Flexibility has long been an area of interest for me. I am always drawn to the flexibility of dancers, gymnasts, yogis and Pilates practitioners. So, I am always looking for additional pieces of the puzzle to help with flexibility. I am by no means an expert, but I have learnt a few things.
I used to think that static stretches are how I would achieve great flexibility. The truth is a little more complex. It is true that to change the composition of our tissues more permanently we need to hold stretches for a long time. The opinions are varied but anywhere from 10-60 seconds. It is possible to overstretch and to understand how that occurs we can use the analogy of an overstretched hairband. The overstretched band can no longer contract to its former shape. When we hold sustained stretches for too long before a workout the overstretched muscle will struggle to contract. This is problematic as it must contract to generate force for a specified movement. The fact that it cannot generate force as it should result in reduced performance and even injuries.
Does this mean static stretches are bad? No, they should just be performed after a workout and when muscles are warm. Instead of performing static stretches before our workout, we should do dynamic stretching for 5-10 minutes. Dynamic stretches are movements that involve muscles and joints moving them through their full range of motion and are typically used as a warmup. In Pilates, it would be gentle movements like spine twist supine, pelvic curls and leg circles. Some non-Pilates examples: would brisk walking, lunge squats and leg swings. We can choose these movements according to the sports/movements we are about to embark on to make them functionally similar.
Another tool that can help us achieve greater results from our flexibility routine is the application of reciprocal inhibition: activating the opposing muscle group to the muscle we are trying to stretch. An example would be to contact the quadriceps in a hamstring stretch. This helps the hamstring (which may be holding on) release allowing for greater range.
Current research suggests that flexibility range has more to do with our connective tissue composition and health as well as our nervous system than it does with the muscle itself. Simply put: connective tissue is the tissue that connects, supports and binds tissues and organs. It encases our muscles and each little muscle fibre. Connective tissue runs in interconnected planes linking one part of our body to another in pathways. To keep this tissue healthy, we have to keep our connective tissue hydrated and we have to keep quality of the connective tissue more mobile elastic and less fibrous. Form follows function, so connective tissue will remain mobile and hydrated if we move it in as many different planes with as many different types of forces applied to it to keep it healthy. Because of this interconnected nature of fascia sheets, it responds better to full body movements and stretching three-dimensionally than isolated stretches or strengthening. This is good news for us Pilates enthusiasts as this describes much of our Pilates repertoire. The bad news about fascia and stretching is that it takes longer to adapt than muscle and so injuries often occur as a result of doing a stretch a muscle is ready for but not the fascia.
The design of the body is intelligent, and we have systems in place to prevent injury. We have receptors in our joints, tendons and muscles themselves that stop us short of our full range as a protective mechanism. Think of a seatbelt: if you yank on it, it locks up. That is how I perceive a sharp, fast, uncontrolled stretch applied to a muscle. It locks and won’t go further. If we apply a gradual controlled stretch to the muscle the nervous system does not perceive a threat and doesn’t rebound into a tightened protective position. One way to help achieve this is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching (PNF): at the end of a stretch, we contract the muscle we want to stretch against resistance for 10 seconds. When when we release the contraction, we can go further. I see this as stretching from a place of strength and control.
How is Pilates great for flexibility? Pilates is a great balance between strength and flexibility. In any session, we will add both dynamic and static stretches. Examples of dynamic Pilates exercises are cat stretch, scissors and bicycle on the spinal corrector, our bridging exercises, rollovers. Examples of static stretches would be full lunge, rest position, the ladder barrel stretches, QL stretches at the end of side overs. In Pilates, we often load the muscle while simultaneously applying a stretch. This is how we build long lean muscles. An example of this would be kneeling lunge on the reformer. We have to control the amount the movable carriage is gliding out so the hip flexors and hamstrings are being worked by having to control the range at the same time as being stretched. In any Pilates session, we work in a controlled way so it is very unlikely you would overstretch. And we don’t do ballistic stretching (bounces at the end range motion) which also potentially can lead to injuries. Pilates won’t overwork one muscle group and underworld another as we always try a achieve balanced whole-body conditioning. This also will ensure you won’t develop tightness in one area due to overwork. Most instructors like to give our clients some homework stretches this is important as we need to stretch at least 3 times a week. Once a week is not going to cut the mustard. Another thing to be aware of is that flexibility is going to be improved slowly over time. We need to think in terms of weeks to months to see results. I also think there is a mental aspect to stretching and because Pilates is a body-mind art we may be addressing these things as well. Are we holding onto something that won’t allow us to go further? An example of the mental aspects to flexibility would be the link between the superficial back line of our fascial systems association with growth, stability and with “backbone” and our fascial superficial front lines association with qualities of pro-activity and bravery. If we have a problem in one of those areas perhaps, we could explore the issues associated with those parts. Anatomy trains in motion and the “The Genius of Flexibility” by Bob Colley are good sources if you want to explore the body-mind links of flexibility more deeply.
The simple, practical take home for you the client:
Do dynamic stretches before exercise for 5-10 minutes.
Static stretches after exercise holding each stretch for 15-60 seconds.
Stretch at least 2-3 times a week diligently. Ask your instructor for a home stretching routine.
Manual therapy is also very important for connective tissue health so go get a massage from a qualified therapeutic massage therapist registered with the allied health professions council.
Drink plenty of water to keep your connective tissue hydrated.
Look after your mental health it could impact your flexibility.
Do your Pilates for a great balance between strength and flexibility.
Cooley, B. (2020, 06 09). The Genius of Flexibility. Retrieved from The Genius of Flexibility: https://www.thegeniusofflexibility.com/bob-cooley
Myers, T. W. (2014). Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. In T. W. Myers, Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Elsevier Health Sciences.