Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, we are going to discuss the science and practice
of flexibility and stretching.
Flexibility and stretching are topics that I believe
do not receive nearly as much attention as they deserve.
For most people, the topics of flexibility and stretching
bring to mind things like yoga, injury prevention,
or maybe even contortionism.
But it turns out that flexibility and stretching
are features that are built into our basic body plan.
Young children, young animals, and adults,
and indeed older children and animals,
all stretch and all have some degree of flexibility.
It turns out that having flexibility
and our ability to stretch,
and the interaction between stretching and flexibility,
are fundamental to how we move,
our ability to learn new movements,
indeed also to prevent injury or repair injuries,
and to offsetting and reducing inflammation
throughout the body.
In fact, today, I’m going to share with you
a remarkable set of studies that show
that stretching can actually adjust things
like tumor growth.
This is work that was done by one of the major directors
of the National Institutes of Health.
So today’s discussion will start with a description
of the mechanisms, literally the cells
and the connections from your nervous system
that mediate flexibility and stretching.
And I promise that I’ll make that information
accessible to you,
whether or not you have a biology background or not.
Then with that information in hand,
I’m going to present to you
what the scientific literature says
about the best times and ways to stretch.
Everything right down to the detail
of how long to hold a stretch,
whether or not to hold a stretch at all,
because it turns out there are multiple kinds of stretching.
So you can imagine you have stretches
where you hold the stretch for a very long time
and use as little momentum as possible.
And then there’s also what’s called
dynamic and ballistic stretching,
where you’re literally swinging your limbs,
trying to increase the range of motion.
I will explain the science and application
of flexibility and stretching
in the context of sports performance,
whether or not you’re engaging in cardiovascular exercise
or resistance exercise or both,
whether or not you’re a competitive athlete
or simply a recreational exerciser, as I am,
whether or not you are trying to increase
your range of motion and flexibility
for longevity purposes,
or whether or not you’re trying to do it
in order to access different parts of your nervous system,
because we’ll soon learn today
that your ability to improve flexibility
and need to engage in specific stretching exercises
can actually be used to powerfully modulate
your ability to tolerate pain,
both emotional and physical pain.
So this thing that we call flexibility and stretching
is actually a vast landscape.
We’re going to simplify and organize all that for you today.
And by the end of today’s episode,
you’re going to have a number of simple,
easy to apply tools that are grounded
in the best scientific research
that you can apply for your specific goals.
Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize
that this podcast is separate
from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.
It is, however, part of my desire and effort
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Let’s talk about flexibility and stretching.
Before we talk about the practices
of flexibility and stretching,
I’d like to just highlight some of the features
that are already built into your nervous system
and into your body that allow you to be flexible.
Some of us feel tighter than others,
sometimes in specific limbs or areas of our body.
Some people feel really loose and limber.
Some people even have what’s called a hyperflexibility.
I, for instance, have a relative that can take her fingers
and bend them back to the point where they touch her wrist,
and it always makes me cringe a little bit,
but she can do that without any pain.
She seems to have some hyperflexibility in her joints.
I do not have that feature.
Some of you may find that you are more flexible
than others, naturally.
And some of you might be thinking,
you don’t need to build in additional flexibility.
Well, I think by the end of today’s episode,
you’ll realize that almost all of us can benefit
from having some sort of understanding about flexibility
and having some stretching protocol
that we incorporate into our life,
if not just for physical performance reasons
and for postural reasons,
then also for cognitive and mental reasons.
And I’ll be sure to clarify what all of that means.
Right now, I’d like to take a moment
and just highlight the flexibility that you already have.
For instance, if you were to move your arm
behind your torso a little bit,
and then sort of let go
or stop exerting any effort in doing that,
you would find that the limb would return more or less
to a position next to your torso.
At least I would hope so.
Now, why is that?
Well, it turns out that there are aspects
of your nervous system, aspects of your skeletal system,
aspects of your muscles,
and aspects of the connective tissue
that binds all of that together,
that try and restore a particular order or position
to your limbs and your limbs relative to one another.
So that reflects a very specific set of processes
that it turns out are the same set of processes
that you use when you are trying
to enhance flexibility and stretching.
So I’d like to just take a moment
and review the basic elements of nervous system,
muscle, connective tissue, and skeletal tissue, bone,
that allow for flexibility and stretching.
And here we can point to two major mechanisms
by which your nervous system, neurons, meaning nerve cells,
communicate with muscles,
and those muscles communicate back to your nervous system
to make sure that your limbs don’t stretch too far,
they don’t move too far, such that you get injured.
And in addition to that,
mechanisms that ensure
that you don’t overload your muscles too much
with weight or with tension or with effort
and damage them that way.
Because it turns out that the second security mechanism
of making sure that you don’t overload muscles
can be leveraged toward increasing your flexibility
There are protocols and tools that I’ll share with you
that are going to allow you
to vastly improve your flexibility over time,
but there are also mechanisms that allow you
to quite significantly increase your degree of flexibility
in a very short period of time, within just a few seconds.
So let’s establish some of the basic biological mechanisms.
Anytime we talk about biology or physiology,
we’re going to talk about structure,
meaning the cells and their connections,
and functions, what they do.
They’re just a few names to understand.
You do not have to memorize these names.
The important thing that I’d like you to know
is that flexibility and the process of stretching
and getting more flexible involves three major components.
Neural, meaning of the nervous system,
muscular, muscles, and connective tissue.
Connective tissue is the stuff
that surrounds the neural stuff and the muscular stuff,
although it’s all kind of weaved together
and braided together in complicated ways.
Some of you may have heard of fascia.
We’re going to talk a little bit about fascia today,
although it’s such an interesting tissue
that it’s really deserving of its own episode.
Fascial tissue, we’re going to talk about
some of the stuff that surrounds muscles
that really gives you your shape
and holds everything together
and allows for flexibility to occur.
So here’s a key thing that everyone should know,
whether or not you’re talking about flexibility or not,
your nervous system controls your muscles.
It’s what gets your muscles to contract.
So within your spinal cord,
you have a category of neurons, nerve cells,
that are called motor neurons.
To be precise, they are lower motor neurons
because they’re in your spinal cord.
We call them lower to distinguish them
from the motor neurons that are in your brain
up in your skull.
Those lower motor neurons, hereafter,
I’ll just refer to them as motor neurons.
If I want to talk about the other kind of motor neurons,
I’ll say upper motor neurons.
So if I say motor neurons,
I just mean the ones in your spinal cord.
Those motor neurons send a little wire or set of wires
out to your muscles,
and that creates what’s called a neuromuscular junction,
which just means that the neurons meet the muscles
at a particular place.
Those neurons release a chemical.
That chemical is called acetylcholine.
Some of you may have heard about acetylcholine before.
Acetylcholine also exists in your brain
and does other things in your brain.
Mainly, it’s involved in focus and attention.
But at the neuromuscular junction,
the release of acetylcholine from these nerve cells,
these neurons, onto the muscles
causes the muscles to contract.
And when muscles contract,
they are able to move limbs
by way of changing the length of the muscle,
adjusting the function of connective tissue,
like tendons and ligaments,
and for instance,
if you’re bringing your wrist closer to your shoulder,
that biceps muscle is contracting.
It’s getting shorter.
I mean, in reality, it hasn’t gotten shorter overall.
It’s just temporarily shorter, of course.
All of that is controlled by neurons,
and it’s those motor neurons from the spinal cord
that are really responsible
for the major movement of your limbs
by way of causing contraction of specific muscles
at specific times.
So the key thing to take away
is that nerve controls the contraction of muscles.
Now, within the muscles themselves,
there are nerve connections.
And these are nerve connections
that arise from a different set of neurons
in the spinal cord that we call sensory neurons.
The sensory neurons exist
in a different part of the spinal cord,
and they send a little wire
or set of wires into the muscles.
And there’s a particular kind of sensory neuron
that comes out of your spinal cord and into your muscles,
which are called spindle neurons.
They create, or they actually wrap around muscle fibers,
kind of corkscrew around them,
and give kind of a spring-like appearance.
If for you aficionados out there,
these are intrafusal connections or neurons.
Intrafusal means within the muscle,
but you really don’t need to know that
unless you’re really curious about it
or you’re going to become a neuroscientist
or you’re in medical school or something.
These spindle connections within the muscle
that wrap around the muscle fibers
sense the stretch of those muscle fibers.
So now we have two parts to the system that I’ve described.
You’ve got motor neurons
that can cause muscles to contract and shorten.
And we have these spindles within the muscles themselves
that wrap around the muscle fibers.
And that information is sent from the muscle
back to the spinal cord.
It’s a form of sensing what’s going on in the muscle,
much in the same way that you have neurons in your eye
that sense light in your external environment.
You have neurons in your ear
that sense sound waves in your external environment.
You have neurons in your spinal cord
that are sensory neurons
that are sensing the amount of stretch in the muscles.
What happens is if a given muscle is stretching really far,
those sensory neurons, those spindles within the muscle
will activate and will send a electrical potential,
literally a bit of electricity along that wire’s length
into the spinal cord.
And then within the spinal cord,
that sensory neuron communicates
through a series of intermediate steps,
but to the motor neuron
and make sure that that motor neuron contracts.
Now, why would that be useful?
Well, what this does is it creates a situation
where if a muscle is, or is stretching too much
because the range of motion of a limb is increased too much
then the muscle will contract
to bring that limb range of motion into a safe range again.
Now, what determines whether or not a range of motion
is quote unquote safe or not
is dictated by a number of things.
It’s dictated by things that are happening
in this kind of loop of neural connections
in the spinal cord and muscle.
It’s also determined by what’s going on in your head,
literally in your mind, cognitively,
about whether or not the movement of that limb,
it’s increasing range of motion is good for you,
whether or not you’re doing it deliberately,
whether or not it’s bad for you.
And then there are also some basic safety mechanisms
that are put in there
that really try and restrict our limb range of motion.
Okay, so just to clarify, this whole thing looks like a loop
and the essential components of the loop
are motor neurons, contract muscles,
of which there are a bunch of different varieties
of in this case, what we’re calling the spindles
are sensing stretch within the muscles.
And if a given muscle is elongating
because of the increased range of motion of a limb,
those sensory neurons send an electrical signal
into the spinal cord
such that there is an activation of the motor neuron,
which by now should make perfect sense
as to why that’s useful.
It then shortens up the muscle.
It actually doesn’t really shorten the muscle,
but contracts the muscle that brings the limb
back into a safe range of motion, okay?
So this process is very fast.
It was designed to keep your body together and safe.
It’s designed to make sure that you don’t, you know,
take your arm and swing it behind your torso
and it just goes all the way back
to the middle of your back.
I mean, unless you’re a contortionist
or you’ve trained that kind of level of flexibility,
that would be terrible
because it could provide a lot of damage to the muscles
and to the connective tissue and so forth.
So that’s one basic mechanism that we want to hold in mind.
This idea of a spindle that senses stretch
and can activate contraction of the muscles
and shorten the muscles.
The next mechanism I want to describe,
and once again, there are only two
that you need to hold in mind for this episode.
This other mechanism has a lot of the same features
as the one I just described,
but it has less to do with stretch.
In fact, it doesn’t have to do with stretch
as much as it has to do with sensing loads.
So at the end of each muscles,
you have tendons typically,
and there are neurons
that are closely associated with those tendons
that are called Golgi tendon organs, right?
These are neurons that are sensory neurons
that sense how much load is on a given muscle, right?
So if you’re lifting up something very, very heavy,
these neurons are going to fire,
meaning they’re going to send electrical activity
into the spinal cord.
And then those neurons have the ability to shut down,
not activate, but shut down motor neurons
and to prevent the contraction of a given muscle.
