Ever since we can remember we've been told to stretch. Stretch if your muscles feel tight, stretch before and after your workout, stretch if your back hurts. Most of us were taught what's termed "static stretching." You hold the stretch and pull, with the intent of releasing the tight muscle(s). Recent scientific evidence tells us that static stretching is not only over rated, but it has been proven to be ineffective in the prevention of sports injuries.
How can this be?
To understand this a bit better, let's begin with some basics about muscle function:
The brain and central nervous system controls your muscles and movement. Muscles have no control of their own; they only respond to electrical signals from the brain and nervous system. The brain can teach you and your muscles to ride a bicycle, walk, dance or serve a tennis ball. The brain can also teach you and your muscles to stay tight and contracted due to accidents, injuries, repetitive tasks, or on-going stress. Accumulated muscle tension makes it more difficult for muscles to contract efficiently and relax completely. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia: chronically contracted muscles that are constantly "on," unable to fully relax.
If you sit at a computer all day long, your muscles learn to stay contracted only to a certain length in order to be ready to hold that same position again the next day. In other words, our muscles habituate to whatever it is we do repeatedly, and certain muscles become set, by the brain, at a certain length. If a muscle is tight, it is being held tightly by the brain and sensory motor system.
The goal of static stretching is to pull a muscle with the intention of forcing it to lengthen and/or relax. We all know the feeling of pulling a muscle farther than is comfortable. Some of us even stay in the stretch for a while, breathe and hope for the best. The reason is doesn't work - and that it can, in fact, result in over-stretching injuries such as herniated disks, muscle trauma and muscle dysfunction - is because the brain, the command center of the muscles, is not engaged in the action. In order to change what the muscles are doing the brain must be engaged in the process.
What do I do instead of stretching
There’s a simple movement that we’ve all been doing since the beginning of time. It is nature's "re-set" button - a way of restoring full muscle function and length to a muscle. It is far more effective and safer than stretching. It is called PANDICULATION. It is like a "software update" for your brain: it "re-boots" the brain's sensation and control of the muscles every time you do it.
If you have ever watched a cat or dog as it gets up from rest you know that it arches its back, then drops its belly and curves downward lengthening its legs, back, and belly in a full body "yawn." Animals aren't stretching. They're pandiculating. After it does this simple maneuver, it jumps off the couch and goes running off to play. Do you remember when you used to do that? You'd wake up, gently tighten your arms and legs inward, feel a yawn coming on, and then reach your arms above your head, then reach one leg down and then the other. You would first contract your muscles, then lengthen them, then completely relax.
There are three elements to a pandiculation:
- A voluntary contraction into the muscles...
- Followed by a slow lengthening...
- And a complete relaxation.
This action, much like a pleasant yawn, re-sets both muscle length and function at the brain level; it "reminds" our muscles that they don't have to stay stuck in a contracted state. Pandiculation "turns on a light" in the sensory motor system and improves proprioception, which helps you sense your own body more accurately. When you contract a muscle tighter than its present contraction rate, the brain (the command center of the muscles) receives strong sensory feedback, which allows it to “refresh” its sensation of the muscles. By slowly lengthening from that initial contraction, the brain can then lengthen the muscle past the point of its former, tighter length and into a new, fuller range. The result is a more relaxed muscle and greater voluntary muscle control and coordination.
Because muscles only learn through movement (remember: riding a bicycle, dancing...), new information must be sent to the sensory motor cortex if the muscles are ever going to learn to release their accumulated tension so they can relax completely and move freely again. Static stretching is passive rather than active and it can evoke a protective reflex in the muscles that actually contracts back against the stretch. This reflex, aptly named the "stretch reflex," is meant to protect your muscle from trauma. When you pandiculate, however, the action is voluntary: you contract the muscle, then slowly lengthen it. It requires focus and awareness.
When you think about it, animals pandiculate; they don't stretch. And animals don't sprain their ankles, nor have chronic back pain. The fact that animals pandiculate approximately 40 times a day means that they have full, voluntary control of their muscular system at all times.
So next time you want to stretch, try first contracting the muscle that's tight and then slowly lengthening it. Then completely relax. Note the difference not only in sensation and control of the muscle, but also in your range of motion.
Hanna Somatic Education uses the reflex of pandiculation to teach people to re-set muscle length and coordination. Somatic Exercises, which are gentle, easy movement patterns that incorporate pandiculation, retrain your brain and muscles to "remember" how to move more easily and effortlessly. Remembering how to gently twist, bend, extend, and flex will go a long way toward retaining flexibility, control, balance and coordination for as long as you live. Done every day, these easy and gentle exercises can make a world of difference in your body...while reversing your muscle pain!