Why Stretching Doesn’t Work
From the ages of twelve to twenty-one, I was a ballet dancer. It was all I did and all I wanted to do. Being extremely disciplined, I stretched for half an hour every night before bed so I could get more flexible. And it worked—I got pretty darn flexible. Even on vacations, I stretched every single night without exception.
I quit dancing at the age of twenty-one after suffering the second of two terrible back injuries. Even after I quit, I kept doing my thirty-minute stretching routine every night before bed. Not only did I love the ritual, but I felt like I physically needed it—as though I was addicted to the feeling. My body just didn’t feel right until I had stretched.
Fast-forward seven years, and I happened to come across a movement technique called Somatics while I was googling physical therapy and yoga. I ordered Thomas Hanna’s book Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, and after reading the first five pages I felt as though I had found something that I had been looking for my whole life. And yes, after all this time I was still doing my stretching routine every single night!
Less than a year later, I had enrolled in the professional training program to become a Clinical Somatic Educator. I remember sitting in the back of the studio during the first semester of my training while we learned why stretching was ineffective and could even be harmful. I started fuming. I had been stretching for what felt like my entire life and knew firsthand that it was effective. I got upset to the point that I felt like crying. I felt as if my religion was being attacked. I bit my tongue and didn’t speak up, but I refused to believe what the trainer was saying.
I went home at the end of the first semester completely in love with Somatics, understanding and believing everything I had learned so far—except what I had learned about stretching. I went over and over it in my mind and finally decided to give it a shot: I would substitute all my nightly stretching exercises with Somatic movements. But I would just try it for a week or two, and then I would see how I felt. I didn’t want to lose any of my hard-earned flexibility, after all.
While there are many standard Somatic exercises that Thomas Hanna created, once you learn the basic principle of how to contract and release your muscles in a certain way, you can turn pretty much any movement into what is called a pandiculation. So, on the first night I got down on the floor and set about turning all of my ritual stretches into pandiculations. While I was in pretty much the same positions as when I did my stretches, I was doing a completely different type of movement, and going through an entirely different neurophysiological process as I moved.
After about forty-five minutes I got up off the floor and…wow. My body felt like jelly. I had never felt so loose and relaxed! It was an entirely different sensation than I felt after stretching. I continued this Somatics routine night after night and soon became aware of a wonderful new sensation of being completely comfortable in my body. I didn’t feel that constant sense of tightness and needing to stretch that I used to feel. And even though I had stopped stretching, I hadn’t lost any of my flexibility or range of motion.
Needless to say, I was now a complete Somatics convert. This shift led to my next challenge: getting other people to understand that traditional, static stretching is not all it’s cracked up to be.
What is the Stretch Reflex?
All of us, including all vertebrate animals, have a reflex in our nervous system called the stretch reflex, or myotatic reflex. Never heard of it? Think again. Your stretch reflex has actually been tested by a doctor, though maybe not since you were a bit younger. When your doctor used that little hammer to hit just below your knee, making your foot kick up, he was testing your stretch reflex.
The stretch reflex is an automatic nervous system response to stretching within a muscle. The reflex provides automatic regulation of skeletal muscle length. When a muscle is lengthened beyond a point where it can comfortably stretch, muscle spindles (sensory receptors in the muscle) are stretched and their nerve activity increases. Neurons then immediately send a message to the muscle fibers to contract in order to protect the muscle from being torn.
Why is it so important that we have this reflex? Well, reflexes in general exist to help us stay alive and avoid injury.
One critical function of the stretch reflex is that it prevents us from tearing our muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The knee-jerk reflex is a great example. The doctor hits your patellar tendon just below your knee, suddenly stretching the tendon and the quadriceps tendon, which attaches above the patella. The muscle spindles in your quadriceps muscles sense the sudden increase in length, and the message is automatically sent to contract your quadriceps in order to prevent injury and over-stretching of the muscle and tendon. When your quadriceps contracts, your foot kicks up. If your foot doesn’t kick up, it could be a potential sign of a neurological disorder, such as receptor damage or peripheral nerve disease.
The stretch reflex also helps us stand up straight in our gravitational field. For example, when a person standing upright begins to lean to the right side, the postural muscles on the left side of the vertebral column will be stretched. When the muscle spindles in those muscles sense that they are being lengthened, the message to contract them is automatically sent in order to correct the person’s posture. We are rarely consciously aware of how the stretch reflex automatically maintains our balance and keeps us from falling over—but we sure would notice if it wasn’t working properly.