So for instance, if you were to walk over
and try and pick up a weight that is much too heavy for you,
meaning you could not do it without injuring yourself,
and you start to try and heave that weight off the ground,
there are a number of reasons
why you might not be able to lift it,
but let’s say you start to get it
a little bit off the ground,
or you start to get some force generated
that would allow it to move,
but the force that you’re generating
could potentially rip your muscles
or your tendons off of the bone, right?
That it could disrupt the joints
and it could tear ligaments.
Well, you have a safety mechanism in place.
It’s these Golgi tendon organs,
these GTOs as they’re called,
that get activated and shut down the motor neurons
and make it impossible for those muscles to contract.
Okay, so on the one hand,
we have a mechanism that senses stretch
and can figure out when stretch is excessive.
And when the system detects that stretch is excessive,
it activates the contraction of muscles.
And then we have a second mechanism that senses loads.
And when tension or loads is deemed excessive
by these circuits,
and remember these circuits don’t have a mind,
they don’t go, oh, this is excessive.
They just sense loads.
And when those loads exceed a certain threshold,
well, then those GTOs, those Golgi tendon organs
send signals into the spinal cord
that shut down your motor neurons ability
to contract muscles
so that you no longer can lift that heavy load.
So both of these are protective mechanisms,
but both of these can be leveraged in a very logical way
and in a very safe way
in order to increase your limb range of motion.
So there are a couple of things I want to point out
before going a little bit further
into how your nervous system controls
flexibility and stretching.
And those key points are the following.
There are now dozens, if not hundreds of studies
that show that a dedicated stretching practice
can improve limb range of motion.
Now, for many of you listening,
you’re probably saying, duh,
but I think it’s important to point that out,
that a dedicated stretching practice
can increase limb range of motion.
And as you’ll soon learn,
there are specific mechanisms that can explain that effect.
The second point is one of longevity.
And when I say longevity,
I don’t necessarily mean late stage aging.
We all undergo a decrease in limb range of motion
unless we do something to offset that decrease.
And the current numbers vary from study to study,
but if you look en masse, you look at all of those studies,
and what you basically find is that
we start to experience a decrease in flexibility
from about age 20 until about age 49,
that’s pretty dramatic.
And then of course it will continue after age 49,
but basically it’s a 10% decrease every 10 years.
So we could say it’s a 1% decrease per year,
although it’s not necessarily linear.
What do I mean by that?
Well, it’s not necessarily that on your 21st birthday,
you are 1% less flexible than you were on your 20th birthday
and it decreases by 1% per year.
Some of these changes can be nonlinear.
So you can imagine the person who’s doing just fine
in terms of flexibility between 20 and 30,
and then they get to 32
and suddenly they’ve lost 5% of their flexibility.
Now, of course, there will be a ton of lifestyle factors.
If you’re a regular practitioner of yoga,
if you have a dedicated stretching practice,
if you’re doing other things
to improve your muscle contractibility,
so you’re doing resistance training,
it turns out can actually indirectly improve flexibility.
There are a number of different factors,
but the key point is that
maintaining some degree of flexibility
and maybe even enhancing range of motion and flexibility
is of immense benefit for offsetting injury
provided it’s not pushed too far.
There are a number of people
who have pushed their limb range of motion so far
that they experience all sorts of injuries,
both acute and chronic injuries.
Today, we’ll also talk about how to avoid those scenarios.
Okay, so we’ve established that there are mechanisms
within the spinal cord, muscles, and connective tissue.
Remember, it’s the motor neurons, the spindles, the GTOs,
and of course the muscles themselves,
and connective tissue, tendons,
but also other forms of connective tissue
that establish whether or not a limb
is going to stay within a particular range of motion or not,
and whether or not a limb is going to be allowed
by the nervous system to pursue or handle a given load,
a given tension.
There are also mechanisms
that arrive to the neuromuscular system
from higher up in the nervous system, from the brain,
and those mechanisms involve a couple of different facets
that are really interesting,
and I think that we should all know about.
In fact, today, I’m going to teach you about a set of neurons
that I’m guessing 99.9% of you have never heard of,
including all you neuroscientists out there,
if you’re out there, and I know you’re out there,
that seem uniquely enriched in humans
and probably perform essential roles
in our ability to regulate our physiology
and our emotional state.
So within the brain,
we have the ability to sense things in the external world,
something we called exteroception,
and we have the ability to sense things
in our internal world, within our body,
Interoception can be the volume of food in your gut,
whether or not you’re experiencing
any organ pain or discomfort,
whether or not you feel good in your gut and in your organs,
that’s actually a kind of feeling,
mm, I feel great, I feel sated, I feel relaxed.
Those are all different forms of interoception.
The main brain area that’s associated
with interpreting what’s going on in our body
is called the insula, I-N-S-U-L-A.
It’s a very interesting brain region.
It’s got two major parts.
The front of it is mainly concerned with things like smell
and to some extent vision,
and to some extent other things
that are arriving from the external world
and combining with what’s going on internally
and making sense of all that,
or at least routing that information
elsewhere in your nervous system to make decision,
like if you smell something good to approach it
or if you smell something bad to avoid it.
The front of the insula is really doing
all of that kind of stuff, along with other brain areas.
The posterior insula, the back of the insula, that is,
has a very interesting and distinct set of functions.
The posterior insula is mainly concerned
with what’s going on with your somatic experience.
How do you feel internally?
And how is the movement that you happen to be doing
combining with your internal state to allow you to feel,
as I like to say, the nervous system
mainly batches things into yum,
like, oh, this is really good for me.
Yuck, this is really bad for me, and I need to stop,
or meh, this is kind of neutral.
Okay, so this isn’t about food,
but we could say for most stimuli, most senses,
whether or not they’re senses of things
internally or externally,
our nervous system is trying to make decisions
about what to do with that information,
and so it mainly batches information into yum,
I want to keep doing this or approach this thing,
or continue down some path of movement or eating
or staying in a temperature environment, et cetera,
or yuck, I need to get out of here,
I don’t want any more of this,
I don’t want to keep doing this,
this is painful or aversive or stressful, and then meh.
So if it doesn’t really matter,
I can just kind of stay right here or not.
Yum, yuck, and meh.
Well, in your posterior insula,
you have a very interesting population
of very large neurons.
These are exceptionally large neurons
called van Economo neurons.
These are neurons that are, again,
unbeknownst to most neuroscientists,
and they seem uniquely enriched in humans.
Chimpanzees have them,
and some other large animals have them.
So they’re found in whales, chimpanzees,
elephants, and in humans.
But even though we are much smaller than most whales,
and even though we are much smaller than most elephants,
I mean, remember there are baby elephants,
as far as I know, they haven’t bred up
like mini elephants yet,
they seem to have a teacup version
of pretty much every dog breed.
You can look that up.
I certainly have mixed feelings about this notion
of trying to downsize everything
to the point where you could kind of like,
the pocket-sized bulldog, I think, someday will arrive.
I’m not a fan of that kind of downsizing
of different breeds.
But because there aren’t teacup elephants
and teacup gorillas and teacup chimpanzees and so forth,
most all of those other species are larger than us.
They have these van Economo neurons,
and we have these van Economo neurons,
but we have in upwards of 80,000 of these things
in our posterior insula.
These other species tend to have somewhere in the range
of 1,000 to maybe 10,000 or so.
Why is that interesting?
Well, these van Economo neurons
have the unique property of integrating
our knowledge about our body movements,
our sense of pain and discomfort,
and can drive motivational processes
that allow us to lean into discomfort
and indeed to overcome any discomfort
if we decide that the discomfort that we are experiencing
is good for us or directed toward a specific goal.
This knowledge turns out to be very important
to keep in mind because as we migrate this conversation
toward the things that we can do
to enhance flexibility and stretching,
you’ll soon learn that there are moments
within a stretching protocol
where you have the opportunity
to either override pain and discomfort,
to kind of relax through it or push through it, right?
There’s a decision fork in the road there,
and I’ll tell you which fork in the road to take,
or to say, uh-uh, I’m not going to do that.
I’m going to allow these natural reflexes
of the spindle to kick in
and just essentially stop me from stretching
if a given limb isn’t designed
or shouldn’t be stretched that far.
So I’d like you to keep these van Economo neurons in mind.
I should mention they’re named van Economo
because the guy Constantine van Economo
that discovered them at the end of the 1800s, early 1900s,
decided to name them after himself as many scientists do,
or certainly the neurologists and physicians
are famous for naming things after themselves.
These van Economo neurons turn out to be very important
to keep in mind as we embark on our exploration
of what sorts of stretching practices
can be best applied to increase flexibility.
Because whether or not you undertake a mild, moderate,
or intense flexibility training,
you will no doubt encounter a scenario at some point
where you will have to ask yourself,
do I, quote unquote, relax into this stretch,
or do I try and push through
just a little bit of discomfort?
And I’ll explain how to gauge that decision
in a very specific and ideally safe way.
And I’ll give you some tools
that will allow you to make that decision
in the way that best preserves the integrity
of those neural circuits that I described earlier
and can keep you safe.
These van Economo neurons sit in the exact position
that one would want to be able to evaluate
what’s going on in the body,
in particular, what’s going on in terms of limb movements,
how that relates to our feelings of discomfort.
And then there’s the other aspect
of these van Economo neurons,
which is that these van Economo neurons
are connected to a number of different brain areas
that can shift our internal state
from one of so-called sympathetic activation,
so this is a pattern of alertness and even stress,
sometimes even panic, but typically alertness and stress,
to one of so-called parasympathetic activation,
to one of relaxation.
Oftentimes, you’ll hear that stretching should be done
by relaxing into the stretch.
Well, what does it actually mean to relax into the stretch?
Well, these van Economo neurons sit at this junction
where they’re able to evaluate
what’s going on inside our body
and allow us to access neural circuitries
by which we can shift our relative level
of alertness down a bit
or our relative level of stress down a bit
and thereby to increase so-called parasympathetic activation
and to literally override some of those spindle mechanisms,
even the GTO mechanisms,
but especially the spindle mechanisms
at the neuromuscular and musculospinal junction,
and in that way, gently, subtly override the reflex
that would otherwise cause us
to contract those muscles back.
The reason that’s possible
is because your brain has those other kinds of motor neurons,
the upper motor neurons that can both direct,
meaning control, and can override lower motor neurons.
I’ll give you a brief example of this
that you’ve already done in your life
and that we all have the capacity for.
What I’m referring to is the monosynaptic stretch reflex.
This is something that every first-year
neuroscience graduate student learns,
which is that if you were to step on a sharp object
with a bare foot,
you would not need to make the decision
to retract your foot.
You would automatically do that
provided you have a healthy nervous system.
There are mechanisms in place
that cause the retraction of that limb
by way of ensuring that the proper muscles contract
and other muscles do not contract,
in fact, that they fully relax, okay?
So in the case of stepping on a sharp object,
like a piece of glass or a nail or a tack,
you would essentially activate the hip flexor
to lift up your foot as quickly as possible.
In doing so, that same neural circuit
would activate a contralateral,
meaning opposite side of the body circuit
to ensure that the leg, the foot,
that’s not stepping on the sharp object
would do exactly the opposite and would extend
to make sure that you don’t fall over.
All of that happens reflexively.
It does not require any thought or decision-making.
In fact, humans without any neocortex,
literally, who are decerebrate
or an animal that doesn’t have,
and when I say decerebrate,
I mean lack of cerebral cortex,
they can perform that because it’s all controlled
by circuits that are basically below the brain
and in the spinal cord.
There’s a little bit of activation of circuits
in the kind of deeper parts of the brain,
but basically you don’t need to think
or decide in order to do that.
However, if your life depended
on walking across some sharp objects,
let’s say, let’s make it a little less dramatic
so it’s not like the Die Hard movie or something
where he has to run barefoot across the glass,
although that’s a pretty good example
of what I’m describing here,
but let’s say you had to walk across some very hot stones
to get away from something that you wanted to avoid.
