.
Jules writes: "I understand this is a difficult concept to digest. It is not what we learned in yoga teacher training. We learned:
1. Stretch your hamstrings.
2. Make them longer.
3. Put your foot behind your head.
So how many of you have believed this same thing, either from yoga, pilates, or other disciplines? I certainly believed it for a long time, and have only in the last year embraced the idea that being infinitely flexible is not actually a good thing for my tissues (nor is it a practical goal for most folks).
So here's the deal- when you stretch a muscle, say your hamstrings (backs of legs) in yoga class, your restriction or lack of range is (mostly) not your short muscle fibers, it's your nervous system saying "This is not a range of motion we normally explore---Abort movement!!!!" In the Liberated Body podcast last week, Jules said "Lack of range of motion is not really about lengthening. It’s much more an issue of tolerance. It’ s a use it or lose it thing. If you never work in that range of motion your body doesn’t understand it and doesn’t want to go there. So your nervous system limits your range of motion."
What!?? This goes contrary to everything I've heard in yoga classes in the last decade, but it makes sense. (I also did recently ask the question, if I've been stretching my hamstrings for 7 years now, why has my range of motion barely changed?)Think about it- the places that we think of as tight are often our shoulders, hamstrings, and hips, but in your day to day life, when do you put those areas through full range of motion? Even better, do you know what full range of motion might even entail? This comes back to the idea of diverse movement as paramount, as opposed to strict stretching or exercise regiments. Musicians often don't move enough (or exercise) which explains a limited range of motion in many joints (rather than short standing muscle length). Brooke Thomas said (in response to the interview with Jules), "When flexibility is the issue for a person, stretching is not going to help. Moving frequently in more full ranges of motion and incrementally increasing the load is actually the answer."
Don't worry if this discovery leaves you with lots of questions like: how do I actually increase my range of motion? Why do I feel tight? Why do I feel better after yoga if I'm not actually lengthening anything? How do I move frequently in full range of motion? More to come, but check out Jules Mitchell's game changing research (and this awesome interview with her, courtesy of the Liberated Body), especially if you're a science-y person!