Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: lengthen

Why Bother Stretching?

A few months ago, I opened a big ol' can of worms with the discussion of how stretching doesn't actually lengthen muscles.  Now, it's time to address that subject again, with the help of Stretch Armstrong, which some of you may remember from your youth. 

If you're a child of the 70's or 80's, you may remember this toy, clad in a speedo or a tee-shirt, depending on the decade that you lived in. 

If you're a child of the 70's or 80's, you may remember this toy, clad in a speedo or a tee-shirt, depending on the decade that you lived in. 

In case you missed our previous chat, take a moment to catch up on the last post in case things are a bit confusing.  Basically, in many movement disciplines, teachers and professionals perpetuate the idea that we must stretch muscles to lengthen them.  Period.  I went to a few yoga classes this weekend, both of which said this.  "We just lengthened your hamstrings a bit so you should feel open."  Being the slight know it all that I am, it's time to correct that notion and learn a little more about the science of stretch.

This pose, a pigeon variation, is often a "dream goal" pose for yoga folks.  Does this degree of spinal flexibility necessarily serve us all?  Perhaps not.

This pose, a pigeon variation, is often a "dream goal" pose for yoga folks.  Does this degree of spinal flexibility necessarily serve us all?  Perhaps not.

Back to Stretch Armstrong-there's an idea in yoga and in other movement disciplines that the infinite stretchability is the goal, AKA.  stretchier=better=magical poses and feats.  Yet, like Stretch Armstrong, when we stretch things, our body (hopefully!) goes back to the initial tissue length...depending on how intensely we stretched our tissues.

-Our connective tissues have about 4% healthy stretching range, meaning that your tissues can "stretch" about 4% healthily.  Collagen starts to break down at 8% of your stretching range, which means that you are in a damaging range, risky for muscle tears, etc.  (Thanks Jules Mitchell for the stats!) This means that YOU ARE NOT STRETCH ARMSTRONG, ladies and gentleman, nor should you strive for such a feat.  There is a healthy end range of stretch for all of us, and it doesn't need to be pushed beyond reason.  (Also, 4% is not very much, in case you were wondering, which is why I stick to the logic that muscles are not being lengthened much with stretching.)

- Our flexibility is heavily governed by our tolerance, which means that our nervous system prevents us from going into ranges that we don't frequently use (like the splits!), because it's unfamiliar and potentially risky.  Over the course of a yoga class, for example, your tolerance will change because your nervous system is allowing range, the muscle isn't actually lengthening.  (Remember how you might be flexible in a hot yoga class and then the next day, it's like it never happened?  Your hamstrings are the same as ever?  That's because of a phenomena called Creep and Recovery (which is how the body recovers from stretching back to its normal resting position).  Stretch Armstrong does not have this capacity, nor does he have a nervous system (unless he's some hybrid of Chucky and that's just eerie).

I took this picture at a zoo last year- I loved the one sedentary zebra juxtaposed with the crazy rolling zebra.  We tend to be a teensy bit sedentary which affects our range of motion and flexibility-lets move more, folks!

I took this picture at a zoo last year- I loved the one sedentary zebra juxtaposed with the crazy rolling zebra.  We tend to be a teensy bit sedentary which affects our range of motion and flexibility-lets move more, folks!

What is flexiblity?  Basically, flexibility is having a normal range of motion in your whole body.  Therefore, if you DO NOT have normal range of motion, stretching can help work that range and then it's time to strengthen.  Remember that stretching for stretching's sake will not help much, but a combination of stretching and strengthening will help create sustainable change.  Moving frequently in more ranges of motion will help most (read more here!).  Time out: I've done yoga for 7-8 years and stretched my hamstrings for a long time, with little change.  What helped is actually getting a standing desk, wearing flat shoes, and walking more.   Fascinating- I needed to gain strength in more ranges.  Lunges, standing yoga poses, walking, squats- these are all strengthening poses and movements. 

  Whatever range you're trying to change (hamstrings, shoulders,etc.) also requires strength at that range- you don't want to stretch without supported strength.  So while Stretch Armstrong's stretchability implies that muscles are infinitely lengthen-able, in fact, your goal should be to expand your range first and then strengthen.  Don't just keep stretching and "lengthening" tissues!  Read more about your "short hamstrings" here with Jules Mitchell's awesome post.

I opened up a chat with some of my fellow teachers last month inquiring about why we stretch, and I love what my colleagues had to say (Thanks Alex E. and Alexa P.!)  Here's what one of my teachers, the brilliant and fabulous Sarah Court said, "Losing healthy range of motion sets you up for injury.  Stretching is not about trying to change the length of anything, rather you are trying to optimize overall mobility and not lose movement options from lack of use." 

The conclusion?  Stretch (a little bit) to regain mobility and move better, then strengthen and move more.  Stretching the same thing every day?  Maybe not so much, unless you're Stretch Armstrong in the hands of a seven year old. 





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.

Kino MacGregor has both feet behind her head.  Ouch!

Kino MacGregor has both feet behind her head.  Ouch!

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.
Boom."

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."

Please don't stretch your hammies this way.  It's terrible for your back and spinal discs!

Please don't stretch your hammies this way.  It's terrible for your back and spinal discs!

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!

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