Many of us feel chronically tight, stiff, and tense in the modern world, and we often turn to stretching our muscles and tissues as a solution. But what if we told you that, sometimes, no amount of stretching will help your body feel less tight? Or that stretching could be making things worse?
Let’s break it down.
Tension is good… we NEED tension to carry the structure of our body. But like Goldilocks, it’s about finding the right amount of tension.
But chronic tension is usually a result of somewhere else in the body not functioning as it should. Perhaps we’re not using the full capacity of our breath, or perhaps there’s a lack of strength and stability in certain areas of the body.
When we feel chronically tight somewhere, it’s usually our nervous system’s way of trying to protect us. Remember, the job of the nervous system is to send messages back and forth between the brain and the body. Our nervous system is always trying to do its best by us – its job is to keep us safe. So if it senses a lack of strength or stability in an area, it will compensate by creating tension and tightness in order to keep things in order.
When we experience chronic tightness, it’s so easy to want to stretch stretch stretch – and yes, stretching is great, but usually, tightness in the body is due to a lack of strength.
So this is where strength training comes in.
Strength training increases joint range of motion, allowing for greater mobility and flexibility. You’ll want to aim to work your body in a 360° way, focusing on strengthening your stabilising muscles, just as much as the big guns – which is where barre work is incredible.
Increasing your strength will support your body to move through greater ranges of motions safely – and when the body and nervous system feels safe, it doesn’t need to respond in the same way it once did.
So when is stretching helpful?
Always and often – but this should be complimenting your strength work. Prioritise your strength training, and let stretching supplement this. More often than not, it’s our strength that needs to come first.
Stretching refers to a muscle's ability to lengthen, whereas mobility refers to the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion without restriction or discomfort – so it’s the combination of strength work with stretching that will increase your overall mobility.
Stretch classes are also incredible for our nervous systems, which deserve to catch a break in this fast-paced modern world. Gentle stretching activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's rest and relaxation response. This response helps to reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, leading to a decrease in anxiety and tension.
So in summary, stretch classes are the bomb, and are a beautiful way to tend to our nervous systems that can become so amped up amid our busy lives. But be sure to not slack on your strength training, as that could just be the missing key to finding more freedom in your body.