Experts explain if these flexibility-focused classes are worth the hype.
Article by Jenny McCoy, featured in Self Magazine.
Amid cycling clubs, HIIT studios, and rowing gyms, a gentler form of group fitness is emerging: the stretch studio.
ClassPass identified recovery classes as the fastest-growing trend in 2017, reporting a 16 percent increase in clients booking meditation, restorative, and recovery classes. And from nationwide franchise Stretch Lab to Chicago’s StretchChi and NYC’s Stretch Relief and Lastics, flexibility-focused gyms have popped up across the country, promising attendees professional guidance and group camaraderie on this oft-neglected component of fitness.
But what exactly goes on in a stretch class, what benefits can (and can’t) one provide, and how can you know if this recovery-centric class is right for you? We chatted with a few experts to learn more. Here’s everything you need to know about this buzzy fitness trend.
First, it’s important to note that the benefits of stretching aren’t as universal or guaranteed as you may think.
The advent of the stretch studio makes it seem like stretching is something that we all should be doing diligently. And while it can’t hurt (as long as you’re doing it right—more on that later), research on the benefits of stretching is generally pretty mixed, Doug Perkins, D.P.T., C.S.C.S, of North Boulder Physical Therapy in Colorado, tells SELF.
What we do know is that both dynamic and static stretching can likely provide benefits in terms of increasing range of motion and mobility. Though, each type seems to be beneficial in different situations.
For example, dynamic stretching is usually done as part of a warm-up, and it’s meant to prep the muscles you’re going to use in the workout to come, explains Perkins. Dynamic stretches give you a chance to get your muscles and joints warmed up before a workout and help prime your body to move comfortably through the motions you’ll eventually be doing at a higher intensity. It also helps get the mind-muscle connection going so that your brain is ready to tackle the movements, too.
On the other hand, research suggests saving static stretching for after a workout or rest day, as it’s been shown to potentially reduce power output if you do it right before a workout. Static stretching may improve your joint mobility and range of motion, which ultimately lets you move more comfortably in everyday life and improves your ability to perform exercises correctly (which helps you get more out of them). For example, increased range of motion can help you better lower yourself into a squat or deadlift, allowing you to sink deeper into the movement and recruit more of your muscles, increasing the strengthening benefits of the move.
Perkins notes, though, that the gains in range of motion and tissue flexibility that we reap from stretching may be short-lived. “You can get improvements in range of motion and tissue flexibility after an acute bout of stretching [around two minutes or less],” he says. But these changes more or less disappear within the same day, and it’s not yet clear if and how you can maintain the gains over the long term, Perkins caveats. “It’s a lot harder than people think to get a major change in flexibility,” he says.
And whether stretching can realistically boost athletic performance or prevent injury for the majority of people? It’s still unclear. Some research suggests it can help some athletes playing specific sports, but there’s not enough research yet to say how much each of us should stretch—and even, if we really need to stretch at all—to better perform any given physical activity. (Oh, and stretching won’t get rid of DOMS, sorry to break it to you.)
Stretch classes, as the name suggests, are all about setting aside dedicated time to stretch your muscles.
Exercisers tend to focus on the workout, and neglect the recovery, Alain Saint-Dic, instructor at NYC’s Stretch Relief, NASM-certified personal trainer, and certified USA track and field coach, tells SELF. The intent of a stretch- and recovery-focused studio like Stretch Relief is to place a strong emphasis on the more gentle, restorative parts of an exercise program.
The general goal of group stretch classes, which are taught by fitness pros of varying credentials, is to help attendees learn and practice stretching techniques, though the format, style, and underlying philosophy of these classes varies from studio to studio. At Stretch Relief, for example, attendees can pick between a foam rolling-focused class, a yoga stretch class, and an endurance class, which targets muscles that are typically tight and underused in endurance activities like running and cycling. Group classes at StretchLab are more general in focus, targeting all major muscle groups through both static stretching (holding a position for a set amount of time) and dynamic stretching (moving through a range of motion that stretches your muscles) and the use of tools like yoga straps and foam rollers.
Classes at StretchChi, on the other hand, all follow a specific form of resistance flexibility training called Ki-Hara, which involves simultaneously stretching and strengthening muscles. And classes at Lastics are taught with the studio’s own custom method, which incorporates flexibility-building techniques popular in the professional dance world.
In addition to these group classes, which range in length from 25 minutes to 60 minutes or longer, many stretch studios, including Stretch Lab, StretchChi, and Stretch Relief, also offer one-on-one sessions in which a specialist will stretch your limbs for you using various techniques (like the Thai Yoga and Shiatsu massage techniques used at StretchChi) and tools (like the vibrating self-massage tool used at Stretch Lab). Prices for stretch classes can range anywhere from about $20 for a single group class, to upwards of $135 for a one-on-one stretch session.
