What is Assisted Stretching?
In simple terms, assisted stretching is a technique where one person helps another person stretch. It has been used in athletic training settings for many years and has recently made its way into gyms, spas, and stretch centers available to the general public.
Assisted stretching uses specific techniques to increase mobility and flexibility of a muscle or group of muscles. It requires advanced training in the way the body moves and is often done by massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and athletic trainers. Assisted stretching is a gentle technique that can be used not only on generalized clientele but also on children, adults, the elderly, and those with physical disabilities.
A typical session will include an extensive assessment of an individual’s physical health. A therapist conducting a session will look at a person’s range of motion, flexibility, limitations, alignment, pain, and discomfort levels. They will also take into account their client’s goals and develop a stretch program that will gradually help them reach those goals.
With the assistance of a trained stretch therapist, a client can go deeper into a stretch safely, effectively, and without injury. These sessions are fully customizable and act as an enhancement to a client’s current wellness program. Clients who are stretched often experience improved posture, pain relief, a reduction in stress, rejuvenation, and an overall feeling of well-being.
Stretching is an essential component in maintaining optimum health. It supports our joints and muscles as well as our emotional health by reducing stress levels in the body. People who were once stiff and considered inflexible are reaping the benefits of fluid movement and improved posture, among other results, according to many published research studies.
A few of the most prominent benefits of stretching include increased range of motion and flexibility, improved circulation, improved posture, stress relief, and pain relief. Let’s look at each of these benefits.
Increased range of motion and flexibility. The range of motion and flexibility go hand in hand. Having a greater range of motion provides joints and muscles supporting them greater flexibility and movement. Studies have found that static stretching increases range of motion and the length of the muscles connected to the specific joint. (See “Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation,” published in 2012 in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, for example.)
Some research indicates that it’s not the length of the muscle that is affected by stretching, but rather a person’s tolerance to stretching that allows them to stretch further. In both cases, the range of motion is positively affected, and its increase allows for greater flexibility, mobility and prevention of injury. Stretching also reduces joint stiffness. making activities like walking or participating in physical tasks more comfortable for the body.
Although research has been focused on stretching, there isn’t yet a consensus on stretching benefits in a generalized sense.
In “Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation,” a review of 101 stretching studies, the authors noted:
“Many exercise studies on older adults include stretching exercises as part of a well-rounded exercise program. Unfortunately, there is no clear dose-response for flexibility training in older adults because stretching interventions are often combined with strengthening, balance, and cardiovascular activities, making it difficult to isolate stretching’s effectiveness.
“Older adults may need longer stretch times than the recommended 15 to 30 seconds … 60-second holds of static stretches were associated with greater improvements in hamstring flexibility in older adults compared to shorter-duration holds. Ten weeks of static stretching of the trunk muscles was able to increase spinal mobility (combined flexion and extension ROM) in older adults. Static stretching of the hip flexors and extensors may also improve gait in older adults.
“Furthermore, the effectiveness of the type of stretching seems to be related to age and sex: men and older adults under 65 years respond better to contract-relax stretching, while women and older adults over 65 benefits more from static stretching.”
Still, we can begin with the assumption that stretching augments massage by helping clients feel more flexible and relaxed.
Improved circulation. Low-intensity stretching done routinely can increase blood flow to tissues and reduce blood pressure. The increase in circulation to muscles brings oxygen and nutrients to tissues and plays a role in decreasing muscle soreness post-workout.
Improved posture. Well-stretched clients will stand taller after stretching — or at least they will feel like they are. The act of lengthening muscles followed by a strengthening exercise program encourages proper alignment in the body and supports good posture.
When tight pectorals or anterior deltoids pull the shoulders forward, for example, this creates curvature in the upper back that makes a person appear hunched over. By lengthening those muscles and strengthening the antagonist’s muscles, a client’s posture can be corrected or improved significantly.
Stress relief. Everyone has experienced tension in their body as a result of mental and emotional triggers. Our body reacts to stressors by contracting or tensing up. The longer tension remains in the body, the tighter the muscle tissues get.
Stretching alleviates tension by slowly opening up the muscles on a cellular level. “Our muscles are made of thousands of muscle spindles — like hairs in a ponytail — that give the muscle cell the ability to stretch and contract by sliding past each other in a coordinated fashion,” said Michael Jonesco, an assistant clinical professor of sports medicine and internal medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, in an article titled “Do you really need to stretch? Science weighs in,” reported in 2018 in the Chicago Tribune.
Stretching also stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system to release endorphins, our body’s feel-good hormones. As a result, many people feel calmer and have a clearer mind after stretching.