You could override that stretch reflex
by way of a decision made with your upper motor neurons,
your insula, and your cognition,
and almost certainly those van Economo neurons,
which would be screaming, don’t do this, don’t do this,
don’t do this, could shuttle that information
to brain areas that would allow you to override the reflex
and essentially push through the pain,
and maybe even, in fact, even,
not experience the pain to the same degree or even at all.
So these van Economo neurons
sit at a very important junction within the brain.
They pay attention to what’s going on in your body,
pain, pleasure, et cetera,
and that includes what’s going on with your limbs
and your limb range of motion.
They also are paying attention
and can control the amount of activation,
kind of alertness or calmness
that you are able to create within your body
in response to a given sensory experience.
And as I mentioned before,
they seem to be uniquely enriched in humans.
They seem to be related to the aspects of our evolution
that allow us to make decisions
about what to do with our body
in ways that other animals just simply can’t.
Before we go any further,
I want to give you a practical tool
that you can, of course, use,
but that will also give you insight and experience
into your muscle spindle spinal cord circuit mechanisms.
So what I’d like you to do
is if you’re in a proper place to do this,
you’re going to stand with legs straight,
meaning knees not bent,
and you’re going to try and touch your toes,
or for some of you, that’s going to be very easy,
and you might even be able to put your hands
flat on the floor.
I don’t have that kind of flexibility.
It’s pretty easy for me to touch my toes.
I don’t care if you round your back or not,
although ideally I would say don’t round your back,
not because it’s bad to do so necessarily,
but just to try and keep this the same
from trial to trial, as it were.
So try and get a sense of what your range of motion is
in terms of bending over at the waist
while maintaining a flat back
and trying to touch your toes or even touch the floor.
Maybe, again, you can even go hands flat to the floor,
maybe even far out in front of you.
Okay, now what I’d like you to do is stand back up,
and I’d like you to contract your quadriceps
as hard as you possibly can for about five to 15 seconds.
Let’s say 10 seconds just to keep things
more or less normalized.
This obviously is not a super controlled experiment.
So to contract your quadriceps,
for those of you that don’t know,
you’re going to extend your lower limb out.
So this would be like kicking,
although don’t do it too quickly.
You’re going to kick out your foot.
You should feel your quadriceps contract
on the top of your thighs,
and you’re going to try and consciously
contract them as hard as you can.
Okay, typically, if you want to point your toe
back towards your near shin,
that’s also going to help somewhat
to contract even harder and harder.
Okay, so do that for about 10 seconds.
A lot of you will do this just while standing.
Contract, contract, contract.
Okay, then release it.
And then now go ahead and repeat that stretch
where you’re trying to touch your toes or touch the floor.
So this is again,
relying more or less on hamstring flexibility
among other things.
Okay, what most of you will find
is that you have an immediate increase
in hamstring flexibility
or your range of motion has increased.
If you didn’t experience that,
then I would encourage you
to try and contract your quadriceps harder and longer.
So maybe 20 or 30 seconds,
and then try this so-called experiment again.
Why would contracting your quadriceps
allow your hamstring flexibility to suddenly increase?
Well, the way that our muscles are organized
is such that we have muscles
that are antagonistic to one another.
So our quadriceps and our hamstrings work
in sort of a push-pull fashion, if you will.
They can antagonize one another.
So when you move your heel towards your glutes,
you are using your hamstring.
The hamstring obviously also does other things
related to hip movement.
And when you lift your knee,
or when you extend your foot and contract your quadriceps,
you are essentially relaxing the hamstrings.
Now, of course, most movements involve
both quadricep and hamstring in synchrony,
and that synchrony is really an elegant one,
but here we’re more or less isolating the quadriceps
from the hamstrings, at least to the extent
that it can leverage these spindle stretch mechanisms.
So what happens is when you contract your quadriceps hard,
you are relaxing or releasing some of the stretch
that’s occurring in those intrafusal spindle sensory fibers
going into your spinal cord.
And as a consequence, you’re able then
to stretch your hamstrings further,
or we can be more accurate and say
that your range of motion about the hamstring
and its related joints is greater
when you aren’t engaging that spindle reflex,
which would cause the hamstrings to contract, okay?
So if you are somebody who has tight hamstrings,
there could be a variety of reasons for that,
but part of the reason is likely to be neural,
and you can release that neural spindle reflex
by contracting the opposite antagonistic muscle,
which in this case is the quadriceps.
The same thing is true and can be leveraged
for stretching other muscles.
So for instance, if you’re going to do a tricep stretch,
the typical kind of overhead where you grab your elbow
and move it toward the midline of your body
using your opposite hand, well, you can do that.
And then I would suggest trying to flex your bicep,
contract your bicep, that is, while doing that.
And for most people, you’ll notice a increase
in the tricep range of motion or ability
to kind of lean into or to relax into
or to push that stretch a little bit further.
Now, for you physios out there,
and for those of you that have backgrounds in kinesiology,
I want to acknowledge, of course,
that there are other mechanisms that are coming into play.
There are actually neural connections
within the joints themselves
that are providing proprioceptive feedback,
et cetera, et cetera.
But this is simply to illustrate
that part of our range of motion
is determined by these spindle mechanisms
that I spent some time focusing on earlier.
And indeed, this approach can be leveraged
toward creating increased limb range of motion,
not just for the hamstrings, but for your quadriceps.
So for instance, if you have tight quadriceps,
you can do the opposite.
You can contract your hamstring very intensely
for, let’s say, 10 seconds or 20 seconds or 30 seconds.
So that would take some conscious effort
of bringing your heel up towards your glutes.
You could do that in a way
that you’re really trying to contract those muscles hard.
You’d have to use some deliberate
hamstring activation there,
meaning you have to use those upper motor neurons
and the other aspects of your upper brain power, as it were,
to try and really contract your hamstrings
as intensely as possible.
Then you would relax that.
And then you would do your quadriceps stretch again.
And if you did a pre-hamstring contraction measurement
of your quadricep flexibility,
and then you did a post-hamstring contraction measure
of your quadricep flexibility,
almost certainly you would find
that that flexibility had increased.
Now, of course, the muscle really didn’t change much.
The tendons didn’t change much.
What changed was the patterns of neural activation
that were restricting you from, in the first case,
stretching your hamstring or having a,
to be more accurate, we should say,
to having a certain range of motion
about the hamstring and its related joints.
And those break mechanisms were removed.
And of course, then when you contract your hamstring,
you’re removing some of the neural breaks,
the spindle acting as a break
and inhibiting that quadricep range of motion.
Okay, so you can imagine this,
and in fact, you can apply this
for any number of different muscles.
The larger muscles and the sort of biceps, triceps,
and hamstrings, quadriceps are sort of the simplest place
to think about this and to apply it.
But in theory, and indeed in practice,
it really works for all the various muscle groups.
It’s just sometimes harder to access
these so-called antagonistic muscle groups.
Now, we should take a moment and just discuss
what actually happens as we get more flexible
in the short-term and long-term.
I just mentioned what happens in the short-term.
Clearly, those don’t involve lengthening of the muscles.
It’s not like the muscles slide along the bones
or that the tendons really stretch out that much more
than they had prior to that kind of exercise.
But it is the case that if people stretch consistently
over a given period of several weeks or more,
that there are changes in the muscles.
This gets a little bit tricky in terms of nomenclature,
and I just want to highlight that
because I think that a number of people get frustrated
and confused, in fact,
when we talk about muscles getting longer.
You know, the whole concept of a muscle getting longer
isn’t really in keeping with reality,
but there are elements within the muscles
that can change their conformation.
So to get a little bit detailed here,
and we won’t spend too much time on this,
but I just want to acknowledge this for those of you
that are interested in neuromuscular physiology
and how it relates to flexibility.
You know, you have your muscle fibers
and then you have your so-called myofibrils.
So you can imagine kind of a single fiber.
That fiber, of course, will get input
from those motor neurons.
And then within those fibers,
you have what are called sarcomeres.
And you can kind of think about sarcomeres
as little segments, kind of like the segments of bamboo.
If you ever look at bamboo, it’s not just one big stalk.
It’s got those little outpouchings along the way
that kind of break up what would be just one big stalk
of bamboo into different segments,
but they’re all connected.
The sarcomeres are somewhat like that.
And within the sarcomeres,
you have a couple of different components.
One thing is called myosin, which is like a thick layer.
And then the other is actin.
And those are interdigitated, as we say.
They’re kind of connected to one another,
kind of like if you were to put your fingers together
from your two hands,
if you were going to put your fingers
in between one another, that’s interdigitated,
literally interdigitated in this case.
So pun intended.
And that myosin and actin kind of move relative
to one another, and they have a lot to do
with your ability to contract muscles.
When we stretch muscles,
when we go through a stretching practice,
there are a number of things that change,
some neural, some related directly to connective tissue,
but also it appears from really nice work,
mainly done from McGill University.
I’ll provide a link to a couple of these studies
if you want to dig in there more deeply,
that change the conformation,
the relative size and spacing of some of these things
like sarcomeres and the way that myosin and actin
kind of work together.
But we don’t want to think of muscles as lengthening.
We can, however, think about the resting state
of a muscle being slightly different
or indeed very different than the resting state
of a muscle of somebody or of a limb
that has not undergone regular flexibility training.
So that’s as much time as I want to spend on that
because we could spend an entire hour
getting right down into the details.
But I do want to emphasize, however,
that muscles have different parts.
They have fibers, they have sarcomeres,
they have myosin, they have actin.
But the idea of making our muscles longer,
that reflects a number of processes
that occur basically within an existing muscle length.
The length of our muscle bellies
and where our insertions are
relative to our connective tissue and our limbs
is genetically determined, right?
Some people have, for instance,
a bicep that goes all the way from the crook of their elbow
up to their shoulder, right?
And some people can,
if they were to put their arm in a 90 degree angle,
could put two or three fingers
between their bicep and their elbow.
They have a, we can say a shorter bicep, relatively shorter.
Now, the reason I mentioned
these highly detailed cellular mechanisms
is because as we start to embark on different protocols
for using stretching to increase flexibility
and range of motion,
we need to ask ourselves what is preventing
our ability to extend range of motion?
Is it the spindle, right?
Is it because the muscle is stretching too much?
Oftentimes it can be because of that
and or because of a sense of pain
or simply a sense that the muscle
is not in a position that it’s been in before
that’s unrelated to pain or to spindle activation.
And oftentimes it can be related directly
to these changes in the confirmation of myosin and actin
and within the context of the sarcomeres.
Now, of course you can’t peer into
or sense your individual sarcomeres.
However, you do have neurons that innervate these areas
and that send that sensory information
back into the spinal cord and up to your brain to interpret.
So you’ll find that as we move along,
there are specific adjustments that you can make
at both the macro level,
meaning how much movement to insert into your stretching,
is it going to be a static or a dynamic
or even a ballistic stretch?
Or for instance, at the micro level,
that even just a slight submillimeter or millimeter increase
in the stretching of a given muscle and related tissues
can translate into an increased range of motion performance.
As a quick but relevant aside,
I thought I’d share with you something useful
that’s also grounded in this notion of antagonistic muscles.
So for those of you that do resistance training,
whether or not it’s with body weight
or with physical weights or machines, what have you,
you may have found that if you,
let’s say were to do three sets of a pushing exercise,
so this could be pushups, this could be bench presses,
this could be shoulder presses, something of that sort.
And then later in the workout, you were to do,
let’s say machine pull-downs or pull-ups or chin-ups
of some sort, so a pulling exercise.
Typically what you would find is if you were to do
what’s often called straight sets,
so you would do three sets of pushups,
let’s say with two minutes of rest in between,
that you might be able to get a certain number
of repetitions on the first set.
Just for sake of example,
let’s say you can get 10 repetitions on the first set
and then you get eight repetitions on the second set
and then you get six repetitions on the third set
with two minutes in between.
And then you would move on at some point
to your pulling exercises.
