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Should Static Stretching Be Avoided When Possible?

Updated: Apr 4

Mary Ellen Hannon, BS Health Science, Advanced Somatic Movement Guide

Stretching: The Faux Amis ("Fake Friend") of Yoga — John Sharkey MSc, Clinical Anatomist, Exercise Physiologist uses science and reasoning to support his supposition.

First let's agree that most people stretch in an effort to make a tissue longer and is commonly performed to reduce stiffness and tension in target muscles. For example, how many times have you felt stiffness in your back and immediately arched the low back to do some form of a back bend? And what happens when we apply a lengthening force in the direction of elongation?

Fact: Any attempt to lengthen a muscle or muscle fiber, will instantly result in a muscle contraction. This neurological phenomenon has been extensively studied as part of gold standard, peer reviewed neural science research for many years — it's commonly known as the monosynaptic reflex arch.

Our muscle actions are "meticulously coordinated with the central nervous system (CNS). In other words, "they are never on one minute and off the next". When you attempt to elongate the already tight (contracted) muscle the CNS ensures the muscle contracts even more to slow things down in that moment. Therefore, stretching to elongate the muscle just makes the muscle shorter and increases stiffness.

Sharkey asks us what exactly are we stretching? And what happens to living connective tissue when we stretch tissue beyond normal physiological length? It tears. He questions that we are just giving attention to the squeaky wheel and stretching the symptoms!

This might surprise you!

The yoga pose (janu sirsasana) and popular exercise, single leg hamstring stretch, results in a neurologically informed undeniable truth that the muscle is in an eccentrically loaded, isometrically held contraction. Remember any attempt to lengthen a muscle results in a contraction of that targeted muscle.

Now let's look at stretching from the point of view of moving in a way that is used for practical purposes and using the monosynaptic reflex to the full potential! To get there we need to understand what pandiculation is. Pandiculation regularly happens after waking from sleep and is usually accompanied by a controlled decelerated yawn. Pandiculation involves elongating fascial tissue, while contracting stiffens and wrings out the tissues ensuring limbs stay within physiological and anatomical range of motion.

Joanne Avison, MSS, E-RYT500, tells us to ask ourselves how often we remember to yawn-stretch after a period of relative inertia? Given the many hours we spend in cars, in beds, or sitting at desks and tables, this could be an important consideration for health to reanimate and maintain our tissues. No cat, dog or bear would "forget" to do yawning stretches after a period of inactivity!

"Fascia provides an uninterrupted tensional network that is ubiquitous throughout the human form...It's importance in both human movement and emotion, shock absorption, metabolic and physiological processes, proprioception, healing and repair is now well established." -Dr. Robert Schleip

Schleip tells us stretching has been caught in the crossfire between different modern sports science since the 1980's

Here is summary of some present-day stretching trends:

  • Springing stretches are back in fashion, especially for training the elasticity of fascia. More about tissue elasticity and recoil in my next blog!

  • Stretching while doing small, rocking jumps can be just as beneficial as slow, gentle stretching.

  • It is unclear whether static stretching will reduce the risk of injury. In fact, it may even increase it.

  • Stretching after exercise has little to no effect on the regeneration process.

  • It is beneficial to contract the muscle at regular intervals against external resistance. This enables the stretch to access the intramuscular connective tissue and the tendon connected to the muscle.

  • It is important to stretch the long fascial lines that stretch across multiple joints.

  • Alternate between different angles as you stretch to reach different parts of the fascia.

  • Stretching for several minutes relaxes the body, reduces chronic inflammation, and promotes wound healing.

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