Stretching is like flossing: We know it's good for us, but we typically avoid it like the plague. Maybe it conjures awkward memories of being the inflexible one in high school, reaching for our toes on those over-glossed gymnasium floors and just not quitemaking it. (Just me?) Or maybe it's those last two or three minutes at the end of a group fitness class that stand between you and your morning coffee, and let's face it: Coffee always wins.
But a new crop of fitness classes focusesjuston stretching. Sessions last anywhere from 25 to 75 minutes and often involve hands-on assistance from a designated (and hopefully certified) stretcher. Thepurported benefitsinclude everything from anti-aging to better sex. But to find out if an assisted stretching class is really all it's cracked up to be, we asked the experts.
What is assisted stretching?
If the idea of assisted stretching sends you reeling with visuals of your semi-useless old gym teacher, know that this is different. These sessions more closely resemble some hybrid of physical therapy, personal training, massage therapy, and yoga. Typically, the sessions are one-on-one, though in some instances they look a lot like traditional group fitness classes.
Curious, I tried a session atStretch*d, an NYC-based studio that offers one-on-one dynamic, assisted stretch sessions. The "stretch*r" (yep) asked me for my problem areas—lower back, hips, and shoulders—and got to work, strapping me down on a massage table. The strap, he explained, was to keep me from rolling off the table.
He took me through a series of stretches designed to provide relief to my problem areas, starting withdynamic stretchesand more traditional stretches like those for the quads and calves. Although the moves felt familiar, through the pressure and weight of his body, I was able to achieve a deeper stretch and range of motion than I might on my own. By the end of the session, he said he observed a larger range of motion in my hips than when I'd walked in, and he sent me home with some stretches I could do on my own. I expected to melt off the table, like I might after a massage, but was pleasantly surprised to just feel OK—not mushy, but not tight either.
"If you can be disciplined enough to do it for longer in a class, that's great," saysLiz Barnet, a certified personal trainer in northern New Jersey. "But you certainly don'tneedto stretch for that long." And if you're doing a strengthening or cardio endurance workout, Lin says you should ideally be stretching every time. "With strengthening, you tend to tighten up the muscles, so you really want that mix of strength and flexibility," she says. Andjust a few minuteswill help.
Lin and Barnet agree that stretching shouldn't stand alone as someone's only form of exercise. "It's important to remember that these types of classes are meant to be recovery from your other workouts; it's not a workout in and of itself," Barnet says.
In fact, it shouldn't feel like much "work" at all. "Some people abuse themselves by going too hard, and that type of stretching should be left to the professionals: physical therapists or massage therapists." Lin suggests making sure that you either have some type ofwarm-upor start with dynamic stretching so you're not stretching with cold muscles. If you're set on taking a class, Lin advises looking for smaller class sizes so you can have more personal attention—and less opportunity for self-inflicted injury.