Stretching is like flossing: We know it's good for us, but we typically avoid it like the plague. Maybe it conjures awkward memories of being the inflexible one in high school, reaching for our toes on those over-glossed gymnasium floors and just not quite making it. (Just me?) Or maybe it's those last two or three minutes at the end of a group fitness class that stand between you and your morning coffee, and let's face it: Coffee always wins.
But a new crop of fitness classes focuses just on stretching. Sessions last anywhere from 25 to 75 minutes and often involve hands-on assistance from a designated (and hopefully certified) stretcher. The purported benefits include everything from anti-aging to better sex. But to find out if an assisted stretching class is really all it's cracked up to be, we asked the experts.
What is assisted stretching?
If the idea of assisted stretching sends you reeling with visuals of your semi-useless old gym teacher, know that this is different. These sessions more closely resemble some hybrid of physical therapy, personal training, massage therapy, and yoga. Typically, the sessions are one-on-one, though in some instances they look a lot like traditional group fitness classes.
"Anatomically, we all have our problem areas, and stretching can minimize pain and improve function," says Emerald Lin, M.D., a physiatrist and a physician of physical medicine and rehabilitation at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. Lin says that sessions involving Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching can be an incredibly effective technique, as it combines multiple major forms of stretching—passive, static, and dynamic.
Curious, I tried a session at Stretch*d, an NYC-based studio that offers one-on-one dynamic, assisted stretch sessions. The "stretch*r" (yep) asked me for my problem areas—lower back, hips, and shoulders—and got to work, strapping me down on a massage table. The strap, he explained, was to keep me from rolling off the table.
He took me through a series of stretches designed to provide relief to my problem areas, starting with dynamic stretches and more traditional stretches like those for the quads and calves. Although the moves felt familiar, through the pressure and weight of his body, I was able to achieve a deeper stretch and range of motion than I might on my own. By the end of the session, he said he observed a larger range of motion in my hips than when I'd walked in, and he sent me home with some stretches I could do on my own. I expected to melt off the table, like I might after a massage, but was pleasantly surprised to just feel OK—not mushy, but not tight either.
Should I try it?
While there's no question that stretching has its benefits, assisted stretching has shown no significant advantage over stretching alone—good news for those who don't have access to one of these fancy studios (or the bank account to sponsor a $100 stretch-sesh every week).
"If you can be disciplined enough to do it for longer in a class, that's great," says Liz Barnet, a certified personal trainer in northern New Jersey. "But you certainly don't need to stretch for that long." And if you're doing a strengthening or cardio endurance workout, Lin says you should ideally be stretching every time. "With strengthening, you tend to tighten up the muscles, so you really want that mix of strength and flexibility," she says. And just a few minutes will help.
Lin and Barnet agree that stretching shouldn't stand alone as someone's only form of exercise. "It's important to remember that these types of classes are meant to be recovery from your other workouts; it's not a workout in and of itself," Barnet says.
In fact, it shouldn't feel like much "work" at all. "Some people abuse themselves by going too hard, and that type of stretching should be left to the professionals: physical therapists or massage therapists." Lin suggests making sure that you either have some type of warm-up or start with dynamic stretching so you're not stretching with cold muscles. If you're set on taking a class, Lin advises looking for smaller class sizes so you can have more personal attention—and less opportunity for self-inflicted injury.
Theodora Blanchfield is an NYC-based writer, social media consultant, and fitness nut who also happens to be a NASM-certified personal trainer and RRCA-certified run coach. She can usually be found in search of either a cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on the hour. She has been blogging at preppyrunner.com since 2009.