We know, stretching can be rather… dull. Commit to it, assisted-stretching or on your own, and you’ll increase your athletic potency – and slash the time you spend sidelined.
When it comes to flexibility, I harbour a deep and abiding shame. I simply don’t bend and hinge as I know I should. One of the problems with this is that your body continually lets you know about it. For me, these reminders start predawn when I perform my own 10-minute stretching routine on the living-room rug while keeping one eye on CNN to make sure the world’s still spinning.
Yes, I do stretch, and have done for years, and I know it’s helped prevent hamstring strains, lower-back flare-ups and the like, and yet still I wouldn’t qualify as remotely supple. I used to be able to lie on my back, throw my legs up and over my head, and touch the floor behind me with both feet. These days, my attempts at this manoeuvre are risible.
My daughter certainly finds them so: just the other day she got a good old chuckle out of watching me floundering about while grunting and swearing.
As the day unfolds, the reminders continue. At the gym, you’d give my squat an ‘F’ for its lack of depth. Arse to the grass? Get outta here. Parallel? No siree. My squat has become a travesty that should come with a warning.
Later, I might be watching from the kitchen window as my wife pulls weeds out of the yard, where she sinks easily into a deep squat and holds that position for one, two, three minutes without a hint of discomfort. When I pull weeds, I use a kneeboard.
The only thing that tempers my flexibility-shame is the knowledge that, in this facet of fitness, I’m not alone in my inadequacies.
Among guys especially, flexibility is nearly always the weakest link. Recently, my long-time tennis partner – a guy who runs down everything for two hours and then heads straight from the courts to the gym to shift alarmingly heavy loads – told me his masseuse routinely shakes her head in astonishment at how rigid he is. On his last visit, when she tried to bring his right heel up to his butt, his whole body had levitated off the bench.
Well, I’m done with chronic stiffness. While I suspect no amount of stretching or manipulation could turn me into a flexible soul, I’m going to see if there isn’t some hint of improvement to be seized.
It’s a Tuesday morning, the first day of autumn, and I’m supine on a treatment bed at StretchLab Balgowlah on Sydney’s northern beaches. Standing near my feet, flexologist Rodolfo (Rudy) Martins tells me to keep
my left leg straight as he raises it towards the ceiling, thus challenging the tighter of my notoriously tight hamstrings.
“Six,” I say. “Creeping towards seven.”
You see, how it works at StretchLab is that your therapist requests constant feedback from you about how much discomfort a stretch is causing you, with one representing ‘none’ and 10 ‘unbearable’. Be assured, he or she won’t push you anywhere near 10. In our session, Rudy operates in the five-to-seven range, where the pain needle has shifted to the right but is well shy of the red zone.
When my leg comes to a halt, Rudy holds it still for a few seconds.
“Now, push against my hand,” he orders. “Exert force.”
I comply, and then Rudy resumes the stretch.
“Better,” he says. “Sixty degrees now.”
Earlier, Rudy had asked me what sports I played.
Tennis mainly, I said.
“Good,” he says. “Lots of rotation in tennis. Greater flexibility through your core will help with that.”
Rudy moves onto the other too-tight muscles of my lower body – adductors, hip flexors, quadriceps, piriformis, IT band – and repeats the same stretch-feedback-push-re-stretch routine – all the while making encouraging sounds rather than reprimanding me for neglect.
“In terms of flexibility, you have a lot of potential,” he says, which sounds like a compliment but probably isn’t.
As well as the hands-on, static-stretching session with Rudy, I speak by phone with Brad Walker, who’s StretchLab’s Chief Stretch Advisor. I ask him what he’d say to guys who feel that, in the pursuit of total fitness, the flexibility component is tedious and inconsequential compared to strength, speed and endurance.
“I hear that a lot,” says Walker, who might just be the world’s foremost expert on flexibility/stretching, having authored 15 books on the topic since 1995. “Flexibility, or range of motion, is the icing on the cake. It’s what helps you get the most out of those other components and brings you closer to being the complete athlete.
“Without flexibility,” he continues, “you’ll never achieve what you could have in terms of strength, speed and endurance. In fact, I often say to athletes that flexibility and strength complement each other: if you’re having trouble improving flexibility in a certain area, try building strength there and you’ll find that will help.”
I’d fully expected Walker to extol the virtues of stretching. What’s surprising is that he’d portray it as a finishing touch rather than as the foundation for everything else.
“I say ‘finishing touch’ only because it usually is the last thing that people do,” he says. “It’s absolutely as important as the other factors, it’s just that it’s the neglected component of total fitness.”
In late 2017, the American fitness giant Xponential acquired the StretchLab brand when the latter amounted to two studios in Los Angeles. In its search for just the right person to help make StretchLab a runaway success, Xponential targeted Gold Coast resident Walker, who flew to the US to meet with CEO Anthony Geisler. “We hit it off and he said, ‘Let’s do it,’ recalls Walker, known to all and sundry as The Stretch Coach.