Though stretching is primarily a low-impact and low-risk form of movement, you can hurt yourself if you approach it carelessly.
Stretches, if not done properly, can cause injury, says Rachel Straub, exercise physiologist and C.S.C.S. Though proper stretching technique varies with each stretch, overall, it’s important to have an idea of what muscle you are supposed to be stretching. If you are not feeling a stretch at the right location, you might simply be doing it wrong or compensating with another joint, she explains.
The speed at which you stretch is another important part of proper stretching. If you’re dynamically stretching to warm up your muscles before a workout (for example, doing leg swings pre run to stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors), it’s OK to move at a faster speed, says Perkins. But if you’re stretching deeply to the end of your range of motion (say, sitting down and statically stretching your hamstring with a band), it’s better to slowly ease yourself into the stretch, says Perkins. That’s because at the end of your range of motion, your muscle is more likely to pull and you risk injuring other tissues as well (think joint capsules, ligaments, nerves, and discs).
Though the appropriate distance to stretch varies greatly from person to person, every muscle in your body contains sensory receptors (basically nerve endings) called muscle spindles, which essentially act as a built-in defense mechanism to protect your muscles from overstretching, explains Perkins. These spindles monitor the length and speed at which you are stretching, and when you are nearing the end of your range of motion, these spindles will send a message to your muscle telling it to stop stretching in an effort to prevent injury. If you feel resistance as you push deeper into a stretch, that’s your spindles at work. If you keep pushing beyond that point, that’s where you can risk tearing or straining your muscles and/or injuring the surrounding tissue.
Stretching should never be painful, Perkins says. If it is, you may be stretching too far or stretching something other than the muscles you’re intending to—like a joint capsule (the connective tissue surrounding a joint) or a nerve, says Perkins, in which case you should stop and consult a doctor or physical therapist before continuing.
While it’s important to keep these things in mind, stretching classes are generally low-risk for most people, Perkins says. (That being said, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new movement routine, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions that may be exacerbated by stretching.)
So, should you attend a stretch class?
If a solid dose of stretching feels good for your body and the price tag seems worth it, go for it. Just because science doesn’t mandate it doesn’t mean you should avoid it if seems to be helpful for you.
Stretching and other recovery classes may also be a good choice for devoted exercisers who have a hard time penciling in rest days. “We don’t need to be over-exerting ourselves every day,” Straub adds. “Balancing stretching in can combat that.”
Of course, it’s also totally possible to incorporate stretching into your routine without dropping money on a dedicated stretching class. Instead of taking a break in between exercises in a circuit workout, for example, use that time to perform a dynamic stretch, says Straub. You can also stretch as you strengthen. A lunge, for example, can be a great way to stretch your hip flexors. So if you strength train regularly, and do a lot of functional movements, you’re simultaneously crossing some stretching off your list.
If you do decide to attend a class, research the studio beforehand, and confirm the credentials of the instructors.
You may even want to speak with former and present clients. Instructors should be certified by an agency accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, which includes the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength & Conditioning Association, the American Council on Exercise, and others. Even better if they have training in disciplines that focus on body mechanics, like kinesiology, biomechanics, and physical therapy.
That said, “just because someone has a certification doesn’t mean they have the knowledge base to be teaching stretching classes to a group or in private,” Straub adds. “The person instructing needs to understand muscle and joint mechanics—not just be able to demonstrate a bunch of exercises.”
If you’re new to stretching, Straub advises starting with a one-on-one session versus a group class. The personalized attention you’ll get can help you learn proper techniques from the get-go.
Make sure to always be mindful of how your body feels with each stretch and avoid comparing yourself to your classmates.
Group classes tend to push most of us to go a little bit harder than we might do solo, which is something to keep in mind when the goal here is actually recovery. Don’t push yourself further into a stretch for the sake of keeping up with a classmate, or hold a specific pose that hurts just because the instructor said to. “If they are asking you to do something and it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it,” says Straub. When it comes to stretching (and really, exercise in general), “what is right for one person is not right for someone else,” she adds. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”
Though a good, qualified instructor should be able to identify and adjust any class-goers practicing improper form, “communication in any group class is most important,” says Saint-Dic. “If people feel uncomfortable in any position, they should let the instructor know.”
Also, if you decide to adopt a new stretching routine, ramp up slowly and maintain realistic expectations, says Perkins. Attending stretch classes every week isn’t going to magically transform you into Gumby. As Perkins mentioned, it’s much harder than you might think to drastically change your flexibility. But if you’re intrigued by the idea of a stretch class and don’t have any underlying injuries or joint issues, by all means, give it a go.