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Should You Try an Assisted Stretch Class?

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Photo: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Stretching-only studios are bringing the chill back to a hyped-up, high-intensity fitness climate. Walk into any studio from California to Boston and a few minutes later you could be stretching out a week's worth of workouts. The studios promise to elongate muscles, rejuvenate the body, and fend off injuries with little more than a 30-minute sesh.

"For years, people have been training like athletes but not recovering like athletes," says Josh Crosby, a world-champion rower, endurance athlete, and co-owner of Motion Stretch Studio in Boston. With multiple locations cropping up nationwide, Motion specializes in one-on-one bodywork using myofascial release. "People are feeling a little beat up from all of the working out and training," Crosby says. "'Recovery' is often just a quick stretch at the end of class and that's about it."

It's a valid point—and one that rings particularly true for those of us who are just.so.busy or swear we'll foam roam later (never happens, right?). But what exactly is an assisted stretch session—and, more importantly, do you need to dedicate a day of the week (and your money) to just flexibility? (Related: Common Foam Rolling Mistakes You're Probably Making)

How Stretch Sessions Work

Companies like California-based Stretch Lab, New York's Stretch*d, Motion Stretch, and other similar studios all offer one-on-one assisted stretching with a coach (more or less, a professional helping you to stretch—more on the different kinds of pros you'll find later). Massage Envy also recently launched an assisted stretch service using a proprietary stretch method developed by a chiropractor, which consists of 30- and 60-minute sessions with a massage therapist.

The idea is to make sessions (often 30 minutes or so) a part of your regular schedule just like your workout classes—but supporters of assisted stretch also claim you'll reap the benefits from a one-off session, too, like you would a sports massage. Services range anywhere from $40 to $100 (depending on the length of your appointment), although many studios offer slightly more cost-effective packages.

While the techniques vary from studio to studio, you'll usually sit or lie on a massage-style table and work one-on-one with an expert who will use specific myofascial techniques, positions, and stretches to address any areas of tightness.

Other companies simply offer recovery-style group classes that include stretching and self-myofascial release—a benefit for anyone who wants to move in a group setting and needs a little time dedicated to R&R. Club Pilates' CP Restore class, for example, includes both restorative Reformer moves and foam rolling. SoulCycle's Le Stretch includes stretches, self-massage with a lacrosse ball, and more restorative mat work all led by an instructor.

The Benefits of Assisted Stretch

Stretch studios themselves note that targeted trigger point work and specific forms of stretching can improve range of motion, increase flexibility (and help prevent injury), get rid of general aches and pains, improve posture, increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, improve digestion, and help you relax (as a massage would), to name just a few. Some research does suggest that stretching can indeed increase your range of motion. And there is certainly research to support the use of chiropractic soft tissue work such as active release technique—a massage-like, stretching therapy performed by a chiropractor to break up scar tissue and restore proper range of motion. 

"The results are immediate. You see and feel them right when you get up in the morning and in your workout performance," says Christine Cody, studio manager at LYMBR in NYC. She also notes the mental perks of setting aside time for self-care in this way. (Related: How Self-Care Is Carving a Place In the Fitness Industry

Where Things Get Murky

Some experts argue that you should be the only one stretching your body on a regular basis—you know your own ranges of motion best, they say.

And while stretch studios argue that many people aren't stretching correctly or that you can get more out of a stretch by having someone help you, many experts argue that (a) you're probably doing better than you think, and (b) if you notice pain you think is attributed to something you're doing wrong, you should see a physical therapist (PT). Even fitness professionals themselves debate the topic of whether or not a personal trainer should be assisting clients with stretching (and whether or not it's beneficial).

"For the average person working out on a regular basis, if you can learn how to move your body within a range of motion that doesn't create pain, you're probably doing the right thing," says Karen Joubert, D.P.T., a physical therapist based in Southern California.

Also, to perform manual work, someone should not only have a certification but also a solid background in human anatomy. "You must have a license to massage, stretch, and provide PT services," says Scott Weiss, C.S.C.S., a New York-based physical therapist.

The good news is that many stretch studios do have licensed professionals doing the work. Crosby says Motion Stretch's Boston coaches are certified in massage therapy or are athletic trainers. Stretch Lab notes its employees are "already certified in an array of related fields—physical therapy, chiropractic medicine, yoga, Pilates, and more" and Stretch*d says "we are seeking candidates with a background in personal training, yoga instruction, coaching, massage therapy, kinesiology, sports science or similar. Bonuses: Degrees in kinesiology, exercise science or physical therapy." (Related: 7 Must-Try Hip Stretches for Runners)

But Weiss makes the point that this kind of education matters a lot. "A physical therapist has a doctorate degree and is extremely experienced on anatomy, physiology, and detecting dysfunction," says Weiss.

FWIW, stretch studios don't sell themselves as replacements for physical therapy. "We're not physical therapists—we don't treat injuries. We tell people to come back when you're feeling better and we'll keep you from getting injured again," says Stretch Lab cofounder Saul Janson. It's worth noting that some assisted studios, like Stretch Lab, are recruiting the help of physical therapists to develop their technique.

The Bottom Line?

No one thing (stretching, in this case) is the be-all and end-all to good, effective recovery. And as is? Stretching a highly-debated topic in the fitness industry with mixed research. 

That's not to say recovery isn't important. It is. Big time. And stretching—namely dynamic stretching before a workout and a little bit of static stretching post-workout (if you like it)—can be a part of that recovery, says Joubert. So can working with a PT, a sports chiropractor, a certified massage therapist for a massage every now and then, and many other forms of self-care. Depending on your workout routine, your body, and how you feel, mobility work, dynamic exercises, or even light cardio to get your blood pumping can serve as recovery, too, notes Joubert. (Related: The Best Workout Recovery Method for Your Schedule

If you're curious about a one-on-one session at a stretch studio, do your homework and ask questions (most importantly: what are your certifications or degrees?) before you let someone stretch you.

And, remember, if you're ever in pain, schedule a medical appointment rather than a stretch sesh. "Any true rehab from an injury or dysfunction should be treated and evaluated by a physical therapist," notes Weiss.

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