The fitness industry is built on the basis of controversy – part of the community religiously backs up one theory and the other part are raving fans of the exact opposite one. No matter if we are talking about fats and carbs, training with weights or without weights, the positives or the negatives of stretching. For some time, I want to share my opinion about stretching – whether it is healthy and needed; whether we need to stretch before or after a workout; whether we should stretch in between sets or if that predisposes us to an injury.
Nowadays, when we hear the word “stretching”, we immediately imagine yoga. Yoga is a unique philosophy that makes the connection between the mind, the body and the soul and we have belittled it just to its physical aspects. We do yoga in a wrong way and we just do it on the level of the body. The way we practice yoga is more often than not unhealthy, because the way we move increases the risk of an injury, if you do not have a good instructor who is capable of both leading your mind and your body, so you get the benefits of the practice. Here, I am really thankful to Margarita Maneva, who is an outstanding yoga teacher and I train with her once a week. She has definitely taught me a lot of things and through practice she has showed me many details about the way the human body moves.
Let’s go back to stretching. In our industry, most people understand how the body functions through polarities – i.e. a muscle that does not contract (at least visibly), means that it is actually stretching. This would mean that if you are not doing a straight legged deadlift, but you are doing Padagunsthasana, then you are stretching your hamstrings, instead of contracting them. In our mind, if contracting the muscle produces force, then stretching it means relaxing it. It sounds logically, but when we talk about the body, the logic is not always the most obvious thing.
Before you understand what I mean, I will introduce you to a really special word – pandiculation. In order to imagine its meaning, think about the stretch that you instinctively do every morning when you wake up. Imagine the stretch that cats and dogs do instinctively, when they wake up. Try to feel this movement. I don’t know if you’ve paid attention to it, but this stretch is the way that yoga poses should be practiced, as well as the stretching we do before, during and after a workout.
To make it easier, we could call pandiculation an active stretch. An active stretch, because with pandiculation, we do not passively hang on our tendons and ligaments, but instead our muscles are actually active. With the morning stretch that I mentioned above you could feel how the stretch is done in two opposite directions – the lower part of the body is pulling in one direction and the upper body is pulling in the opposite one. If you’ve visited a yoga class and you’ve encountered an outstanding yoga teacher, he/she probably gave you exactly these directions – pull in two opposite directions.
Stretching, the one that is defined by a passive stretch, that most people practice, sends sensor information just to the spine. When the muscle is being stretched (in this post when I say stretching, I mean passive hanging, and for active stretching, I will use the word pandiculation, no matter how cocky it sounds 😀 ), the sensor receptors in the muscle sends information to the spine, in order to communicate that the length of the muscle has changed. In response, the spine sends an impulse to the muscle that is being stretched, which initiates a contraction. What happens is that the muscle receives the exact opposite signal from what we actually wanted to achieve – to lengthen. This is called a stretch reflex. This stretch reflex is the reflex of the spine and the brain doesn’t participate.
On the other hand, pandiculation or the active stretching, sends new sensor information, besides to the spine, also to the brain. When the muscle is contracted, the sensor receptors in the muscle, send information to the brain, that communicated that the length of the muscle has changed – it contracts and as well the tension in the muscle increases. By getting to the brain, the information allows us to feel our muscles and consciously control them. If you practice yoga in this conscious manner, you have probably noticed that you feel your body differently and as if you really feel every muscle you have. When this happens, we can consciously control the contraction of the muscle – i.e. to decrease it, increase it or sustain it. Pandiculation increases the connection between the brain and the muscles, and allows a huge amount of sensor information to reach the brain and that is how learning happens – the way the body learns the new range of motion.
Besides that, with pandiculation as I already mentioned, we can control the contraction, which allows the new range of motion to be accompanied by enough stability, which actually keeps us save from injuries.
With passive stretching, even after a long period of stretching, a person can become more flexible, but he is usually unstable and not strong enough, which predisposes to injuries. This is really important – to not just aim for flexibility, but to increase the range of motion while building strength and stability.
For passive stretching, it is also true that it decreases the potential of the muscle to produce force and it might be a reason for an injury. With passive stretching, there is not enough consciousness of the movement, while pandiculation required a focused attention, so you can control the contraction of the muscle – this increases the perceptions and improves the relationship we have with our body, how it moves through space and this creates new neuron paths, which help us learn new movements. Here is the moment to emphasize on the fact that with passive stretching, there is a momentary lengthening of the muscle, while with pandiculation the change in the length of the muscle is long term – the brain learns the new length and this allows us to progress and become more mobile.
And one of the most interesting things, that you will personally feel is how with passive stretching your muscles stretch in an isolated manner, while with pandiculation a lot of muscles activate at the same time. You will feel muscles “that you didn’t even know existed”.
It takes time to feel the difference and learn how to activate your body, so you always achieve the pull in two opposite directions and actually doing pandiculation, and not passive stretching. But for every movement there are hints that help a lot, so you can really understand and experience what you are supposed to di. For a lot of people, yoga is just a passive stretch, which couldn’t be further from the truth. My favorite part about yoga is that if you are looking from the side, it seems that the person stands still, while in reality the body is really active, trying to stay in order. Because in life everything that is not set in order, aims at entropy and falls apart. The body is not any different – it needs to be directed and taken out of its inert state and this could be achieved with conscious movement. In order to understand what I mean, I made a video where I explain you the difference between a stretch and pandiculation. Try it and you will feel a tremendous difference.