And similarly, let’s say you were doing chin-ups
or pull-downs and you would get 10 repetitions,
rest two minutes, eight repetitions,
rest two minutes and six repetitions.
Well, typically what people discover
is that if they interleave
their pushing and pulling exercises,
provided they do that for muscles
that are antagonistic to one another.
So in this case, pushing with the chest, shoulders
and triceps for the pushing exercises
and pulling with the back and biceps.
And of course there are other muscles involved as well.
But because those muscle groups
are at least in part antagonistic to one another,
what people often find is that if they were to say,
do their pushing set, get 10 repetitions,
then move to a pulling set after just say 60 seconds
and perform that pulling set,
then go back to the pushing set,
then go back to a pulling set, push, pull, push, pull.
In other words, interleaving their sets,
even if they were to maintain
the same amount of rest between sets of pushing
and sets of pulling,
what they discover often is that
the drop in the number of repetitions that they get
is somewhat offset.
So rather than get 10, eight, six,
as it were with the straight sets,
it will be 10, nine, eight.
So what this means is not that you’re increasing
the total rest time to four minutes between sets,
because then of course it wouldn’t be equivalent,
but rather that while maintaining the same amount of rest
between sets for this same muscle group,
by going from push, pull, push, pull
of antagonistic muscles,
you’re able to have improved performance.
And the reason for that has everything to do
with what we were describing before,
which is that typically if you were to do push, set, rest,
push, set, rest, push, set, rest,
well, in between those sets,
and in fact, actually during those sets of pushing,
the pulling muscles that would be involved
in the chin-ups or pull-downs, et cetera,
are actually relaxing,
or at least are being released of some tension,
including the activation of the spindles,
among other things.
So that’s a long-winded way of saying
that interleaving push and pull of antagonistic sets
can leverage some of the same neural circuits
that we’re talking about leveraging
for sake of increasing flexibility.
Now, I offer this to you as a tool that you can try.
One of the challenges with using this tool, however,
is that you often have to occupy multiple sites
within the gym.
You know, if you’re doing this at home
and you have your own gym, that’s one thing.
If you’re doing this in a gym
where you have multiple pieces of equipment,
well, then you become that person
who has essentially taken over some small corner
or multiple corners or machines within the gym.
And oftentimes you’ll find that you’ll walk back
to a machine or you’ll walk back
to a given resistance exercise,
and someone has now taken it over,
and the whole thing can be thrown off.
So it takes a little bit of orchestrating
in order to do properly.
But in general, what people find
is that this can allow you to enhance performance overall
of these individual movements,
again, while maintaining the same amount of rest.
And even if you choose not to do this,
I encourage you to pay attention to this as a concept
because, again, it’s leveraging this idea
of antagonistic muscles, flexors and extensors,
antagonistic neural relationships
between the spinal cord mechanisms
that control one set of muscles
and activating those muscles,
allowing the opposite antagonistic muscle to relax
and therefore to perform better on its next set.
So now I’d like to shift to the question
of what types of stretching can and should we do
to increase limb range of motion
if our goal is to do that in the most efficient way possible?
Because I realize that most people don’t have
endless amounts of time to dedicate to a stretching practice.
And even for those of us that do,
I’m sure that you want to get the most outcome
for a given effort.
And what are the modes of stretching
that are going to allow us to increase our flexibility
and limb range of motion most safely?
Now, there are a number of different types of stretching
or methods of stretching.
Broadly defined, we can describe these as dynamic,
ballistic, static, and what’s called PNF stretching.
PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation,
and it involves and leverages many of the mechanisms
that I described to you earlier.
The first two that I mentioned,
dynamic and ballistic stretching,
both involve some degree of momentum
and can be distinguished from static and PNF type stretching.
Now, to distinguish dynamic stretching
from ballistic stretching,
I’d like to focus on this element of momentum.
Both involve moving a limb through a given range of motion.
In dynamic stretching, however,
it tends to be more controlled, less use of momentum,
especially towards the end range of motion.
Whereas in ballistic stretching,
there tends to be a bit more swinging of the limb
or use of momentum.
So I invite you to visualize
what dynamic and ballistic stretching
might look like in your mind.
You can even try it if it’s safe for you to try it.
You know, you could imagine swinging your arm up overhead
as much as possible and bring it down.
I’m doing this because I’m seated.
It’s kind of ridiculous movement to do while seated
or perhaps at all.
But for instance,
you can see dynamic and ballistic stretching
anytime someone, for instance,
is holding onto something with one arm
or maybe not holding on and swinging out their foot.
So essentially getting movement about the hip joint.
And you’ll notice that some people raise it up
and pause it and bring it down.
That’s one form of dynamic stretching.
Whereas others will swing it up
and sort of let it carry itself a bit further
due to the momentum at the top of the movement
and then just let it drop back down
or maybe even control the descent.
There is an enormous range of parameter space here
or variables that one could imagine.
And there’s just simply no way
that we could subdivide all those.
But again, dynamic and ballistic stretching
both involve movement.
So we have to generate some force
in order to create that movement.
Ballistic stretching involving a bit more momentum
or sometimes a lot more momentum,
especially at the end range of motion.
Now, both of those are highly distinct
from static stretching,
which involves holding the end range of motion.
So minimizing the amount of momentum that’s used.
So to stay with a simple example
that we are all now familiar with
from our earlier discussion,
slowly bending over at the waist
and trying to touch your toes
or putting your hands to the floor
and then holding that end position
before coming up in a slow and controlled way
such that you reduce the amount of momentum to near zero
would be one example of static stretching.
Static stretching can be further subdivided
into active or passive, right?
There are different names for these kinds of approaches.
You can hear about the Anderson approach
or the Janda approach.
You can look these sorts of things up online.
And again, people tend to name things after themselves.
So some of these are proprietary
related to specific programs.
I’m not focusing on those.
Others come to be named after the physiologists
or the practitioners that initially popularized them.
As is always the case,
there’s always a naming and renaming
and claiming of territory with these things.
For the time being, I’d like to just emphasize
that static stretching can be both active,
where there’s a dedicated effort
on the part of the stretcher, you,
to put force behind the hold
to kind of extend or literally to extend
the range of motion.
And then there’s also passive static stretching
in which it’s more of a relaxation
into a further range of motion.
And that can be a subtle distinction.
And there are other ways in which we can further distinguish
active and passive static stretching.
But nonetheless, static stretching involves
both those types of elements, active and passive,
but is really about eliminating momentum.
And then there’s the PNF,
the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.
And proprioception has several different meanings
in the context of neuroscience and physiology.
To just keep it really simple for today,
proprioception involves both a knowledge
and understanding of where our limbs are in space
and relative to our body,
typically relative to the midline.
So the brain is often trying to figure out
where are our limbs relative to our midline
down the center of our body.
And we know where our limbs are
based on so-called proprioceptive feedback.
So that’s feedback that comes from sensory neurons, right?
Now you know what sensory neurons
that are essentially monitoring
or responding to events within the joints,
the connective tissue and the muscles,
and within the deep components of the muscles,
like the spindle reflex and within the tendons,
like the GTO, the Golgi tendon organ.
So PNF type stretching leverages these sorts of mechanisms,
these neural circuits by way of, for instance,
you would lie on your back.
And if your goal is to increase your hamstring flexibility
and the flexibility and range of motion
of other related muscle systems,
you might put a strap around your ankle
and pull that muscle, or I should say, excuse me,
that limb towards you.
You’re not going to pull the muscle towards you.
You’re going to pull that limb, your ankle towards you
to try and get it sort of back over your head,
and then progressively relaxing into that,
or maybe even putting some additional force
to push the end range of motion and then relaxing it,
and then actually trying to stretch that same limb
or increase the limb range of motion without the strap.
Sometimes these are assisted by other people.
So people will even use loads.
Sometimes they’ll even use machines.
There are a number of different apparati
that have been designed for this.
Sometimes it’ll involve a training partner.
There’s a huge range of PNF protocols,
and those protocols can be done both by oneself
with or without straps, with machines, with actual weights,
or with training partners.
If you’re interested in the variation of exercises
to say target your hamstrings versus your quadriceps
versus your shoulders versus your chest muscles, et cetera,
your neck muscles, and so on,
there is an enormous range of information
on dynamic, ballistic, static, and PNF stretches
for all the various muscle groups.
And I should say there are some excellent books
on those topics.
There are also some excellent videos on YouTube
Nowadays, it’s pretty easy to find exercises
that allow you to target specific muscle groups.
Again, I encourage you to be safe in how you approach this,
and I would encourage you also to pay attention
to the information that soon follows
as to what sorts of protocols one would use
to apply those exercises.
But the number of exercises
and the availability of those exercises
for targeting different muscle groups
with these four different kinds of stretching
is both immense and fortunately, thankfully,
immediately accessible to all of us often at zero cost.
So specific exercises to target specific muscle groups aside,
we’ve now established that there are four major categories
of stretching, or at least those are the four major
categories I’m defining today.
And we can further divide those categories
into which are the ones that are going to be most effective
for increasing range of motion in the long-term,
not just in one individual session.
And there’ve been a number of studies exploring this.
I can list out at least four, and we’ll put those four
as a kind of a cluster under one heading
in the show note captions
that arrive at essentially the same answer,
which is that for increasing limb range of motion,
it does appear that static type, including PNF,
but static type stretching is going to be more effective
than dynamic and ballistic stretching.
So at least to my mind, this is good news.
Why is it good news to me?
Well, while dynamic and ballistic stretching
can be immensely useful for improving performance
of specific movements,
in particular in the context of particular sports
like tennis or in sprinting, or frankly, for any sport,
they do carry with them a certain amount of risk
because of the use of momentum.
So you don’t need to be highly trained
in order to perform them.
In fact, there is a place, and we will describe
when one would want to apply dynamic
or ballistic stretching.
I’ll just give away for now,
I think that most physios out there,
and certainly the ones that I spoke to,
Dr. Andy Galpin, Dr. Kelly Starrett, and a few others,
point to the fact that doing some safe dynamic
and ballistic stretching prior to, say,
a resistance training session,
or maybe even prior to a cardiovascular training session
can be useful, both in terms of range of motion effects
and in terms of neural activation effects.
I don’t want to use the words warm up
because warming up is typically associated
with increasing core body temperature, as it should be.
But for engaging the neural circuits
and becoming familiarized with the neural circuits
that you’re about to use in other movements,
while also increasing the range of motion
of the joints involved in those movements
so that you can perform them more safely
and more confidently.
So I’m certainly not saying, I want to repeat,
I’m certainly not saying that dynamic
and ballistic stretching are not useful.
They absolutely are.
But in terms of increasing limb range of motion
in the long-term, of truly becoming more flexible
as opposed to transiently more flexible,
static stretching, which includes PNF,
appears to be the best route to go.
So if your goal is to increase your limb range of motion
for a given muscle group, or perhaps for all muscle groups,
although I can imagine that’d be pretty tough.
I mean, you’re not going to spend time,
I could imagine, working on your tongue muscle control
or neck muscle control and every muscle control.
But most of us want to reduce so-called tightness
in air quotes and increase limb range of motion
for certain muscle groups.
And it appears that the best way to do that
is going to be static stretching of some kind,
which raises the question of how often
to do that static stretching
and how long to hold those static stretches.
And we can also ask the question,
we should ask the question,
where to hold those static stretches?
Is it always a good idea to hold those static stretches
at the end or the point of maximal range of motion?
We’re going to address that now.
There’s some terrific science around this.
A slightly older study, but nonetheless a powerful one,
because it provided a foundation
for a lot of subsequent work,
which basically served to just confirm
the answer they got here,
is a study from Bandy et al.
And the title of this study is
the effect of time and frequency of static stretching
on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles.
It was a study involving 93 subjects.
So 61 men, 32 women, ranging in age from 21 to 39 years.
So a pretty broad demographic
who had limited hamstring muscle flexibility,
here I’m paraphrasing,
and randomly assigned to one of five groups.
