Lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling, I startle slightly at the roar of a drill. It is not a building outside, nor am I at the dentist – it is the sound made by a device that is used on me during an “assisted piece”.
I don’t pull, or even push: your guided stretching exercises are the latest health trend, with special stretch studios that release sports visitors, office workers and the painful elderly.
The concept is already well established in the US and Australia, not to mention Japan, where the Dr Stretch brand offers more than 100 studios to ‘unfold’ the client’s muscles.
Assisted stretching aims to relieve pain, increase flexibility and mobility, and improve physical performance. Pictured: Libby Galvin at StretchLab UK, London, with stretchologist Giovana Braia
The goal is to relieve pain, increase flexibility and mobility, and improve physical performance – and this is catching on with StretchLab UK and Flexology studios that offer sessions starting at £ 28 for 25 minutes.
A guided stretch is usually offered during the cooldown at the end of a personal training session, but the unique thing about these new studios is that they offer it separately: it is not necessary to sweat beforehand. Unlike booking for a massage, you just show up and spend up to 50 minutes maneuvering yourself while someone else does all the work.
The proponents say that, unlike stretching, the entire body can relax during a guided stretch while manipulating specific muscles.
Techniques can be broadly divided into two categories: dynamic stretching, where some participation is needed because the client is instructed to tighten certain muscles while being stretched; and passive stretching, where all the work is done by your assistant.
At StretchLab UK, where I have my session, most of the pieces fall into the last camp.
Everyone can benefit from this type of therapy, says Kunal Kapoor, the founder of the studio.
“We have customers of all ages; our oldest is around 80. The two most important customer camps are those that are extremely active, and those that are very stationary, “he says. “You also get a combination of the two – people who train very hard and then sit for hours at a desk and eventually get stuck and become stiff.”
Guided stretching is the newest health trend, with special stretch studios that make sports visitors looser. Pictured: Libby Galvin at StretchLab UK, London, with stretchologist Giovana Braia
He adds: “We tend to see all these people coming in with the same problems: tight hamstrings, hips, backs and shoulders – all common in modern sitting life.
“What we offer is much more” prehab “as opposed to rehabilitation,” he adds, emphasizing that his staff cannot treat injuries.
But is it really necessary to have a special stretch agreement, while we can just as easily be wrong at home?
“Stretching alone is great,” says Kunal, “but there are very few people stretching 50 minutes in a row, and probably not effective. Maybe you wouldn’t push yourself that far. “
Back to that drilling noise. It is made by the Theragun, a massage tool that kicks muscles 40 times per second. Every session starts with a few minutes of use, all over the body.
“If we worked for hours on each person, that would be great, but we would try to put as much benefit as possible into sessions of 25 or 50 minutes,” my ‘stretchologist’, Giovana Braia, also explains a professional dancer, snake person, stunt woman and personal trainer – clearly no stranger to flexibility.
“Most people enjoy it, some find it uncomfortable, but at the same time often enjoy it,” she says. “It warms everything up and sets everything in motion, so we don’t go cold,” she says.
I understand what she means – the ‘drumming’ of the machine along my body really makes a fine line between pleasure and pain, especially against my calves.
But it is over quickly and we are busy with the stretching exercises.
Giovana leaves no limbs unburned, starts with my legs and moves through my torso, arms and neck.
Bending, stretching, extending, leaning, it’s more of a workout for her than for me, and ends with a quick head massage.
During the session she identifies some tightness along my “lats” (latissimus dorsi), the muscles that wrap around my back and sides. Why could that be, I ask? Giovana tells me it can result from lifting heavy weights. Hmm. . . No. “It can even be the result of many text messages, bent forward, small repetitive movements like that,” she adds.
Ah, there we go. I’m not trying to seem guilty.
I enjoy the experience and feel looser – but can a regular stretch appointment like this be the antidote for a desk job? Or is it only for serious athletes as part of a recovery program?
“The conclusions are fairly clear: stretching does not protect you against injuries and does not really improve recovery in a physiological sense,” says Dr. Duncan Critchley, physiotherapist and teacher at King’s College London, and quotes a comprehensive review of research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014.
“You may feel better after a good stretch, because it stimulates sensory nerve endings, and this sensory input makes us feel better,” he admits, “but you won’t jump higher or run faster.” Stretching will not improve your performance, then. But when it comes to pain relief and improving flexibility and mobility, a supported stretch can have its place – whether you are a fitness fan or not.
“It can help relieve discomfort,” says Dr. Critchley. “And it will increase flexibility. We all know that it is easier to stay with something when someone else helps you to do it, so an assisted stretch can be useful that way. “
Soft tissue techniques such as these are often included in the regimes of top athletes to relieve pain, says Benoy Mathew, a specialist in sports injuries who works for the NHS in Croydon and Harley Street. Similarly, supported stretch programs can encourage the less active people to get moving.
“What makes many people not active is pain, so anything that relieves pain can only be good,” he says. “That combination of touch, a long-lasting hold, definitely has a calming effect on the human body and mind.”
But as to whether it is better for you than doing the hard work yourself, it seems that there are no real shortcuts.
“I helped with stretching and it feels good, but an active strategy will always be better than a passive one,” says Benoy.
“We like to think that we can just lie down and let someone else do the work for us, but the body doesn’t like us to cheat.”