Why doesn’t stretching work?
When you practice static stretching, the conscious and subconscious parts of your nervous system are battling against each other, trying to achieve opposite results. The conscious part of your brain is sending the message to manually stretch your muscles by pulling on them. But despite all your efforts, your stretch reflex is automatically kicking in, contracting your muscles to prevent you from overstretching and tearing your muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
But why does it feel like stretching works?
So if our stretch reflex prevents us from manually lengthening our muscles, why does stretching sometimes make us more flexible? There are a few reasons.
One reason is that when you engage in prolonged static stretching, pulling your muscles and tendons past the point that they are able to voluntarily lengthen, you begin to stretch your ligaments. With prolonged stretching, ligaments can be stretched, resulting in more flexible and often less stable joints. Once stretched, ligaments may never regain their original length and strength.
Second, prolonged static stretching can cause the stretch reflex to become much less active, leaving the muscles lengthened for a period of time. This is why you may feel looser after you stretch. However, the effects wear off fairly quickly. Often you will feel your muscles begin to tighten up again within just a few hours as your stretch reflex regains normal function.
For this reason, prolonged static stretching decreases muscle performance by temporarily reducing the muscle’s ability to contract. This is no good if you’re about to engage in athletic activities. A great deal of research has shown that static stretching before a workout decreases joint stability and reduces muscle performance, strength, and power. Many coaches and trainers have come to realize that the best way to warm up is to do a slow, gentle version of the movement you’ll be doing in your workout. By consciously practicing the movement sequences and increasing blood flow to your muscles and connective tissues, this type of warm up prepares both your brain and your body for optimal performance.
A third reason that stretching can make us feel more flexible is that when we stretch repeatedly, we are building up a tolerance to the sensation of pulling in our muscles. Even though it is by nature an uncomfortable sensation, with repetition it can become tolerable and even enjoyable. I used to love that feeling of pulling in my muscles, and I craved it every day. It provided me with a temporary lengthening and release of my muscles, and as I became more comfortable with the feeling, I was able to pull my muscles even farther. But of course the reason that I craved that feeling every day is that the fix was only temporary. Less than twenty-four hours after stretching, my muscles had tightened right back up again.
Stretching to relieve chronic pain: Why it doesn’t work
Virtually everyone I meet who has tried stretching to relieve their chronic pain reports that it hasn’t helped them at all, and there are two simple reasons why.
First, stretching does not reeducate the nervous system. No amount of pulling on the muscles will change the resting level of muscle tension that is being set by the alpha-gamma feedback loop. The resting level of muscle tension must be reset through an active process of relearning involving slow, conscious, voluntary movement and the integration of sensory feedback from the muscle.
Second, when you pull on an already tight muscle the stretch reflex is activated, making the muscle contract even more. It is possible that you might get some pain relief from gentle prolonged stretching, but as we’ve already discussed, the increased muscle length is temporary and the muscle will rebound within a short period of time. Most likely, stretching will not only do little for your pain, but will increase and prolong your pain by making your muscles tighter.
Learning Clinical Somatics exercises: The most effective alternative to stretching
Thomas Hanna, the founder of Clinical Somatic Education, studied neurophysiology and explored movement techniques that would directly address the habitual muscular tension that was the underlying cause of his clients’ chronic pain and posture and movement issues. Hanna developed hands-on movements and self-care exercises that made use of the pandicular response.
Pandiculation sends biofeedback to the brain regarding the level of contraction in our muscles, thereby helping to prevent the buildup of chronic muscular tension. This is an extremely important function of the pandicular response. A pandiculation contracts and releases muscles in such a way that the alpha-gamma feedback loop is naturally reset. This resetting reduces muscular tension and restores the muscles’ ability to lengthen.
You can learn Clinical Somatics pandiculation exercises at home with our easy-to-follow online courses.
Clinical Somatics pandiculations are not only the best alternative to stretching, but they also allow you to prevent, alleviate, and recover from many common conditions such as chronic muscle and joint pain, disc problems, sciatica, scoliosis, rounded posture, plantar fasciitis, temporomandibular joint disorders, and more.
Click here to start learning Clinical Somatics exercises today!