What You Can & Can't Achieve With An Assisted Stretch
The New York Post recently ran a story dedicated to stretching, indicating a trend that it’s coming back to the fore of our collective consciousness. In dance, stretching has been, and always will be, a focus because dancing and flexibility go hand-in-hand. But outside of the dance world, in fitness and wellbeing, stretching is becoming as important as everything else we do to keep our bodies healthy, fit and strong.
Some say people are becoming more aware of stretching as their bodies cry out for relief, whether it’s from aging, a lack of activity, injuries, stress or a desk job. Others believe it has become a necessity in order to counterbalance the myriad of high-intensity workouts that have come to dominate the fitness scene. Either way, being tight sucks.
There are different ways to stretch, though, some of which will net better results than others. So, in order to tailor your efforts to give your body what it needs (and wants), it will help to understand what to expect from different types of stretching, and why they do or do not work.
First, it’s quite common to see people stretching with the help of another person. This is very common not just in personal training sessions, but also in the kind of businesses sprouting up, and mentioned, in the Post’s article. The New York Times also ran a piece on similar subject matter awhile back, which I wrote about here in my post, The Kind of Stretching that Won’t Stretch You Much.
This type of stretching is called assisted stretching and it’s like a massage: it feels good, partly because you don’t have to do any of the work. With assisted stretching, another person is manipulating your body while you try to relax your muscles. Valid bodywork, but not really stretching. It will loosen you up to some extent – like a massage, Thai or otherwise. But it won’t change much in terms of your overall, fundamental flexibility. The reason is that when someone else moves your body, your body does not learn how to move itself, and therefore, does not possess the knowledge and memory it needs to create sustainable improvements over time that ultimately lead to results.
You would never expect to build muscle if someone moved your limbs for you to lift a weight. You could never manage to dunk a basket on your own if someone lifted you to the net. You could never find the balance to do a handstand if someone always held onto your feet. I could go on, but you get the point. The assistance sends a message of dependency to your muscles, which means they never have to learn how to create the connections in your body that make it happen on their own. The same thing is true with stretching. You need to feel where you are from within in order to make the adjustments necessary that will enable you to go farther. Letting another person move you, robs you of this vital opportunity to move the needle, as it were.
As far as the other types of stretching (not assisted) are concerned, my advice is the same whether you’re doing dynamic, passive, AI (Active Isolated), isometric, ballistic, PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation), or anything else. You must learn to control your body from the inside. Otherwise, your tight muscles determine (and limit) the effectiveness of the stretch, or lack thereof. And what that means? You don’t really stretch.
Here is a visual that will show you what I mean:
You can see how this guy’s hamstring and calf muscles prevent him from straightening his leg. This is why flexibility never seems to improve for so many people. The top of that calf and the bottom of the hamstring are not allowing him to stretch the full length of the muscles in his whole leg! You have to fix that first. If you let your tight muscles determine how you get into a stretch, they will prevent you from actually stretching.
In addition, the guy being stretched should not need the other guy pushing/holding his legs apart. All that does is bend the knee because he is not flexible enough to get into that position in the first place.
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