The Science (and Joy) of Stretching
"It is because the body is a machine that education is possible. Education is the formation of habits, a super inducing of an artificial organization upon the natural organization of the body." ~ Thomas Henry Huxley
Ask different scientists or physicians, and they will not all agree on what is the most limiting factor for flexibility and what you can do to improve it. One school of thought focuses not on stretching the muscle fiber itself, but on improving the elasticity of connective tissues. Connective tissues are cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs.
Some scientists say that over the course of your lifetime, your muscle fibers slowly begin to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent other fibers from moving independently. What does this mean, exactly? As we grow, mature, and age, the elastic fibers of our muscles get stuck to collagenous connective tissue and become less and less yielding. Think of the process as similar to what happens when animal hides get turned into leather. Stretching helps in this scenario by producing tissue lubricants. Regular stretching helps to pull the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and allows muscles to re-orient into a more supple, flexible parallel cellular structure.
Other scientists choose to focus more on the "stretch reflex" and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. For example, when the doctor hits your knee to test your reflexes, this action (in a healthy body) sends signals to your brain to fully contract your quad muscle and inhibits your hamstring from contracting, keeping it soft and open. The stretch reflex, which is also often called the myotatic reflex, knee-jerk reflex, or deep tendon reflex, is a pre-programmed response by the body to a stretch stimulus in the muscle. Click here for more on the stretch reflex and how you can use it to improve your flexibility.
There are different kinds of stretches. Some are better than others, depending on your body type, whether you’ve been injured, and what you want to accomplish. Here are eight main types of stretches – try them out and see which one gives you the best results.
The chiropractors at Root specifically focus on exercise rehab in their treatment plans and will work with you to learn how to safely and effectively stretch. Consider booking a complimentary initial consultation.
8 types of stretching
1. static stretching
This is probably the one you are most familiar with. Static stretching is when you gradually ease into the stretch position and then hold it, usually anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Often in static stretching you are advised to move further into the stretch position as the stretch sensation subsides.
2. ballistic stretching
Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. These types of stretches should be done with a lot of consciousness and caution, as ‘forcing’ anything with the human body can always hold the recipe for disaster. Gentle is often superior to force, so be kind to yourself.
3. dynamic stretching
Think of swinging your arms around in circles getting ready to pitch a baseball…dynamic stretching consists of controlled leg and arm swings that take you gently to the limits of your range of motion. These are usually done where the desired event requires an explosive, dynamic movement. Start off with the movement at slow speed for a couple of reps and then work your way up to full speed.
4. active stretching
An active stretch is one where you get into a position and then hold it using the strength of your agonist muscles (Agonist muscles cause a movement to occur through their own contraction).
5. passive stretching
Passive stretching is also referred to as relaxed stretching. A passive stretch is one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body, or with the help of a partner or apparatus.
6. isometric stretching
Isometric stretching goes a step beyond static stretching. You first go into a static stretch, then activate the resistance of muscle groups through actively tensing of the stretched muscles.
7. assisted stretching
Assisted stretching involves the assistance of a partner whose job is to help you get into a position. Be careful who you trust on this, as the helper must fully understand what their role is, otherwise your risk of injury could be high.
8. partner stretches
Your partner assists you to maintain the stretch position, and you assist him at the same time to stretch. You both ease into the stretch position as the sensation of stretch subsides.
The main point with any practice is to try different methods and see what types of stretches feel best for your body. If you leave a stretching session feeling more open and relaxed, with better mobility, enjoy – you don’t need to worry about waiting to see when the scientists finally agree on if or when or why stretching works!
Check out our dynamic movement studio schedule - and find new ways to move and stretch that work for you!