The Stretching Myth

Originally written for published 10 April 2018

We’ve always been told to stretch before exercise and that it will make our muscles ‘longer’. When we think of stretching mostly we think of static (or passive) stretching – the kind where you lie down, hold your leg up and stay for a while – and that’s the kind I’m referring to when I say ‘stretching’.

Your body gets used to your most common movement patterns, so when you’ve been sitting all day and then go to the gym and move in ways you haven’t been moving since your last gym visit, it stands to reason that some movements will feel restrictive or tight and stretching has traditionally been the answer.

While for some static stretching feels good, it’s not the most effective warm up – it down-regulates the muscles, so just when you’re about to hit the weights or go for a run, you’ve just made it harder to activate the muscles you want to use. If you really want to static stretch, save it for after your workout and warm up instead with some fascial mobilisers.

Fascia, the connective tissue of the body, surrounds, connects, and supports all the body’s structures including muscles, organ, tendons and ligaments. Dehydration, lack of movement, poor posture, muscular tension and injury, causes fascia get sticky, restricting movement and feeling ‘tight’.

Fascial mobilisers, based on Thomas Myers’ Myofascial Meridians, use subtle rhythmic multidirectional movements that incorporate the whole body to encourage better movement. It doesn’t increase muscle length, it just helps the fascia to glide more effectively so movement is easier.

If your goal is to lengthen your muscles, the research shows any immediate gains from stretching are not permanent. A 2014 study demonstrated no difference in people’s muscle and tendon length after a 6 week static stretching programme.

Muscles (and tendons) attach at fixed points on the bone – it’s impossible to permanently elongate the muscle complex. Your ability to ‘stretch’ is dictated by your nervous system. Nerve endings throughout your muscles, tendons and fascia register when you stretch into an area that feels unsafe. These nerve endings send messages that stretching more may cause damage and stops you from going further.

If you want to improve your ‘flexibility’, or more accurately your ‘range of motion’, focus on working with your nervous system. There’s a few techniques that can help.

Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) is a system of mobility and joint control training focusing on getting more muscular control of joints at end ranges by manipulating the nervous system. FRC helps your muscles become accustomed to that control at end range, so it feels like you’re getting more flexible but you’re just controlling your joints better.

Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) look at the ability of a muscle to contract efficiently. MAT switches the focus from stretching the ‘tight’ muscle, to finding the opposing ‘weak’ muscle and activating that to resolve movement limitations. As efficient muscle contraction is restored to the weak muscle, ‘tightness’ is relieved resulting in more ease of movement – or better ‘flexibility’.

You could loosely refer to these techniques as ‘stretches’ but they won’t ‘lengthen’ your muscles like we’ve been led to believe that stretching can. They will, however, improve how you move.  If you’ve made a habit of static or passive stretching over time but can see no improvement in your flexibility, look at using some other methods.