Last year my fitness resolution was very simple: engage in some physical activity at least three times a week. This year, after having committed to barre for the rest of 2019, I found myself with a new goal: to be able to do the coveted split. While that may not seem like a lofty goal for some, as someone who suffers from lack of any flexibility and short hamstrings, it's a big one for me.
So when I tell Vanessa Chu—co-founder of Stretch'd, a studio dedicated to all forms of stretching that she found alongside SLT founder Amanda Freeman—that I really want to do a split, I am not entirely surprised that she smiles. It's a funny goal. I get it! But her smile is not for the reason I think. She pulls out a copy off Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits by Eiko, a Japanese yoga teacher who promises to have everyone doing a split in four weeks. "Though this is not what Stretch'd is about, I thought it would be fun to have this book here," she tells me.
Indeed, Stretch'd isn't about achieving anything tangible—whether it be a strong core to do planks or, in my case, a split—it's about giving your body the tools it needs to achieve those goals. Often though, stretching is seen as an after-thought rather than an important part of a workout. "I cannot tell you how many times I've been in a workout class where people push their bodies to the absolute limit, only to make a quick exit exactly when the instructor is going into the stretch portion of the class," says Alain Saint-Dic, a trainer at a stretch and recovery studio Stretch Relief. "Stretching and recovery is the most essential part of living an active lifestyle and also the most neglected."
Heather Andersen, founder of New York Pilates—that has long offered Stretch, a restorative class that uses a Reformer machine and props to improve flexibility—agrees that stretching is often overlooked by fitness enthusiasts despite how counter-intuitive that is. "People have limited time in their week, and normally put their workout first," she says. "The important thing to realize is that you can actually achieve better fitness results by making time to stretch."
For those who work out a lot, Chu says, "stretching is the best way to supplement your fitness routine." The movement can help circulation around the joints; flush out any soreness acquired from intense physical activity, helping one recover faster in between workouts; as well improve performance, whether it be "a deeper squat" or a "longer running stride." "Stretching offers a healthy release and a lengthening that is known to increase power," says Andersen. "Stretching after strength training increases flexibility and range of motion."
As Saint-Dic simply puts it, "Flexibility is strength. If you work out frequently, you should be stretching as frequently, if not twice as much. Imagine being able to recover faster from your workouts, get more out of each and every workout, and being relatively pain-free every time you push your limits even further." Not to mention that stretching can help prevent injury. "If you don't stretch, provided you aren't blessed with genes for great flexibility, your muscles and tendons will involuntarily tighten and shorten, increasing your risk for injury," he explains.
So if stretching can do all this when added on top of a workout, why do so many run out of the spin studio the minute cardio is over? "We like to say stretching is like the flossing of fitness. It's a 'you know you should' kind of activity, but easily forgotten at the expense of spending more hours in intense workouts, at the desk, or simply powering through the pain," Chu says. Plus, she says, when explaining why she opened Stretch'd, "stretching is boring on your own... we know this from avoiding it ourselves!"
As Chu points out, anyone can benefit from stretching whether you're a bootcamp class junkie, a once-marathon runner recovering from a knee injury, or someone who just spends a lot of their day sitting down behind a computer. "We're all tight in different ways," she says. "[But] it's a very unnatural position to sit at a desk, where you tighten hip flexors and type all day, shrug shoulders up toward your ears, or stare at a phone, the dreaded 'text neck.' Our bodies were designed to move."
Saint-Dic points out that lower back pain is one of the most common issues he sees with those latter type of clients. "People who sit at their desks all day tend to eventually slouch because, let's be real, it's comfortable as hell," he says. "However, this lack of attention to your posture wreaks havoc on your neck, traps, posterior delts, spine, and hips. All these muscle groups are placed in positions for long periods of time that eventually cause them to assume those positions even when you're not sitting. Stretching and corrective exercise can help restore your body back to the posture that it was meant to exist in, therefore reducing pain and tension in those areas."
While NYP's Stretch is a fitness-like, very low-impact class designed to help the Pilates frequenter to get deeper into the muscles they use, both Stretch'd and Stretch Relief offer one-on-one classes, ranging from 25 to 75 minutes, where a specialist addresses specific issues a client may have and creates an individualized session following a conversation and assessment.
After I told my Stretch'd specialist David Bakis that I suffer from a lack of flexibility and short hamstrings, he had me lay down on a massage-like table where he proceeded to manually bend and stretch my limbs in every way possible for the next 30 minutes to address my alignment and muscle imbalances. Some of the stretching felt really good (on the feet, shoulders), some was downright painful (hamstrings, fingers), though he checked with every new movement to see if the intensity needed to go up or down. He then proceeded to apply a Hypervolt, an at-home vibrating massage device, to the parts that needed additional loosening before applying CBD lotion to my neck and sending me home with exercises to do every morning.
And that's the thing. While you can pay someone to manually stretch you for an hour, you can also just introduce a stretching practice into your current workout/lifestyle without much of a commitment in terms of time (even five minutes of stretching daily can make a difference). "Stretching is essential for health and performance, and everyone is starting to realize it," says Andersen.
The world is indeed catching on. In addition to studios like Stretch'd and Stretch Relief opening in the last year alone, devices like Hypervolt appeared on many recent holiday wish lists. "In an age where information is in abundance, as are methods of working out, people are starting to realize that stretching and recovery are just as important as the work," explains Saint-Dic people's new interest in stretching. "We're working harder, working out harder, and eating better, so it makes just as much sense to recover harder."
And even though Stretch'd offers workshops in which you can learn how to operate a Hypervolt device on yourself or a partner and gives homework for its clients to take home, Chu says that a manual stretch, where a trained professional isolates specific muscle groups and creates an opposition, is the most effective method, especially if there's an injury or issue involved. "While foam rolling or using a massage tool, like the HyperVolt—our fave!—are great for breaking up muscle adhesions and warming an area up, they do not lengthen the muscles or lubricate the joints."
And while I agree—after my stretching session with Bakis, I was shocked to discover how much easier my next workout class was (it might have been the first time I got through barre's planks, push-ups, and reverse push-ups without dropping to my knees)—the extra minutes I now spend after every class to stretch out my legs have increased my flexibility dramatically.
And while I am still not at split-level, I am slowly but surely inching there, confident in the tools I now have.