Lying on a bench, staring at the ceiling, I startle slightly at the whirr of a drill. It’s not building work outside, nor am I at the dentist — it’s the sound made by a tool to be used on me during an ‘assisted stretch’.
I am not pulling — or, indeed, pushing — your leg: assisted stretching is the latest health trend, with dedicated stretch studios offering to loosen up gym-goers, deskbound office workers and the aching elderly.
The concept is already well-established in the U.S. and Australia, not to mention Japan, where a brand called Dr Stretch has more than 100 studios offering to ‘unfold’ clients’ muscles.
Assisted stretching aims to relieve pain, increase flexibility and mobility, and improve physical performance. Pictured: Libby Galvin at StretchLab UK, London, with stretchologist Giovana Braia
The aim is to relieve pain, increase flexibility and mobility, and improve physical performance — and it’s catching on here, with StretchLab UK and Flexology studios offering sessions from £28 for 25 minutes.
An assisted stretch is commonly offered during the cooldown at the end of a personal training session, but what’s unique about these new studios is that they offer it in isolation: there’s no need to work up a sweat beforehand. Not unlike booking in for a massage, you just turn up and spend up to 50 minutes allowing yourself to be manoeuvred, while someone else does all the work.
Its advocates say that unlike stretching on your own, during an assisted stretch the entire body can relax while specific muscles are manipulated.
Techniques fall broadly into two categories: dynamic stretching, which involves some participation as the client is instructed to engage certain muscles while being stretched; and passive stretching, during which all the work is done by your assistant.
At StretchLab UK, where I have my session, most of the stretches fall into the latter camp.
Everyone can benefit from this sort of therapy, says Kunal Kapoor, the studio’s founder.
‘We have clients of all ages; our oldest is around 80. The two main camps of client are those who are extremely active, and those who are very stationary,’ he says. ‘You do also get a combination of the two — people who work out very hard and then go straight to sitting at a desk for hours, and end up seizing up and becoming stiff.’
Assisted stretching is the latest health trend, with dedicated stretch studios offering to loosen up gym-goers. Pictured: Libby Galvin at StretchLab UK, London, with stretchologist Giovana Braia
He adds: ‘We tend to see all these people coming in with the same issues: tight hamstrings, hips, backs and shoulders — all common in modern sedentary life.
‘What we offer is very much “prehab” as opposed to rehab,’ he adds, stressing that his staff cannot treat injuries.
But is it really necessary to have a dedicated stretch appointment, when we could just as easily limber up at home?
‘Stretching by yourself is great,’ says Kunal, ‘but there are very few people who would stretch for 50 minutes straight, and probably not effectively. Perhaps you wouldn’t push yourself that far.’
Back to that drilling noise. It’s made by the Theragun, a massage tool which pummels muscles 40 times a second. Each session begins with a few minutes’ use, all over the body.
‘If we had hours to work on every single person, that would be great, but we’re trying to pack as much benefit as we can into 25 or 50-minute sessions,’ explains my ‘stretchologist’, Giovana Braia, who is also a professional dancer, contortionist, stunt woman and personal trainer — clearly no stranger to flexibility.
‘Most people enjoy it, some find it uncomfortable yet often enjoy it at the same time,’ she says. ‘It warms everything up and gets everything moving, so that we’re not going into the stretches cold,’ she says.
I see what she means — the machine’s ‘drumming’ along my body really does tread a fine line between pleasure and pain, especially against my calves.
But it’s over quickly, and we’re into the stretches.
Leaving no limb unturned, Giovana starts with my legs and moves through my torso, arms, and neck.
Bending, extending, lengthening, leaning, it’s more of a workout for her than for me, and finishes with a quick head massage.
During the session, she identifies some tightness along my ‘lats’ (latissimus dorsi), the muscles that wrap around my back and sides. Why might that be, I ask? Giovana tells me it can result from lifting heavy weights. Hmm . . . no. ‘It can even result from texting a lot, hunching over, tiny repetitive movements like that,’ she adds.
Ah, there we go. I try not to look guilty.
I enjoy the experience and leave feeling looser — but can a regular stretch appointment like this provide the antidote to a desk job? Or is it only for serious athletes as part of a programme of recovery?
‘The conclusions are fairly clear: stretching doesn’t protect you against injury and doesn’t really improve recovery in the physiological sense,’ says Dr Duncan Critchley, a physiotherapist and lecturer at King’s College London, citing a comprehensive review of research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014.
‘You might feel better after a good stretch as it stimulates stretch sensory nerve endings, and this sensory input makes us feel better,’ he concedes, ‘but you won’t jump higher or run faster.’ Stretching will not enhance your performance, then. But when it comes to pain relief and improving flexibility and mobility, an assisted stretch may have its place — whether you’re a fitness fanatic or not.
‘It can help with relieving discomfort,’ says Dr Critchley. ‘And it will increase flexibility. We all know it’s easier to stick with something if someone else is helping you do it, so in that way an assisted stretch might be useful.’
Soft tissue techniques such as this are often included in the regimens of elite athletes to ease pain, says Benoy Mathew, a sports injuries specialist physiotherapist who works for the NHS in Croydon and in Harley Street. In the same way, assisted stretch programmes may encourage the less active to get moving.
‘What stops a lot of people from getting active is pain, so anything which relieves pain can only be a good thing,’ he says. ‘That combination of touch, a sustained hold, definitely has a calming effect on the human body and mind.’
But as for whether it’s any better for you than doing the hard work yourself, it seems there are no true shortcuts.
‘I’ve had assisted stretching and it feels good, but an active strategy will always be better than a passive one,’ says Benoy.
‘We like to think we can just lie down and let someone else do the work for us, but the body doesn’t like to let us cheat.’