I usually end my first couple of sessions with a client by giving them one or two stretches to do. The idea is to help maintain the corrective nature of my work between sessions. The reality is, most of the time, the stretches will be done one or twice and then forgotten as life begins to get in the way.
So why should you stretch? How does it help “maintain the corrective nature of my work”?
First, some anatomy. Within each muscle belly are muscle fibres called Muscle Spindles. These specialised fibres are wrapped in nerves and detect changes to the length of the muscle. In tendons there are similar nerve cells called Golgi Tendon Organs that serve the same function. When a muscle or tendon are placed under what is perceived to be a potentially damaging amount of tension the brain will interpret these signals as pain to get us to reduce the tension and reduce the risk of injury.
So how does all this tie into stretching? There is a concept called Davis’s Law that, to summarise, states that muscles will accommodate the way they are mechanically stressed. What this boils down to is “You are what you repeatedly do”. It’s the principle of any good training and strengthening program. So if you consistently and repeatedly stretch a muscle (with good form) the body will adapt to the perceived requirement of an increased range of motion.
After a massage muscle tension is lessened, meaning the body will be more flexible. I see this as a prime time to stretch out the muscles that have been worked upon, as you will be better able to condition your muscle spindle fibres into a larger range of motion.
So how long should you stretch and for how often? I recommend holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute, 2 or 3 times a day. An excellent time to stretch is before bed as this can help clear ones mind and set up a routine to help your body get ready for sleep. It’s a good idea to stretch both the target muscle and it’s antagonist (e.g the bicep and the triceps are both agonist/antagonist to each other).
Stretching is a wonderful way to bring mobility back into your body. Just remember to start slowly!