The "New Stretching" Workouts: Fact and Fiction - Healthy Living Association

The “New Stretching” Workouts: Fact and Fiction

Would you like to know the truth about the “assisted stretching” craze that seems to have the fitness industry in its grip? I did, primarily because I had been a distance runner for decades and did my share of stretching. In the hope that regular stretching would keep my body from becoming brittle with age, I religiously did my morning and evening stretches.

Figure 1: Stretching “workouts” are more popular than ever

But now, stretching is being marketed as “exercise,” right alongside traditional regimens like weight-lifting, running, cycling, and aerobics. What gives? Is this new facilitated stretching trend all hype or is there at least a grain of science in it?

Contrary to what marketers might say, assisted stretching appears to be rather questionable, at least according to exercise physiologists who have no stake in the business. Medical experts also weigh in on the questionable practice of selling assisted stretching as exercise.

Here’s what I found out when I combed through the current crop of news and literature on the subject:

Myths and Facts about the “New” Stretching Workouts

  • Stretching is not working out, especially when someone “assists” you. This type of stretching is more akin to massage than exercise, yet many fitness clubs tout the “exercise” benefits of assisted stretching, which is nothing more than advertising fluff.
  • Stretching routines have important therapeutic benefits, as has been demonstrated by a large body of research. While stretching on a regular basis can improve long-term range-of-motion, the routines must be adhered to or else the acquired flexibility is rapidly lost.
  • Traditional stretching routines, done alone with the aid of a wall or stool, are an ideal way to cool down or warm up for light exercise, according to experts. But for more vigorous forms of exercise, like running or ball sports, pre-activity stretching is not beneficial for anything other than psychological purposes.
  • For older adults, who typically witness a natural decrease in muscle and joint flexibility along with a restricted range-of-motion, stretching can have multiple benefits, especially when done without assistance. Studies have demonstrated that a daily, light stretching routine can help seniors improve range-of-motion, increase flexibility, and perhaps decrease early-morning soreness and stiffness associated with aging.
  • If any population can benefit from regular stretching, it is older adults. For young people who are already in good physical health, stretching does not provide significant benefits other than as a warm-up for light exertion.
  • The “new stretching” classes that are so popular in U.S. fitness clubs are quite popular, probably due to the fact that it feels very good to have someone stretch your limbs for you. Even when the client assists the stretch, as in so-called PNF stretching, there can be a temporary increase in flexibility, but within a few minutes that PNF effect evaporates and the increased flexibility is gone.
  • Some experts believe that traditional stretching routines, geared to particular sports and certain types of athletes, are most helpful as a way to aid recovery after a hard workout, or to assist with muscle soreness that results from activities like endurance running, cycling, ball sports. In this view, post-activity stretching is very similar, in effect and process, to massage. Think of your post cycling stretch routine as a mine-massage session where you are massaging yourself. That’s what the experts are getting at with their explanation.
  • When professional health facilities promote the benefits of assisted stretching, and charge liberally for sessions, ask yourself what you’re paying for. What are they doing that you can’t do yourself, and how is their work any different from a very low-level massage?
  • Answering those questions should bring you to a moment of clarity about the new stretching craze and why it is 99 percent hype.

Figure 2: The four types of stretching

Stretch Your Mind with These Books

Probably the seminal work on stretching, and a perennial best-seller, is Bob Anderson’s book, listed below. Millions of runners were fans of Bob’s monthly articles in magazines and newspapers when the running craze began in the late 1970s. Today, his book stands as one of the most common-sense entries on the now-wildly popular practice of “fitness stretching.”

Because most of the new gym classes focus on assisted stretching, much can be gained from learning how to do a basic set of athletic stretches. The three books below explain the various types of stretching and offer photographic instruction for people of all ages and fitness levels.

Stretching, by Bob Anderson

The “bible” for stretching enthusiasts since it first appeared almost three decades ago, Anderson’s “Stretching” is a true masterpiece of fitness literature. For anyone who wants to learn the basics, slowly, and with helpful illustrations, this is the source of sources.

A splendid feature of “Stretching” is a list of stretches, in specific order, for each major type of physical activity. For example, there are numbered routines for skiers, weight-lifters, runners, walkers, office-bound workers who only get a few minutes here and there to stretch, basketball players, and more. There are even some detailed routines for travelers and TV watchers.

Anywhere you are, and are awake, you can stretch for relaxation, flexibility and overall mental ease. Of course, because Anderson leaves no stone unturned, there are “general” stretching routines that work all the major muscle groups. Each routine is listed along with the amount of time it should take. Plus, there’s a comprehensive introduction about how to stretch, and how to do specialized stretches for fingers, toes, neck and facial muscles.

“Stretching” is the all-time best-seller on the subject for good reason: it is simple, direct and offers solid value for the purchase price. Hint: consider getting the paperback version and slicing the spine in order to make it into a spiral book. It’s much easier to work with that way.

Anatomy and 100 Essential Stretching Exercises

Here is a more “clinical” offering than Anderson’s book, but it actually serves a different purpose. In addition to the basic stretches, there is detailed information about what muscles are worked with each stretch, how to know when you’ve overdone a stretch, and extensive medical advice about muscle health as it relates to stretching.

The main focus of the book is clear explanation of what muscle groups are affected by each stretch, but there’s plenty of advice about how to avoid injuries while stretching.

The author uses clear photos of each stretching exercise along with explanatory text so that you can’t get the technique wrong. He also points out how to pay close attention to the amount of time spent on each exercise and how many repetitions to do. Finally, there is a handy guide on how to use specific stretches to alleviate pain in various muscle groups. For those who want to improve their general sense of physical health and flexibility, and who need to learn the right way to stretch, this book is a wonderful addition to the fitness shelf.

Stretch Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Individual and Assisted Stretching

The big difference between this book and most others on the topic is its focus on “assisted” stretching, in other words, using a partner to help you achieve a better range of motion. This is the technique that is used in so many fitness clubs around the U.S. today, and is perhaps the most popular form of stretching (for those who have a partner to work with).

Whether at home, in the office or at the gym, the stretches illustrated in the book cover the entire body, and are offered in solo or assisted format. There’s just a ton of information here because the book has routines for beginner to advanced stretching, explains all the anatomy involved, and lists pre- as well as post-workout stretching routines. If you’re taking a stretch class that uses the assisted format, this book is a wonderful reference.

Is the Truth Being Stretched?

At hundreds of gyms and fitness studios across the U.S., stretching classes are packed. Both assisted and “individual” (non-assisted) stretching classes promise all sorts of results, many of which are nothing more than advertising hype. The good news is that stretching, whether on your own or with a helper, can do a lot of good for your body.

Stretching is one of the newest ways for membership fitness clubs to draw in fresh clientele. As is always the case with trendy workouts, for-profit companies tend to over-promise in order to fill classes.

But the truth about stretching is actually not all that bad. No, stretching alone won’t help you “lose weight, improve your posture, and achieve core fitness,” as some advertisements boast, but it can, according to unbiased doctors who specialize in physiology, help just about anyone maintain flexibility and minimize common complaints like low-back pain and shoulder stiffness.

Bob Anderson’s book, listed above, is one of the more sober resources on the topic because he tells it like it is, explaining what a daily stretching routine can and can’t do. There’s no magic way to stretch, and there is certainly no miraculous class that can take the place of a real workout.

Like yoga, stretching does a lot, but shouldn’t be viewed as a muscle-building or aerobic workout. The over-commercialization of the new trend is actually doing damage to the otherwise wonderful reputation of stretching.

Feel free to comment below or visit our Facebook page and let us know how you feel about the new stretching craze.

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