Pain relief. Stretching has been used among athletes and rehabilitation centers to alleviate pain caused by anything from sports injuries to car accidents. Restricted movement can cause pain, inhibit movement, and create stiffness and achiness in our bodies. Stretching has been found to counteract these effects.
Studies have found that a routine stretching and strengthening exercise program reduces pain and improves the function of associated joints and muscles. (See “Effects of a stretching protocol for the pectoralis minor on muscle length, function, and scapular kinematics in individuals with and without shoulder pain,” published in 2017 in Journal of Hand Therapy, for example.)
Now let’s look at some of the established stretching techniques available for massage therapists to learn.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
In proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), range of motion and flexibility are gained by passively stretching a muscle while engaging in an isometric stretch. This method follows a specific protocol of contract-relax-stretch, as well as hold times, and is recommended to be performed after a warm-up.
“Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is a technique of stretching that combines both passive and isometric stretches in order to promote or hasten the neuromuscular mechanism through stimulation of the proprioceptors,” he said. “Simply put, PNF stretching fools the nervous system into relaxing the myotactic reflex, [or the] muscle contraction in response to stretching, allowing the targeted muscle to stretch further than with more traditional styles of stretching.”
The massage therapist passively stretches the intended muscle to its comfortable end range while offering resistance to contraction, said Myers. The client uses approximately 25 percent of their strength. After a count of eight to 10 seconds, the client relaxes and takes a breath as the therapist stretches the muscle a bit further, holding for 10 to 15 seconds. This is generally repeated three times.
Herman Kabat, MD, Ph.D., and Maggie Knotts have been credited with developing PNF during the mid-1940s in the U.S. It is often included in sports massage training programs or certification courses.
Active Isolated Stretching
Active Isolated Stretching is a gentle assisted-stretching method that holds a stretch for no longer than two seconds and is then repeated. The antagonistic muscle is contracted while the targeted muscle relaxes.
Aaron Mattes, LMT, and author of Active Isolated Stretching: The Mattes Method developed the technique over the past four decades. He based it on Sherrington’s Law, which states that a muscle will relax when its opposite contracts. His system’s motto is “lengthen and strengthen.”
Mattes said that Active Isolated Stretching increases range of motion and flexibility and also increases blood, oxygen, nutrition, and water to cells in the body — and in turn, benefits the function of the brain’s receptors.
“This is a powerful application of the body’s physiology, and it’s done gently, Mattes told MASSAGE Magazine. “We found that holding a stretch for longer than two seconds activated the stretch reflex, so if you’re holding it longer then you end up with a fight-or-flight situation were muscles that you were trying to stretch by holding longer are contracting to protect themselves.”
Stretch Therapy is a system that includes stretching, fascial remodeling, strengthening, neural re-patterning, and relaxation. It was developed by Judy Stowers, LMT, a certified Stretch Therapy instructor based in Arizona. Stretch Therapy is rooted in various stretching disciplines, including Kit Laughlin’s mind-body holistic approach to stretching.
Stretch Therapy is floor-based and performed on a mat versus a table. Stowers conducts a thorough assessment of each client and develops a specific program of stretches to teach clients what it feels like to stretch on their own. She trains them to do stretches at home once they’ve learned the technique and positions.
“I focus on how they can feel those sensations in their body, [and] how to do the stretch safely and effectively, and that in turn helps them to create a pattern and habit of stretching on their own, which leads them to a healthier and more productive life,” said Stowers.
Dynamic Body Stretching
At the start of her career more than 20 years ago, personal trainer and fitness professional Loretta McGrath noticed her clients were requesting stretching more than personal training, and so she soon shifted her professional focus.
She created the Dynamic Body Stretching method, a style of active isolated stretching, that includes easy-to-learn stretching sequences to improve the range of motion, flexibility, and strength of a client. McGrath is also the author of Body Alignment for Life.
The Dynamic Body Stretching method is supported by a software program developed by McGrath to gauge a client’s range of motion and flexibility. The report gives the therapist a visual picture of the muscles that are weak or imbalanced, what sports might be hindered, and what areas represent a high risk for injuries.
“Understanding the physical health of your client is imperative to create a corrective program,” said McGrath. “We do a range of motion and passive stretching to get the gradings to log into the software. Then once we get all the data, it allows us to apply our own knowledge to correct their imbalances.”
Fascial Stretch Therapy
The Stretch to Win Institute’s Fascial Stretch Therapy program uses four key principles to gain results for clients seeking a good stretch, among other health benefits:
• It is a traction-based system that focuses on opening the joints before moving into a stretch;
• It is based on stretching the body from the core out;
• It uses gentle, smooth, rhythmic movement;
*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
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