Why Stretching Is the Most Important Thing You're Not Doing
A full 28 years passed, and my ability to touch my toes didn't improve one inch (literally). I felt pathetic as I watched women in my yoga classes straighten their legs and touch their heels to the floor during downward dog while I was doing more of a crouching tiger. Sick of being the stiff one in the room, I scheduled a consultation with David Reavy, founder of React Physical Therapy in Chicago. Reavy, who's been a physical therapist for 17 years and has worked with professional athletes like Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte and Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls, has created a signature method that enhances flexibility and was going to put me and my hamstrings through their paces.
Like most gym enthusiasts, I give little thought to my flexibility and instead focus on strength training and cardio. Racking up miles on runs through my neighborhood and doing crunches until my abs ache feels like the best use of my limited workout time. Why stretch for more than five minutes when I could be putting in real work? When I tell Reavy this, he nods knowingly. Apparently, I'm not the only one who rolls her eyes at the idea of stretching as an art form. "Our culture places a premium on strength and power, and as a result anything that has to do with mobility or stability feels like a waste of time," he says. "But the opposite is true. Having a full range of motion actually helps you achieve better results when you perform your regular workouts. Loosening tight and overworked muscles can improve your posture, give you more toned thighs, and even make it easier to flatten your abs." Another reason to get stretching: Tightness is often a precursor to injury and chronic pain.
When I meet Reavy at his training studio in the West Loop of Chicago, the first thing he has me do is try to touch my toes. My fingertips hover about 18 inches above my feet, my arms dangling sadly. Then he has me lie on my side and press my leg as hard as I can against his hand. Finally, I lie on my back while he lifts one leg up toward my head as far as it'll go. The result: not far. As he watches the way my body works, Reavy explains the reason people (myself included) are so tight. "Most people's bodies are imbalanced," he says. "And when you're off-kilter, you end up overusing certain muscles, which leads to tightness." His solution: Fix the imbalances, fix the flexibility issues. According to Reavy, once your body is back in alignment and you activate muscles that aren't performing efficiently, everything starts working equally, and muscles can relax when they aren't in use.
This concept—that everything in your body is constantly reacting to everything else—has a name: kinetic chain theory. "All the joints in your body are interconnected," says Darin Padua, PhD, director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory and chair of the department of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If one joint lacks mobility, the body will figure out a way to compensate—which creates instability at another joint." Your body is such a natural at coming up with work-arounds that you don't even notice it's happening until you start to lose range of motion.
The knee-jerk reaction to stiffness is to target the part of the body that feels tight. Give it a quick stretch, and then stretch some more until you feel a little looser. I was starting to see the problem with this approach: In effect, it deals only with the last domino in the chain. If you really want to cure yourself of stiffness, you have to start with the root issue: the muscles responsible for creating the imbalance in the first place. If I was ever going to loosen up my hamstrings, I needed to show my hip flexors some love. "Most people have tight hip flexors from sitting incorrectly all day long—the pelvis is tilted too far forward, feet are tucked under the chair and arms are often too outstretched," says Reavy. "To compensate, hip flexors push your pelvis out of alignment, which tells your glutes they don't need to work as hard, which means your hamstrings have to pick up the slack, which causes them to become overworked."
To solve imbalances like mine, Reavy determines the root of the problem (the first domino), then zeroes in on the trouble spot. In my case, this means I lie down and he applies serious pressure with his knuckles (overused muscles can be pretty deep under the skin) to each of my hip flexors, while I make a simple back and forth motion with my bent leg. "Having you contract and lengthen the muscle while I apply pressure allows me to go deeper than I would be able to if you were just lying there without moving," he explains. "That's why you'll notice faster results than you would with massage. Even deep tissue massages aren't likely to change the reflexive component in the muscle and get it to calm down." After about 30 seconds, Reavy pushes deep into the band that runs down the outer side of my thigh. The amount of pressure he applies makes me wince, but the pain is worth it—I can actually feel the muscles relaxing under his fingers. I stand up, lean toward my toes again and miraculously discover that I've gained a few inches of reach.
Reavy repeats his approach with other tight areas: He applies pressure; I slowly rock the troubled limb back and forth. By the end of our hour-long session, I'm an astonishing 17 inches closer to my feet. A mere inch from my goal! As I hug Reavy—what can I say, I feel emotional about my accomplishment—he isn't surprised. "The first time people release their muscles, they often see pretty incredible changes immediately," he says. All I know is that my 7-year-old self is very proud.