So the four stretching groups stretch five days per week
for six weeks.
The fifth group, which served as a control, did not stretch.
The results clearly show that, quote,
the change in flexibility appeared to be dependent
on the duration and frequency of stretching.
This is great.
This tells us that stretching for a given amount of time
scales with the amount of limb range of motion improvement
that one will see.
There were many interesting findings within this study,
but the one that I’d like to highlight most is, quote,
the results of this study suggest that a 30 second duration
is an effective amount of time
to sustain a hamstring muscle stretch
in order to increase range of motion.
No increase in flexibility occurred
when the duration of stretching was increased
from 30 seconds to 60 seconds,
or when the frequency of stretching was increased
from one to three times per day.
Okay, so now we’re starting to lay down some parameters.
What this study reveals and what subsequent studies tell us,
and we will get into those subsequent studies,
is that ideally one would do static stretches
that are held for 30 seconds.
Perhaps more in certain instances,
and I’ll explain when that can be useful,
but here holding those stretches for more than 30 seconds
did not turn out to be additionally useful.
So if you’re going to stretch your quadriceps, for instance,
and you’re going to hold that stretch in static fashion,
remember not using momentum,
and you can use the mental tricks
of either trying to push through the pain,
which I don’t recommend necessarily.
I think that makes us prone to injury,
or to relax into the stretch,
but nonetheless providing some force,
typically with a hand in order to pull your ankle back.
If you’re doing a quadriceps stretch,
some people might do this on the edge of a sofa.
Remember, there are a lot of different exercises
and ways to do this that you can explore elsewhere.
Well, holding that static stretch for 30 seconds
appears to be sufficient to stimulate an increase
in limb range of motion over time.
Again, these are protocols
that were used repeatedly over time,
and we’ll talk about how often to repeat them
in order to get maximal effect.
But 30 second holds for static stretches
is the number that I think we want to focus on,
and that most of us are going to want to utilize.
So now let’s explore how many sets of static stretching
one ought to do in order to get
a maximum range of motion improvement,
while not placing us into a system
that’s going to create injury,
nor a situation where we have to be
constantly stretching throughout the day.
Because again, most of us don’t have time to do that.
This issue of sets is an important one.
In the context of cardiovascular exercise,
we’ve talked about the data that support the fact
that doing at least 150, and ideally,
as much as 200 minutes per week
of zone two cardiovascular exercise
is very useful for cardiovascular health
and for other aspects of health.
And of course, there are other aspects
of cardiovascular exercise
that could be layered onto and into that,
that can be useful like 90 second maximal sprints, et cetera,
discussed this a lot in the episode with Dr. Andy Galpin
and on our episode about endurance.
And we also talked about sets
in the context of strength and hypertrophy building,
building muscle size and or strength
in the episode about that.
And in particular, in the episode with Dr. Andy Galpin,
and there, we could also arrive at some specific parameters.
And it’s going to vary, of course, between individuals,
depending on how hard you train,
whether or not you take sets to failure,
your repetition range, et cetera.
But in the context of strength and hypertrophy building,
we arrived at approximately six,
maybe as many as 10 sets per week per muscle group.
Some of that work is done as direct work
to a given muscle group.
Some of that work is indirect.
So doing certain pulling exercise, of course,
will target the latissimus dorsi muscles,
but also the biceps.
So if you, that doesn’t necessarily mean
you have to do 10 sets for the biceps and for the lats.
Sometimes you’re getting some indirect work, et cetera.
All of that was delineated
in the episode with Dr. Andy Galpin.
And we arrived at those numbers of sets
according to the same criteria that we will apply here.
What is the minimum number of sets both to maintain
and to improve a given mode of performance?
Strength and hypertrophy or cardiovascular health.
Again, to either maintain or improve.
And we can do the same thing for improving
or maintaining range of motion.
Because as I mentioned earlier,
the data points to the fact that
if we don’t do some dedicated work
to improve range of motion over time,
we will lose our flexibility
and limb range of motion over time,
just by virtue of the fact
that we’re not doing anything to offset that.
So whether or not you want to maintain, reestablish,
or gain limb range of motion,
static stretching of holds of 30 seconds appear to be best.
Now the question is, how long should you do that?
And how many sets should you do that?
And how many times a week should you do that?
And to answer those questions,
I’m going to turn to what I think
is a really spectacular review.
This was a review that was published in the year 2018.
So it’s fairly recent.
First author, Thomas, Edwin Thomas, last author, Palma.
We will put a link to this in the show note caption.
The title of the paper is
The Relation Between Stretching Typology
and Stretching Duration, The Effects on Range of Motion.
It’s a very straightforward title.
This is a review article that explored
a number of different studies,
had criteria for whether or not those studies
could be evaluated in the context of the questions here,
had some quality standards and some other standards
that they applied, and basically winnowed down
a large collection of studies to a remaining 23 articles
that were able to be considered, quote,
eligible and included in the quantitative synthesis
So key points from that quantification and synthesis
done in this paper.
First of all, and I quote,
all stretching typologies showed range of motion
improvements over a long-term period.
However, the static protocols showed significant gains
with a p-value less than 0.05,
which means a probability that cannot be explained
by chance alone when compared to ballistic or PNF protocols.
So again, what we’re hearing is that static stretching
is the preferred mode for increasing limb range of motion.
Although here they make the additional point
that static stretching might even be superior,
not just to ballistic stretching,
but also to PNF protocols.
Because before, as you may recall,
there was a distinction between ballistic and dynamic
and static and PNF.
And so here it appears again that static stretching
is sort of rising to the top of the list
as the optimal approach relative
to all other stretching approaches,
at least in the context of increasing limb range of motion.
The authors go on to say,
time spent stretching per week seems fundamental
to elicit range of movement improvements
when stretches are applied for at least
or more than five minutes per week.
Okay, this is critical.
This is not five minutes per stretch.
Remember, 30 seconds per static stretch,
but at least five minutes per week.
Whereas the time spent stretching within a single session
does not seem to have a significant effects
for range of motion gains.
If this is getting confusing,
I’ll make sure that you soon understand
exactly what we can export from these conclusions.
The data indicate that performing stretching
at least five days a week,
now some of you may already be groaning,
for at least five minutes per week.
Okay, so five days per week, that’s a lot,
but at least five minutes per week,
five minutes per week is not that much.
Using static stretching may be beneficial
to promote range of motion improvements.
Okay, I’ve read this study in detail now.
They highlight again, the reduction in flexibility
that occurs from 20 to 49 years of age and so on,
how acute bouts of short-term stretching
up to three weeks can improve stretch tolerance.
I think that’s a key point that in the short-term,
the first three weeks of embarking
on a stretching and flexibility program,
much of the improvements come
from the short-term neural improvements
that we talked about before
of inhibiting the spindle reflex and so on,
and also a stretch tolerance,
a comfort with doing the movements
and maybe even a comfort in overriding
some of the pain mechanisms.
I’ll talk a little bit more about that in just a bit,
and the particular utility of yoga,
something that I don’t often practice,
but that after reading this article
that I’ll mention in a little bit,
I’m considering perhaps taking up
some form of yoga protocol.
Now I’ve already highlighted some of the key takeaways
from the study, namely that we need to get
at least five minutes per week
of static stretching per muscle group.
And based on the previous paper that we talked about,
we need to divide that five minutes
into sets of 30 seconds each.
And as I mentioned earlier,
it doesn’t seem to be the case
that you can do all of that in one day, unfortunately.
It does seem important that the frequency
of stretching practice distributed
throughout the week is important.
So let’s talk protocols.
We are now talking about doing static stretching,
so holding, so limiting momentum,
and holding a stretch for 30 seconds per set.
We’re talking about trying to achieve
five minutes per week of those static holds,
but that we can’t do it all in one session
because the frequency of sessions
distributed throughout the week
correlates with the improvements in limb range of motion.
So what this means is that we should probably be doing
anywhere from two to four sets
of 30-second static hold stretches
five days per week or some variant thereof.
And I do say some variant thereof
because it turns out that even though
there was that earlier study that we talked about,
that holding a stretch for more than 30 seconds,
in that case, 60 seconds,
didn’t turn out to be additionally beneficial.
It appears that if you do hold those stretches
for 60 seconds per static stretching set, for instance,
you can get away with stretching fewer days per week overall.
So in order to make this as clear as possible,
because I do realize there are a lot of parameters,
and you might be asking,
why didn’t you just make me a list
of the exact things I should do?
Well, it doesn’t work that way
because once you understand the mechanisms
and once you understand your particular goals,
this information is designed for you
to be able to construct a stretching program
that is tailored to your specific goals.
If I just gave you the stretching program that I’m doing,
or I should say that I’m soon to be doing
because I’m soon to be doing one
based on the research for this particular episode,
well, that wouldn’t be beneficial for you.
Because for instance, if you have very flexible hamstrings,
but not very flexible quadriceps,
or you are somebody who is engaged in sport
or not engaged in sport,
what you need to do is going to vary somewhat.
So what would effective stretching protocol look like?
We’re all trying to improve limb range of motion
for different limbs and different muscle groups.
But just by way of example,
and it’s because the one we’ve been using,
let’s talk about hamstrings for the time being.
This could of course be applied to other muscle groups.
Let’s say you want to improve hamstring flexibility
and limb range of motion about and around the hamstring
and involving the hamstring.
You would want to do three sets
of static stretching for the hamstring.
Again, easy to find such exercises on the internet.
You would do that by holding the stretch for 30 seconds,
resting some period of time,
and doing it again, holding for 30 seconds,
resting some period of time,
and then holding it for 30 seconds.
That would be one training session for the hamstrings.
I have to imagine that you’d probably want to stretch
other muscle groups as well in that same session.
Although at least as far as I could tell,
there was no data pointing to the fact
that you couldn’t do your hamstring stretching
one part of the day and your quadriceps stretching
another part of the day.
But presumably you’re going to want to combine
your flexibility training into one single session.
So three sets of 30 seconds each, you get 90 seconds,
and you would do that ideally five times a week
or maybe even more, because it does seem like frequency
distributed throughout the week is an important parameter.
Now, one thing that we have not highlighted
or at least described is how long to rest
between stretching sets.
And despite my efforts,
I could not find research back information
that pointed to whether or not 30 seconds of rest
for every 30 seconds stretching or 60 seconds rest
for every 30 seconds stretching was ideal.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that doubling the amount
of time for the interleaving rest would be appropriate
or at least doable.
If anyone out there has knowledge about rest
between stretching sets and has some physiology
or some biology or some experiential information
as to why a given ratio of duration of static stretch
to rest in between static stretch sets ought to be used,
please put it in the comments on YouTube.
That’d be a terrific way for us to get that information.
I’d love to do any follow-up to links that you provide
and so on.
But now we’re starting to build into a protocol
that is backed by the scientific data.
Three sets of 30 seconds of holds done five times
or maybe even six times per week.
One thing that did show up in my exploration
of the peer-reviewed research is this notion
of warming up for all this.
We haven’t talked about that yet.
In general, to avoid injury,
it’s a good idea to raise your core body temperature a bit
before doing these kinds of stretches,
even these static stretches,
which we can sort of ease into
and don’t involve ballistic movement by definition.
And the basic takeaway that I was able to find
was that if we are already warm from running
or from weight training or from some other activity,
that doing the static stretching practice
at the end of that weight training or cardiovascular
or other physical session would allow us
to go immediately into the stretching session
because we’re already warm, so to speak.
Otherwise, raising one’s core body temperature by a bit
by doing five to seven, maybe even 10 minutes
of easy cardiovascular exercise or calisthenic movements,
provided you can do those without getting injured,
seems to be an ideal way
to warm up the body for stretching.
We should be warm or warm up to stretch,
although those warmups don’t have to be extremely extensive.
And then just by way of logic,
doing the static stretching after resistance training
or cardiovascular training seems to be most beneficial.
