Do we need to stretch?

By Jo Jackson

 Firstly, let’s understand what a stretch is.  When a muscle is put under a passive stretch – for example a standing hamstring stretch on the ladder barrel – the body’s nervous system is sensing something is changing in the muscle that it is not capable of, so it elicits a pain response to this perceived threat.  This is the stretch sensation that we feel.  The muscle is not ‘lengthening’ between two joints, as commonly believed, the nervous system it is just becoming more accustomed to this pain response and is therefore more tolerant of the position you are putting it in. 

There are different ways to stretch.  Passive stretching is when we tend to hold the stretch for 30 seconds or longer in a relaxed position. Such as bending over to touch our toes or a calf stretch on the wedge or a step.  Dynamic stretching is where there is movement in the body to get this addition range of motion, such as a standing leg swing, or moving in and out of your ankle flexion in a calf stretch position.

For some bodies that are more naturally flexible there may be a noticeable increased range of motion with time. But this is where we need to assess – is there control over this additional movement or is flexibility being added without strength at the end of that range of motion.  Having this control and strength is the difference between flexibility and mobility. For example, a dancer may be able to go easily into the splits but when doing their grand jete in the air, do they have the control and strength in the hips to use that range of motion?

This is where pilates is so beneficial as it can assist with our mobility, not just flexibility.  For example – legs in straps on the reformer.  By using the equipment you can get an increased range of motion and with a small amount of load from the springs you are actually working to strengthen the muscles  so that they can access and maintain this improved range.

It is now well researched that passive or static stretching prior to exercise can actually decrease performance and increase chance of injury.  With a passive stretch you have given the muscle extra range that it doesn’t necessarily have control over.  Conversely, suitable active or dynamic stretching, will improve performance by lubricating the joint and neurologically preparing the muscle for what is ahead.

So should we ever passive stretch?  Yes, there are times when passive stretching is useful and necessary.  For example, following surgery when you are trying to free up a joint and get movement back.  What if I just feel tight without injury? This is where a good pilates instructor can assess the body holistically and explain why particular muscles in your body may be tight and which of those muscle perhaps need strengthening more than ‘lengthening’.

So when you next go to stretch question whether…
Is there a reason behind why a particular muscle is tight?
Is this an appropriate way to warm up for what I am about to do?  Am I going to follow up the stretch by working the muscle so that I can maintain and have control over the increased range of motion?
Is there an alternative way of getting more range of motion at a particular joint by actively strengthening the muscle at the same time?