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.
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.
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).
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.