‘It’ for Walker meant systemising StretchLab’s previously ad hoc approach: flexologists would henceforth use stretches from a master-list of Walker-endorsed, evidence-based moves in appointments of either 25- or 50-minute duration. Expansion was rapid: Xponential recently announced the sale of the 500th StretchLab studio in the US. Australia represents a new frontier: as well as the studio in Balgowlah, there are three in Perth and plans to go national.
“To be flexible means being able to move freely, without any sense of restriction,” says Walker. “It shows in simple movements, like reaching up high to grab a chin-up bar or reaching down low to pick up a dumbbell or turning around to grab something behind you or just getting in out of your car. It doesn’t even need to have an athletic element to it.”
Achieve this flexible state, Walker adds (and everyone has their own flexibility potential; not everyone can be yogi just as not everyone can run a sub-12-second hundred), the rewards will be manifold, from a reduction in generalised aches and pains and stiffness to improvements in posture, circulation, coordination and stress management. For the weekend warrior, whatever your sport, you’ll play better for longer.
“You’ll also reduce your susceptibility to fatigue, DOMS and soft-tissue injuries,” promises Walker. These injuries often stem from imbalances in the body that, under strain, cause an uneven pull on the skeletal system and turn you into a watcher instead of a doer.
Back at the stretch table, Rudy has moved onto my upper body, which is significantly more malleable without being anything to brag about.
“All your problems are in your lower body,” he tells me.
“Is that unusual?”
“Not really, considering most people make their living sitting down.”
Yep – the curse of sitting. No need to deep-dive into that again here; you’ll know by now that prolonged, uninterrupted desk-time is your surest route to chronic tightening.
“Get up and move every 45 minutes?” I ask.
“At the least,” says Rudy.
As Rudy draws my arms around behind me and pulls on my hands firmly but gently as I lie on my back, as though trying to increase my height by elongating my spine, the sensation seems faintly akin to what you might have felt in the rack during the Spanish Inquisition. And I realise that assisted stretching – having someone stretch you – is a whole different ball game to the stretching you can manage on your own. Sure, any gesture towards regular stretching will do you some good; it’s just that we inevitably back off from discomfort quicker without an audience. And who really knows all the muscles that require stretching or how to stretch them efficiently and effectively?
“The therapist is able to put you into positions that you can’t get into by yourself,” explains Walker. “The other big advantage is that they’re able to apply force in those positions.”
When my time with Rudy is up, I feel great, like you do after a full-body massage. Were I to hit the tennis court right now, I think, I’d be like Djokovic: strong and balanced at extension. Rudy cautions me that the “massage-effect” of a thorough stretch won’t go beyond that – beyond a short-lived feeling of looseness – unless the stretching is performed routinely. Morever, with our twenties and thirties now in the rear-view mirror for many of us, the need to stretch only increases.
“There is a part of the ageing process associated with a decline in flexibility,” says Walker, alluding to increased rigidity of the tendons and ligaments around the joints caused by losses in the proteins elastin and collagen. “But as with most things, it’s use it or lose it. No matter what age you are, you can get improvements in flexibility. The older you are, the longer and harder you’ll need to work at it, but that’s the same with every fitness component.”
In a perfect world, says Walker, you’d pursue greater flexibility in every joint of the body (wrists, fingers, ankles), but “I talk about the importance of working from the core out. Focus on your hips, your backside and lower back, your abs and obliques. Hit your core and then work out to the extremities, just as you’d do with strength.”
Pulling your heel up to its corresponding buttock or reaching for your toes will never be as satisfying as a five-kay trail run on a brisk morning. So, think of these simple moves as a means of extending your heyday. And that’s not stretching the truth.
The world’s foremost expert on flexibility, Brad Walker, wants you to focus your stretching efforts on your core. Do this five-move sequence every morning until your body bends to your will.
1/ Rotating Stomach Stretch
Lie face down and bring your hands close to your shoulders. Keep your hips on the ground, look forward and rise by straightening your arms. Then slowly bend one arm and rotate that shoulder towards the ground.
2/ Sitting Forward Flexion Back Stretch
Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front. Keep your toes pointing upwards and rest your arms by your side or on your lap. Relax your back and neck and let your head and chest fall forward.
3/ Lying Knee-to-Chest Stretch
Lie on your back and keep one leg flat on the ground. Use your hands to bring your other knee into your chest.
4/ Lying Knee Roll-Over Stretch
Lying on your back, bend your knees and let them fall to one side. Keep your arms out to the sides and let your back and hips rotate with your knees.
5/ Kneeling Quad and Hip Stretch
Kneel on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance and then push your hips forward.