In fact, and unfortunately we don’t have time
to go into this in too much detail today,
I was able to find a number of papers
that make the argument that static stretching
prior to cardiovascular training
and maybe even prior to resistance training
can limit our performance
in running and resistance training.
I realize that’s a controversial area.
You have those who say, no, it’s immensely beneficial.
You have those who say, no, it inhibits performance.
And those that say, no,
it’s a matter of how exactly you perform
that static stretching and which muscle groups
and how you’re doing this and how much time
in between static stretching and performance.
But to leave all that aside,
doing static stretching after some other form of exercise,
and not after some form of exercise after a brief warmup
to raise your core body temperature
definitely seems like the right way to go.
Now, for some of you out there,
and I confess for me as well,
doing something five days a week seems like a big commitment
even if that commitment is one
to only do three sets of 30 second static stretches.
I say this because you’ve got the warmup.
I generally like to bring a kind of a focus
and dedication to a practice.
And of course, because when doing these kinds of protocols,
it’s likely that you’re not just stretching your hamstring.
So it’s not just 90 seconds of work
with a minute of rest in between,
but very likely that also doing quadriceps stretching
and also doing stretching for the shoulders
and stretching for the back and the neck and so on.
And so that entire session is going to take some time.
And five days a week is a pretty serious commitment
for most, especially for those of us that don’t exercise
or do athletics for a living, which I don’t.
So there is some evidence from the literature
that one can get away with,
or I don’t even know that we should think about it
as getting away with,
but that one can do longer hold static stretches
of up to say 60 seconds,
but do fewer total sessions per week.
So rather than three 30 second static holds,
doing three 60 second static holds
and doing those every other day.
And there really hasn’t been a systematic exploration
of this, the article that I was referring to
just a few moments ago,
this analysis of the 23 articles was combined
into this enormous set of tables
and some really quite nice graphs
that you’re welcome to look at
since we’re going to provide a link to the study.
There are a couple of key takeaways that I want to mention
that are separate from this issue of how long to stretch
and how often.
First of all, they describe in their discussion
that there were improvements in range of motion
independent of whether or not people did static stretching,
active stretching, passive stretching,
ballistic stretching, or PNF stretching.
So all of those forms of stretching
will improve limb range of motion.
This is essential to point out,
and I want to emphasize this.
Static stretching, however,
gave the greatest degree of gains in limb range of motion.
And on average, they saw a 20.9% increase,
but some of the other increases they observed
were also quite substantial.
So ballistic stretching can also provide
some pretty impressive limb range of motion improvements.
However, they tended to be in the range of,
here they point out 11.65% increase,
or in the case of PNF, a 15% increase.
So it appears that the greatest improvements
in limb range of motion for your time spent
and effort spent is going to be
this minimum of five minutes per week
to elicit a significant response,
with five days being the minimum
weekly recommended frequency
to achieve significant range of motion improvements.
I confess this was pretty surprising to me
when I compare flexibility training to, say,
resistance training for strength and hypertrophy.
I’ve had the experience,
and I know that other people have had the experience,
and I think Dr. Andy Galpin would probably agree
that provided one trains hard enough and appropriately
that you don’t need to train resistance training
five days a week in order to get significant improvements
in strength and hypertrophy.
Some people might need to,
but you can get a lot of positive results
in those variables with less frequent training,
certainly with three or four days a week of training.
And for cardiovascular training,
I’m not aware of anyone having tested
whether or not one very long run each week
can actually increase cardiovascular fitness,
and you’re not doing anything else,
although I have to imagine you’d probably see
some improvement compared to not doing anything.
But most people are doing repeated training sessions
of cardiovascular strength training.
Not a lot of people are doing five days a week
of strength training, at least that I’m aware of.
Some people are, but most people, I think, are not.
And some people are doing five or more days a week
of cardiovascular training.
I’m guessing that most people are not doing five days a week
of dedicated static stretch,
range of motion directed training.
But it does appear that that frequency about the week,
getting those repeated sessions,
even if they are short for an individual muscle group,
turns out to be important.
And so that points to the, perhaps the reason why
so few people are doing dedicated range of motion work.
But it also reminds me that all of the studies
that were described, at least in this review,
and some of the other ones that were not,
really show impressive changes in limb range of motion.
I mean, 20 plus percent, or even 15% with PNF.
I mean, these are big changes that are going to benefit us.
They’re going to offset the age-related losses
in flexibility, for sure,
if one is dedicated about these practices.
And in many cases,
they’re going to increase limb range of motion
in ways that are going to allow us better performance
in certain physical endeavors, certainly better balance.
All right, we haven’t really talked
about balance and stability,
but range of motion can impair balance and stability
in some extreme circumstances.
But by and large, limb range of motion, lack of tightness,
improved posture, improved physical performance, excuse me.
And things of that sort is something that I think
we can all benefit from,
and that are key features of longevity.
We don’t often think of them
because we so prioritize cardiovascular health
and the relationship between the heart and brain health
and resistance training and musculoskeletal hypertrophy
or strength, et cetera.
But as I delved into this literature,
it really highlighted for me the extent to which
having really good limb range of motion,
at least maintaining limb range of motion
as we age from year to year,
and maybe even improving limb range of motion
can be immensely beneficial for reducing pain,
for, again, improving posture,
improving our ability to perform, to walk, et cetera.
And indeed, there’s a whole literature
that relates our limb range of motion
to things like pain management
of things related to headache and so on and so forth.
So limb range of motion is not just about
becoming a contortionist
or being able to complete the yoga class.
It really is about maintaining the integrity
and the health of the neuromuscular system,
the connective tissue,
and the neuromuscular connective network,
because those are indeed working
as an ecosystem and a network.
I’d like to just briefly touch on PNF stretching
for a moment.
Again, this is a vast landscape with many parameters
and different practitioners,
a lot of competing opinions out there, to put it lightly.
Nonetheless, I do want to emphasize
that the PNF training leverages those spindle mechanisms
and GTO mechanisms that we talked about earlier.
But I realized that in describing
the quadricep contraction, hamstring stretch,
little mini experiment that hopefully you did,
that I didn’t really highlight the role of the GTOs,
the Golgi Tendon Organs, that much.
And I just would like to just briefly do that for a moment.
The GTOs have multiple functions.
In fact, I think even though GTOs
are in every medical textbook, every physiology textbook,
every first-year neuroscientist learns about them
when learning about the neuromuscular junctions
and the mechanisms of interoception, et cetera,
they are likely to have other functions as well.
And one of the reasons why PNF stretching does work,
whether or not you’re doing that by using a strap
to pull back a limb,
or whether or not you’re actively contracting
your quadriceps to then release
and emphasize stretch range of motion for your hamstrings
and related muscle groups,
is that activation of those GTOs,
meaning putting loads and tension into that system,
can inhibit the spindles
in the opposite antagonistic muscle groups.
And so one of the reasons why flexing,
or I should say contracting your quadriceps
really intensely for some period of time
allows your hamstrings to subsequently
experience greater range of motion,
and again, it’s not just the hamstrings,
but the related connective tissue
and neural circuits, et cetera,
is because, yes, it’s, quote-unquote,
relaxing the hamstrings and the spindle,
but there’s also a direct relationship
between activation of the GTOs in the quadricep
and release of the spindles
in the hamstring and related muscles.
This has a name, it’s called autogenic inhibition.
It’s a fancy name for contraction of one muscle group
providing a relaxation of the other muscle group
that’s antagonistic to it.
And it relates back to this idea
of interleaving sets in the gym.
So if you think back to that example,
now it should make sense as to why, for instance,
if you do, let’s say, a set of bench presses
or shoulder presses, and you,
let’s say you get 10 repetitions and you fail on the 11th,
that muscle is very, very fatigued.
If you were to rest some period of time
and then go back and do another set,
well, during the rest, that muscle group has been relaxing.
It’s obviously not contracting the same way it was
during the resistance set,
but by going and doing a pulling exercise
that involves the antagonistic muscle group,
so strongly contracting the back muscles through a pull,
like a pull down or a chin up or a row type exercise,
you’re activating or near activating the GTO system
in those pulling muscles in a way
that provides autogenic inhibition for the pushing muscles.
Now, again, the physios out there
are probably either screaming or banging their heads
against whatever sound system
this happens to be arriving through to them saying,
wait, but in many cases, the GTOs aren’t activated enough
to provide that autogenic inhibition.
That’s true, but even the sub-threshold activation
of those intraspinal circuits,
so the place where the GTO circuit
and the spindle circuit interact,
can provide an additional replenishment
of say the pushing muscles
while you’re activating those pulling muscles.
And this is at least one, not the only,
but at least one mechanisms
by which interleaving push and pull, push and pull
for both strength and hypertrophy training,
but also for range of motion stretching type training
can allow you to achieve better results
in a shorter period of time.
And I raise this because I want to keep in mind
the efficiency of any training program.
We just a moment ago established that doing, for example,
three sets of 30 second static holds
can be very useful for the hamstrings with,
let’s just say for sake of simplicity and practicality,
a minute’s rest in between.
But during that minute’s rest,
you can stretch the opposite antagonistic muscle group,
such as the quadriceps.
Or if you want to use PNF training,
you could do loading of the quadriceps in between.
So there are a number of different ways
in which you can start to interleave
static stretching with PNF stretching.
You can start to interleave even PNF type protocols
with resistance training,
although that gets a bit more complicated.
You can really start to construct and build protocols
that are ideal for you.
What we will do is for an upcoming neural network newsletter.
So for those of you that aren’t familiar,
the Huberman Lab podcast
has a so-called neural network newsletter.
These are monthly newsletters
where we put distilled points from the podcast
and oftentimes protocols in a downloadable PDF form.
You can access it by giving us your email.
We don’t share your email with anybody.
If you want to see examples of these,
you can go to hubermanlab.com
and go to the menu and see newsletter.
You don’t have to sign up for anything
to see examples of what these are like.
I’ll provide a couple of different protocols.
One that is pure static stretching,
one that involves PNF type stretching,
and I’ll also put down a protocol
that involves the antagonistic interleaved muscle training
of the sort that I’ve been describing a few times
throughout this episode.
And then you can try and apply those either separately
or maybe combine them in some way
that’s useful for your goals.
There are a couple of key elements
that are essential for building a safe and effective
range of motion increasing program
that arrived to us both through the peer reviewed research
and admittedly from people that have been involved
in teaching and training range of motion
for a very long period of time.
Some of you may be familiar
with the so-called Anderson method.
It’s been around for a long time.
Actually, I’ve never met Anderson.
I don’t, I should know this.
I don’t even know if he’s still alive.
I hope he’s still alive.
But in any event, there are a lot of different features
to the Anderson and other protocols.
But one of the aspects of the Anderson protocol
that I think is highly relevant,
in fact, I know is relevant to the peer reviewed research
that we’re going to talk about in a few moments
is this notion of pushing through pain
and how active or how passive to be about static stretching.
Now, this is somewhat subjective, right?
If you think about getting into a stretch,
again, we’ll just use the hamstrings, for example.
So you’re either reaching for your toes while seated
or maybe you’re using a strap
and you’re raising your foot overhead while lying down,
or maybe you’re doing a toe touch type exercise.
How far should you reach?
Where is the end range of motion?
Should you bounce?
Should you not bounce?
We’re going to talk a little bit more
about that in a moment.
But Anderson has an interesting idea and principle,
which is thread through a lot of his teachings
that I think are very much in keeping with the study
that I’m about to describe next,
where he emphasizes to, yes,
to stretch to the end of the range of motion,
but not to focus so much
on where that range of motion happens to be that day.
