Why Stretching Doesn't Improve Flexibility
Before I went into business, I was a dancer; and if there is one thing dancers know, it's flexibility. After my career got going, I continued dancing. I had to. After all, it was my first true love. But something interesting happened along the way. As I transitioned from the insular world of dance into the mainstream universe of health and fitness, I began to see just how misunderstood stretch and flexibility were among the masses. There were three things in particular that pointed to the fact that something was not working.
1) First, I noticed time and time again that people were trying to stretch, but instead of looking elongated and supple, they looked kinked, hunched over and collapsed. A muscle or muscles will never become stretched if you give into the body's natural tendency to bend when you pull on it. So when you're stretching, remember, shrinking and bending is not lengthening your muscles, it's shortening them - the absolute opposite effect you want to have.
2) I watched people use their trainers to push them, or straps to pull themselves, into a stretch. This made no sense either. Why not give your body the opportunity to learn and respond without depending on a crutch? Using something outside your body not only compromises the results, but it also prevents you from learning how to move from the inside, which is where a stretch needs to be in order for it to actually happen. Bodies are intelligent and should be able to stretch in their own right just as they perform independently in other physical/athletic activities. There should be no need for props that ultimately rob the body of its ability to move itself.
3) Day after day I would see people workout, stretch a little, and never improve - at all. Each and every time I saw the same thing - bent, kinked and hunched over. Yet, at the same time, they would come off days on the treadmill looking thinner and hours of weight training, looking firmer and more toned. But never did they ever make any progress with their flexibility. It was clear something was wrong. The body should respond in the same way to being stretched, as it does to cardio, endurance and strength training. That is to say, it should improve.
So why doesn’t it?
Because there is no real form or technique like you have in weight training, yoga, running etc…. And when there is no technique, the body isn’t trained properly, which in turn nets lackluster results. It is this lack of improvement that people then use to infer that they are just not flexible enough to even try and they give up. And the cycle continues.
The fitness industry has not helped matters. For some time there has been a lot of talk about whether stretching is worth the time and effort, or not. The problem with the reasoning fueling this debate though is the research, which I touched upon in an earlier post and delve into more extensively in my book.
But for now, let's consider that one of the biggest claims stretching makes is that it prevents injury. And then of course there are those on the other side who say it doesn't. When they say that though, they are referring to a corollary relationship between the muscle being stretched and the chances of that same muscle being injured.
I see it differently. After a dance-related injury of my own I learned firsthand just how half-baked the anti-stretching arguments are. Yes, we have the rubber band theory; if you stretch something and maintain its flexibility, it is less likely to snap under stress. Seems logical enough, and people like myself who have been injured are likely to agree with that.
But more importantly, it's about balance. If one muscle is overly developed and stronger than a weaker or more flexible muscle, it can pull something out of place and cause damage in the process. The point being that the strong muscle needs to be stretched and the stretched muscles need to be strong in order to prevent injury. This is a vital and holistic view that gets lost in the debate.
Meanwhile, the beauty of flexibility is freedom of movement. So aside from being in balance, being flexible enables you to be less restricted and enjoy what you love doing, from yoga classes to making love to running a marathon (and everything in between!).
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