The nice lady folded my left leg just north of my right ear. My hip flexors wept. When at last she let up, relief surged through my hamstring and calf and several other muscle groups I hadn’t been aware of before today. Something else I was made aware of: my body is largely defective.
Defective isn’t the word that the nice lady, Diane Waye of Stretching by the Bay, used. She was more tactful and technical, explaining the deficiency of my myofascial structures. But the point stands. My self-care regimen had long prioritized strength and cardio, while flexibility limped along as an afterthought. As an otherwise fit 42-year-old, I had the range of motion of a sycamore.
Enter the stretching studio. Practitioner-assisted stretching, as it’s sometimes called, is a growing craze in the fitness cosmos. The thinking goes like this: all of us, from serious runners to hunched desk jockeys, have neglected our fascia (the thin veneer of tissue that encases various muscles and organs), our joints, and a whole slew of other problem areas that even yoga can miss. Between Stretchlab in Los Angeles and franchises like Stretch Zone, Lymbr, and Stretch U with locations around the country, a growing army of stretching coaches and flexologists (they’re really called that) have assembled to bend us into better health.
In recent years, research has increasingly questioned the virtue of static stretching—passively holding a position for an extended period—before exercise. “When muscles are cold, static stretching isn’t that effective,” says Meir Magal, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. The growing consensus suggests that it doesn’t prepare our bodies for whatever we’re about to do, and in some cases it’s even counterproductive.
As the chatter around static stretching has intensified, an array of alternatives have emerged, such as mobility training—a more targeted attempt to increase range of motion—and something called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, a regimen designed for high-level rehabilitation that’s popular among athletes. Flexologists, for their part, have appeared on the scene to replace our bad old stretches with controlled, and repeated motions—some focused on fascia, others tailored to select muscles—with the added benefit of professional assessment and guidance.
“It’s often injury that brings my clients through the door,” Waye said recently at her studio in downtown San Francisco. “Then they realize that stretching is a preventative practice. Make a habit of it and you save your knees and shoulders, and you get that elasticity you thought only young people have.”
I didn’t know what to expect when she went to work on me. The vibe at Stretching by the Bay was a combination of chiropractic appointment, massage, and personalized yoga class. I was mostly sprawled across a table, but at times during the 90-minute session, the amount of movement I was doing—shoulder bends this way, hip rotations that way—felt like a workout. Waye’s appointments start at $160 per hour and can run as long as ten hours. I made her repeat that last number. “Professional athletes,” she said.
A few blocks away at Maiden Lane Studios, certified fascial stretch therapist Kelsey Wiedenhoefer also sees her share of athletes, including several professional football players. “It’s something, lifting a 100-pound leg,” Wiedenhoefer said. As she raised my under-100-pound leg, she discussed the benefits of regularly and properly stretching the connective tissue around our joints and bones. “The idea is to move beyond merely lengthening tight muscles,” she said.
Just how effective it can be is another matter. The benefits of fascial therapy, a type of dynamic stretching that targets chronically tight muscles, are still being debated by the medical community, and the burgeoning field has its skeptics. Regarding dynamic stretching in general, the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy has echoed a gathering consensus that, unlike static stretching, it tends to improve jumping and running performance, as well as power output. Other studies have shown that it increases agility and acceleration, promotes recovery, and helps prevent injury.
As for me, a bit of my old stiffness returned as my stretching sessions wore off. But now that I’ve been bent in ways a fellow doesn’t easily forget, I might be inclined to repeat.