So for instance, not thinking,
oh, I can always touch my toes, for instance,
and therefore that’s the starting place
for my flexibility training today,
but rather to take the entirety of your system
into account each day and understand that,
okay, provided you’re warmed up appropriately,
that you’re now going to stretch your hamstrings,
for instance, and you’re going to reach down for your toes,
but that your range of motion might be adjusted that day
by way of tension and stress,
or by way of ambient temperature in the room,
and to basically define the end range of motion
as the place where you can feel the stretch
in the relevant muscle groups.
I think this is important
because unlike resistance training or cardiovascular training
where we can measure distance traveled over time
in the case of cardiovascular training,
or how much weight is on the bar
and count repetitions, et cetera,
with range of motion training,
of course, range of motion is the feature
that we’re interested in,
but there is likely to be a lot of variation from day to day
based on a number of different internal and external factors.
And so the Anderson method is really about
getting into static and other forms of stretching.
I think today we’ve mainly been focusing
on static stretching and holding the end range of motion,
but really paying attention to the feel of the stretch
and the muscles involved.
And there are parallels in resistance
in cardiovascular training too, I realize, right?
In the case of trying to build hypertrophy,
or I should say improve hypertrophy muscle size,
oftentimes the best advice that one can give
is to don’t try to lift weights,
but rather to challenge muscles.
Now, of course, you need to provide adequate loads
in order to get hypertrophy,
but when you’re training purely for strength,
it’s about moving weights.
When you’re training purely for hypertrophy
or mainly for hypertrophy,
it’s really about challenging muscles
using weights or other forms of resistance.
And similarly, and in keeping with this Anderson method,
when trying to build limb range of motion,
doing static stretching at a place where it’s difficult,
but that you can experience the stretch of the muscle
being able to focus on the muscles and their stretch
is at least as useful
as is evaluating the current range of motion
you’re able to achieve.
So what does this mean?
This means feel the muscles as you stretch them.
Don’t just go through the motions.
And this means don’t get so attached
to being able to always achieve, for instance,
a stretch of a given distance within a given session.
You might actually find that by just finding the place
where you can’t get much further
and holding the static stretch there,
that on the second and third set
that you happen to be doing that day,
that your range of motion will be increased considerably.
Maybe not, but very likely, yes, you will.
And of course, evaluating range of motion over time
is the key parameter
because that’s the goal of all this type of work.
Now, along these lines,
there is this variable that we’ve mentioned a few times
of passive versus active stretching.
And there’s this even more nebulous variable,
this even more kind of subjective thing
of how much effort to put into it.
Should you push into the stretch?
Do you even want to bounce a tiny bit?
Would you want to reach into that end point
and try and extend it within a given set and session?
And for that reason, I was excited to find this paper
entitled, A Comparison of Two Stretching Modalities
on Lower Limb Range of Motion Measurements
in Recreational Dancers.
It happens to be done in recreational dancers.
It’s a six-week intervention program
that compared low-intensity stretching,
which they call micro-stretching.
They used a capital M,
so I don’t know if that means that it’s proprietary,
although I didn’t see evidence of a conflict of interest,
but they call it micro-stretching.
But to be very clear,
micro-stretching in the case of this manuscript
is low-intensity stretching,
and they compared that
with moderate-intensity static stretching
on an active and passive ranges of motion.
Okay, so there are a lot of different variables here,
but I’ll just highlight a few of the things
that are really most relevant to us.
And I’ll give you the takeaway at the outset
and then return to it at the end
so that if I lose any of your attention
in the next couple of minutes,
at least you have that key takeaway.
Basically, what they found was
that a six-week training program
using very low-intensity stretching
had a greater positive effect on lower limb range of motion
than did moderate-intensity static stretching.
I find that incredibly interesting.
So very low intensity,
and we’ll define what that means in a moment.
Here, I’m quoting them.
The most interesting aspect of the study
was the greater increase in active range of motion
compared to passive range of motion
by the micro-stretching group.
So this relates to what we were just talking about
a few moments ago as it relates to the Anderson method,
which is that very low-intensity stretching,
meaning effort that feels not painful,
and in fact might even feel easy
or at least not straining to exceed a given range of motion
turns out to not just be as effective,
but more effective than moderate-intensity stretching.
So what is low-intensity static stretching?
Well, they define this as the stretches were completed
at an intensity of 30 to 40%,
where 100% equals the point of pain, right?
So 30 to 40% in these individuals,
and again, I’m paraphrasing,
induced a relaxed state within the individual
and the specific muscle,
and here they were holding these static stretches,
I should mention, for one minute, not 30 seconds.
Now, the control group
was doing the exact same overall protocol,
so daily stretching for six weeks, the same exercises,
holding each set for 60 seconds,
but we’re using an intensity of stretch of 80%,
where, again, 100 represents the point of pain,
the point where the person would want to stop stretching.
I find these data incredibly interesting
for I think what ought to be obvious reasons.
If you’re going to embark on a flexibility
and stretching training program,
you don’t need to push to the point of pain.
In fact, it seems that even just approaching
the point of pain is going to be less effective
than operating at this 30 to 40% of intensity
prior to reaching that pain threshold,
the pain threshold being 100%.
Now, of course, this is pretty subjective,
but I think all of us should be able
to register within ourselves
so whether a given range of motion
or extending a given range of motion
brings us to that threshold of pain or near pain,
and according to this study, at least,
operating or performing stretching at an intensity
that’s quite low, that’s very relaxing,
turns out to be more beneficial
in increasing range of motion
than is doing exercises
aimed at increasing range of motion at a higher intensity.
Okay, so lower intensity stretching,
I should say lower intensity static stretching
appears to be the most beneficial way to approach stretching
and I think that’s a relief probably to many of us
because it also suggests that the injury risk
is going to be lower than if one were pushing
into the pain zone, so to speak.
The authors offer a number of different explanations
as to why this approach,
this micro-stretching approach might be more effective.
Here, I’m paraphrasing from their discussion
where they mentioned that it could be hypothesized
that they had improved reciprocal inhibition
within the hamstring muscle group.
So this gets right back to the sorts of neural mechanisms
that we talked about before,
that somehow by doing this low intensity stretching,
that they were able to access some of those spindle
and GTO type mechanisms that we were referring to earlier
and the inhibition of hamstring and quadricep stretches.
They also offer a number of different ideas
about how this could shift the activation
of the so-called sympathetic,
remember the kind of stress division of our nervous system
and to reduce that relative to activation
of the parasympathetic arm of the nervous system.
I confess they have a couple of arguments
around sympathetic, parasympathetic
that are somewhat convoluted.
I will just, in fairness to the neuroscience
on those systems, I wouldn’t suggest putting too much weight
on their arguments about sympathetic and parasympathetic.
To my mind, they didn’t really hold much water,
but here I’m not trying to be disparaging
of the overall work, which I think is really quite sound,
which is that low intensity, so-called micro-stretching
is going to be the most effective way
to increase limb range of movement over time.
I want to just briefly return to this idea
of whether or not to do ballistic or static stretching
before some sort of skill training or weight training
or any kind of sport
or even cardiovascular exercise like running.
Again, the data are really split out there.
There are even folks who suggest
that doing any kind of stretching prior to running
is going to lower running efficiency.
It’s going to require essentially more work
and more oxygen uptake at a given speed
for a variety of reasons.
And runners and that community argue about this endlessly.
There are papers in both sides, in both directions.
I’m sure I’ll hear about some of this in the comments.
I’m not really going to take a stance on this
as a consequence because the data are all over the place.
However, I think there’s a general logic
that we can apply in here.
I’m borrowing from some conversations
and some information put out there by Dr. Andy Galpin,
who I think is of course both an expert
and thinks about these things
in a really sound and flexible way, no pun intended.
There are instances, for example,
where an individual might want to do some static stretching
to increase limb range of motion
prior to doing weight training,
even if it’s going to inhibit that person’s ability
to lift as much weight.
Why would you want to do that?
Well, for instance, if somebody has a tightness
or a limitation in their neuromuscular
connective tissue system,
some place in their body and system
that prevents them from using proper form
that they can overcome by doing some static stretching,
well, that would be a great idea as Dr. Galpin points out.
Or for instance, if proper stability within the movement
requires increasing limb range of motion in some way,
well, then compromising the use of greater loads
could be greatly offset by doing some static stretching
to improve, say, hamstring flexibility
or another muscle group flexibility.
So we can’t always think about just what’s going to allow us
or inhibit us from using the maximal amount of weight
or from running as far as we want to run
as fast as we want to run.
There are instances where people
are trying to overcome injuries,
where they’re trying to come back from a reparative surgery
or something of that sort, coming back from a layoff,
where some additional static stretching
prior to cardiovascular weight training
or skill training or sport of some kind
is going to be useful
because it’s going to put us in a position of greater safety
and confidence and performance overall,
even if it’s adjusting down our speed
or the total amount of loads that we use.
So it’s you that needs to consider
whether or not for you and within a given training session,
you want to do static training,
I should say static stretching range of motion training
prior to or after that training session.
And similarly, there are a lot of data pointing to the fact
that doing some dynamic or even ballistic stretching
prior to skill training or cardiovascular weight training
can be beneficial in part to warm up
the relevant neural circuits, joints,
and connective tissue and muscles,
and as well to perhaps improve range of motion
or ability to perform those movements more accurately
with more stability and therefore with more confidence.
And while Dr. Andy Galpin
would never name any protocol after himself,
he’s far too humble to do that,
I’ve named a couple of protocols after him,
particularly the Galpin equation for hydration
because he was willing to stick his neck out there
and put down some specific numbers that people could follow
in order to ensure proper hydration during training.
So you can look up the Galpin equation elsewhere,
you can just Google it or look elsewhere, you’ll find it.
And Dr. Galpin has also been very thoughtful and generous,
and I think very accurate in offering
a kind of a general organizational logic
for how to think about the goals
of a particular training session
and thereby to decide whether or not
you’re going to do ballistic or static stretching
and so on and so forth.
So we can refer to this general approach
as Galpinian, Galpinian, is that right?
Galpinian logic, Galpinian logic.
Thus far, we’ve been talking about stretching
for sake of increasing limb flexibility and range of motion,
but there are other reasons perhaps
to embark on a stretching protocol
that include both our ability to relax
and access deep relaxation quickly,
as well as even to reduce inflammation
and perhaps even combat certain forms of cancer.
And if that sounds really far-fetched,
I want to emphasize that the study
I’m about to share with you in a moment
was actually carried out by one of the directors
of a division of the National Institutes of Health.
And this was the work of Helene Langevin,
who’s a medical doctor, has done really important work
on the mechanisms underlying things like acupuncture
and has approached all that
from a very mechanistic viewpoint, right?
So not looking just at the effects of acupuncture,
but really trying to understand what sorts of cytokines,
inflammatory molecules and pathways are activated,
what sorts of neural mechanisms get engaged
by things like acupuncture
that impinges on the fascial tissues and so forth.
And Dr. Langevin is currently a director
of the National Institutes of Complementary Health
and Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.
So this is a major division supported by tax dollars
that support systematic mechanistic exploration
of things like respiration, meditation, yoga, acupuncture.
So this is serious science applied to protocols
and approaches that have been used for some period of time,
but really aimed at trying to understand
what would the best protocols be to evolve new protocols.
So there’s a really interesting study
done in animal models,
but I think it’s a powerful enough result
that I think we all should pay attention to it.
The title of this paper,
and again, the last author is Dr. Langevin herself,
is Stretching Reduces Tumor Growth
in a Mouse Breast Cancer Model.
And yes, you can get mice to stretch.
It turns out that if you gently lift up mice by their tail
and they’ll hold onto their cage,
there’s a way in which you can mechanically stretch them
in a way that doesn’t harm them.
First, I should mention that Dr. Langevin and others
have shown that just a brief whole body stretch
of that sort induces an increase in activation
of the parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system.
Again, not arm, limb, arm,
but the aspect of the autonomic nervous system
that creates a whole body,
whole nervous system shift toward more relaxation.
So yes, indeed, stretching induces relaxation
at a systemic level, not just at a local level.
And I think that’s important.
