Debunking the Myth of Stretching... Again

Outside Magazine recently ran an article called The 10 Biggest Fitness Myths. In this blog post I'll add my perspective on the one they consider to be the #1 fitness myth: the usefulness of stretching.

Myth #1: Stretching prevents injuries and improves performance.

The brain controls muscles and movement. Any movement we perform on a daily basis establishes habits at the level of the central nervous system.

There are good movement habits (pole vaulting, riding a bicycle, writing) and there are bad ones (learning to hold the back tightly due to repetitive athletic training, or limping on one side due to an injury).

When we work out and perform repetitive tasks, our muscles accumulate muscle tension. They learn to stay tight and become involuntarily contracted. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The only way to reverse chronic muscle tension is for the brain to take back voluntary control of the muscles and movement.

When you passively stretch a muscle that has learned to stay contracted (or has become involuntarily contracted due to repetitive tasks or an injury), you are pulling it into a length you want it to have. You are acting upon the muscle. If you pull that muscle farther than it can go you will invoke the Stretch Reflex, a spinal cord reflex that contracts the muscle back against the stretch to prevent against muscle fiber damage. This can make the muscles tighter than they were before.

SOLUTION: PANDICULATION = “no-stretch stretching"

Pandiculation is the best way to reset muscle length, and sensory motor control of the muscle.

A pandiculation is an action pattern that involves contracting a muscle first, then lengthening it slowly past the point that it was contracted before. This slow, deliberate action actually resets muscle length at the level of the central nervous system and allows the brain to take back voluntary control of muscles that were once involuntarily contracted. A pandiculation releases tight, "frozen" muscles that cause pain and allows them to function optimally again. The end result is enhanced muscle function, improved sensory motor awareness, and muscles that coordinate efficiently and properly.

It's easy to pandiculate: simply contract into the tight muscle, then slowly lengthen all the way. Then completely relax.

Pandiculation prepares your muscles for use in sports, or to wake up for the day, or even when you get chronic pain or a cramp. Pandiculation simply prepares your muscles for use.

In the Outside Magazine article they finish their piece on stretching with the following conclusion:

The jury is still out on the best pre-workout alternative, but dynamic stretching, which incorporates a range of body movements rather than muscle isolation, doesn’t stress tissues to the point of activating the nervous system’s protective instincts.

They then suggest four movements that could work as "dynamic stretches" to "warm up" the body:

1. 20 Jumping jacks 2. 1 minute of skipping, forward and backward 3. 1 minute of high-leg marches, kicking each leg in front like a tin soldier 4. 10 reps of "Kick your own butt:" hop on one leg, kicking the other leg backward, touching your buttocks

While these are interesting and useful movements, they are not "dynamic stretches"! They are movement patterns that don't reset muscle length or brain control of otherwise tight muscles.

Somatic "stretches" for improved muscle function

Try these Somatic Exercises (which actually are "dynamic stretches"). They will retrain your brain to take back control of the muscles, leaving them more relaxed and efficient. And yes - they will improve your athletic performance:

  1. Arch & flatten to lengthen back muscles (1 minute)
  2. Arch & curl to further lengthen back muscles and coordinate the abdominals with the back (1 minute)
  3. Washrag to lengthen waist muscles, abductors, and back muscles (1 minute)
  4. Hamstring pandiculation to lengthen the hamstrings in coordination with the back muscles – it takes the place of the painful stretch seen in the photo of Drew Bledsoe above (1 minute)
  5. Reach to the Top Shelf to lengthen the latissimus and trunk rotators, and coordinate hip movement (1 minute)

View these exercises here. "Reach to the Top Shelf" (seen in the photo above) and "Arch & Curl" can be learned by watching my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.