Probably not surprising to those of you
that use stretching regularly,
but yes, it does indeed relax us.
Yes, you can do this in mice and see that in mice as well.
Here’s what they did for this current study.
Or I should say this was a study published in 2018
in Scientific Reports.
They write, recent studies have shown
that gentle daily stretching for 10 minutes
can reduce local connective tissue inflammation and fibrosis.
Now that’s local tissue inflammation and fibrosis.
As well, we now know as systemic inflammation
and can induce relaxation systemically.
In this case, they focused on mice, not humans.
And mice were randomized to a stretch
versus no stretch condition
and were treated for 10 minutes once a day for four weeks.
So it’s 10 minutes of this passive whole body stretching
a day for four weeks.
What’s remarkable, I mean, just I have to say
is just striking is that tumor volume in these mice,
they were able to induce tumors in these mice
and the tumor volume at the end point
was 52% smaller in the stretch group
compared to the no stretch group.
This is a highly significant effect.
And they point out in the absence of any other treatment.
And they explored whether or not cytotoxic immune responses
were activated and a number of other features.
They weren’t able to get too deeply
into the underlying mechanisms,
but this is pretty remarkable.
Even three weeks into this stretching protocol,
this daily stretching protocol for these mice,
tumor volume was reduced.
I mean, by, you know, it’s almost halved.
This is pretty incredible.
So they have these measures of tumor volume
and the only difference in the way these animals
were treated and handled
was the introduction of this daily stretch.
I find this result to be, of course,
limited to the extent that it’s done in an animal model,
not in humans, we have to point it out.
But as they point out in their discussion,
our results demonstrate a 52% reduction
in mammary tumor growth over one month
in mice undergoing stretching for 10 minutes a day
without any other form of therapy.
Do they think that stretching itself
is changing the tumor size?
In fact, they raised the possibility that stretching
because of its impact on the fascia
might even create microenvironments
that are more permissive for tumor growth
in certain instances.
So they’re careful to emphasize
what I also believe to be the case,
which is that it’s unlikely that the stretching itself
was directly acting to reduce tumor size,
but rather that there’s this possible link
between inflammation and immune exhaustion mechanisms
that if you can periodically relax a nervous system
here through stretching,
that it can affect certain pathways
related to the immune system
that would allow the immune system
to combat tumor growth to a significant degree.
So again, even though this is a study in mice,
it argues that relaxation induced by stretching
can have a powerful influence on mammary tumor growth.
Again, a huge effect carried out by one of the premier labs
and individuals who do this sort of work
and think about this sort of thing.
And of course, I want to point out,
it wasn’t just Dr. Langevin that did this study.
There are a number of coauthors on the study.
We’ll provide a link to the coauthors, excuse me.
We’ll provide a link to the study
so that you can peruse it in more detail if you like.
Now, as a related and somewhat final point,
I’d like to return this up to this idea and this place,
this real estate within our brain
that we call the insular cortex, the insula.
As you recall, way back at the beginning of this episode,
we were talking about the von Economo neurons
that Konstantin von Economo,
the Austrian scientist discovered.
And the fact that we are able to make
and perform interpretations of our internal landscape,
our pain, our dedication to a practice.
For instance, whether or not we are in pain
because it’s a practice that we are doing intentionally
and want to improve ourselves,
or whether or not it’s pain that’s arriving
through some externally imposed demands or situations.
Well, the insula is handling all that.
And fortunately, there’s a wonderful paper
that was published, it was a few years ago now,
in the journal Cerebral Cortex, which is a fine journal.
This is the year 2014,
entitled Insular Cortex Mediates Increased Pain Tolerance
in Yoga Practitioners.
I’ll tell you why I like this study.
I’m personally not a practitioner of yoga.
I’ve taken a few yoga classes over the years.
I’ve done some of the hot yoga classes.
Those rooms can get really, really warm, I confess.
And I’ve done the kind of standard yoga every now and again.
It’s not something that I’ve kept up regularly.
This study explored the effects on brain structure volume
in yoga practitioners.
And for those of you out there that are aficionados in yoga,
they pulled subjects from having backgrounds in the,
here, I’m probably going to mispronounce
these different things, and forgive me,
the vinyasa yogas, the ashtanga yogas,
the yonger yogas, the sananda yogas.
Okay, so some people were new to these practices,
some were experienced.
The important takeaways were that
they took these yoga practitioners
and they didn’t explore their brain structure
in the context of yoga itself.
They looked at things like pain tolerance.
So they used thermal stimulation.
Basically, they put people into conditions
where they gave them very hot or very cold stimuli
and compared those yoga practitioners
of varying levels of yoga experience
to those that had no experience with yoga,
And they found some really interesting things.
There are a lot of data in this paper,
but here’s something I’d like to highlight.
The pain tolerance of yoga practitioners
was double or more to that of non-yoga practitioners,
even for those that weren’t doing
the so-called hot yoga, right?
They also found that pain tolerance
was significantly greater,
both for heat pain and for cold pain.
They also found significant increases in insular,
again, the insula, this brain region, gray matter volume.
Typically, when we talk about gray matter,
we’re talking about the so-called cell bodies,
the location in neurons where the genome is housed
and where all the housekeeping stuff is there.
And then white matter volume tends to be the axons,
the wires, because they’re in sheaths
with this stuff that appears white in MRIs
and indeed is white under the microscope,
and indeed is white.
It’s actually lipid, which is myelin.
So increased gray matter volume of the insula
is a significant finding because what it suggests
is that people that are doing yoga
have an increased volume of these areas of the brain
that are associated with interoceptive awareness
and for being able to make judgments about pain
and why one is experiencing pain,
not just to lean away from pain,
but to utilize or leverage or even overcome pain.
So there are many studies of yoga and meditation out there,
few that have as much mechanistic detail as this one.
And in fact, there’s a beautiful figure,
figure three in this paper,
that shows that the gray matter volume
of this particular brain region
scales in an almost linear way
with the duration of yoga practice
that somebody has been taking on in years.
So people that had, they had a few subjects
that have up to 15 or 16 years of yoga practice
had much larger left insular gray matter volume,
bigger brain areas associated with these abilities.
And I find this interesting
because there are a lot of activities out there
that don’t create these kinds of changes in brain volume,
especially within the insula.
So it appears that it’s not just the performance
of the yogic movements,
but the overcoming or the kind of pushing
into the end ranges of motion
and to push through discomfort to some extent.
Of course, we want people doing that in a healthy, safe way,
but that’s allows yoga practitioners
to build up the structure and function of these brain areas
that allow them to cope with pain better
than other individuals
and to cope with other kinds of interoceptive challenges,
if you will, not just pain, but cold,
not just pain, but discomfort
of being in a particular position to do that.
And again, we wouldn’t want people placing themselves
into a compromised position, literally,
that would harm them,
especially given that earlier we heard
that micro-stretching of the kind of non-painful sort,
low intensity sort is actually going to be more effective
for increasing end range of motion.
But this study really emphasized the extent
to which practitioners of yoga don’t just learn movements,
they learn how to control their nervous system
in ways that really reshapes their relationship to pain,
to flexibility, and to the kinds of things
that the neuromuscular system was designed to do.
And as a final point,
there’s a beautiful graph in this paper,
beautiful, I think, because it explores
some of the more subjective dimensions
of yoga and insular function, which is a,
here, I’ll read it out in the nerdy form,
and then I’ll explain what it means.
This is a frequency histogram
of categories of mental strategies used by yogis
versus controls during the cold pain tolerance task.
What they’re describing here and showing is,
quantitatively, how people are conceptualizing cold pain
in order to get through it.
And the different categories are,
for instance, distraction, right?
Some people just choose to distract themselves from pain
or to attempt to, other people will try to ignore it.
It’s a lot like distraction,
but nonetheless, to engage in a negative emotion,
sort of like, I’m going to be in resistance to this.
Control subjects tended to use those approaches,
whereas practitioners of yoga tended to use
other sorts of subjective approaches,
like positive imagery, to some extent,
the ability to relax despite the extreme cold,
the ability to quote-unquote accept,
this is just happening despite the extreme cold,
to observe, to third-person themselves.
And the greatest effect, of course, was to breathe,
to focus on their respiration as a way to deal
with this challenge, this cold challenge.
Now, all of that is our subjective data,
but I want to remind you that the practitioners of yoga
are not just using entirely different mental strategies,
but they are far more effective at dealing with pain.
Their pain tolerance is much higher,
as evidenced by the other data
in the previous graphs in the paper.
So while this podcast episode
is most certainly not about yoga per se,
it’s about flexibility and stretching.
Flexibility and stretching are elements
within yogic practices.
And of course, yogic practices involve breathing
and mental work and a lot of other things,
balance, et cetera.
It’s a vast landscape, as many of you know.
But I think that if ever there was a manuscript
that pointed to the utility of something like yoga
for sake of tapping into a particular set of brain circuits
and mechanisms that could wick out
into multiple dimensions of life,
so day-to-day life, stress,
challenges in dealing with all sorts of external stressors,
relationally, et cetera, excuse me,
but as well for increasing range of motion,
for increasing flexibility.
So if ever there was a practice that one could embark on
that would not only increase flexibility
and limb range of motion,
but would also allow one to cultivate
some improved mental functioning
as it relates to pain tolerance
and other features of stress management
that no doubt wick out into other areas of life,
appears that yoga is a quite useful practice.
And so for those of you that are interested
in increasing limb range of motion
and you’re already a practitioner of yoga, great.
I can imagine that someday there’ll be another study
like this one, and you’ll be in that 10 or 15
to 16-year practitioner graph.
You’ll be that dot way out on the far end of the graph
that shows that your insula is that much bigger
than the rest of ours,
and therefore your internal awareness and pain thresholds
and stress management will be that much better.
But of course, yoga isn’t the only way
to increase limb range of motion and flexibility.
Up until now, we’ve described a number
of different ways to do that,
and we’ve arrived at some general themes and protocols.
Again, those themes and protocols will be distilled
into some specific and precise list
in our Neural Network Newsletter,
but we can revisit a couple of them now
just in summary and synthesis.
Static stretching appears to be at least
among the more useful forms of stretching.
So low or zero momentum stretching,
typically at end range of motion.
I love this concept of micro stretching,
even though it’s just a couple of studies
that have addressed whether or not high intensity
or low intensity static stretch holds are more beneficial.
The idea, and indeed the data that low intensity,
so 30 to 40% of what one would consider painful
appears to be more effective than 80% of that threshold.
I find that incredibly interesting.
And then there’s this idea of frequency.
It really does appear that getting
at least five minutes per week total of stretching
for a given muscle group is important
for creating meaningful lasting changes
in limb range of motion.
And that is best achieved by five day a week
or six day a week, or even seven day a week protocols,
but those can be very short protocols
limited to say three sets of 30,
maybe even 45 or 60 seconds of static hold.
Although 30 seconds seems to be a key threshold there
that can get you maximum benefit.
There is no need to do full 60 second holds
unless you’re doing fewer total sessions per week.
And of course, to always warm up
or to arrive at the stretching session warm.
And then of course, there are the other forms of stretching
that we touched upon a bit, things like PNF.
And we talked about why PNF works,
things like the spindle and the Golgi tendon organ reflexes
that are built into all of us
that we arrive in this world with.
And of course, the other forms of stretching
that are known to be effective and important,
such as dynamic and ballistic stretching.
Again, stretching protocols that involve a lot of momentum
in order to improve range of motion
for performance of particular types of work
that one is about to embark on.
Typically that would be physical work,
but a whole interesting and unexplored landscape
is the extent to which changing limb range of motion
and different types of body movement
actually shape our cognitive abilities.
And that will be the topic
of a future episode of this podcast.
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So thank you once again for joining me today
for a discussion about the neural, and neuromuscular,
and connective tissue, and skeletal aspects
of flexibility and stretching.
And as always, thank you for your interest in science.