Stretching and Pandiculation
June 9th, 2015
The central nervous system controls how the muscles work. When we move, our brain constantly receives feedback about our environment. This inflow of information allows us to move our body in the most efficient way possible. By repeating and consciously correcting any wrong movements, our movement becomes better and increasingly correct.
When we repeat movements, we learn how to coordinate them. This makes them more efficient and automated. It is crucial, however, that we maintain conscious control over this automatization. We do something similar when driving a car. Static stretching is the most common answer to eliminate tense and painful muscles due to exercise. In general, we are told to stretch to soften stiff and tense muscles after exercise. Stretching is an integral part of training for professional and recreational athletes. But more and more research shows conflicting views on the actual benefits of stretching. There is no real proof that it prevents injuries, eliminates tensions or significantly contributes to muscle relaxation. Let me therefore explain the difference between static stretching and pandiculation.
Static stretching We start with a movement and then, we gradually turn it into a controlled and smooth stretching. We achieve this with the help of gravitational pull or other external forces, concentric contraction of agonists or the combination of both. At the end of the stretching movement, we hold the position for a certain time (static position). Then, we return to the starting position and repeat the exercise. A common advice is to stretch the muscle further when we feel a relief in the stretched position. Most stretches includes series of three to five repetitions and every stretch should last from 10 to 30 seconds. A good example is a leg lift where we hold our leg with our hands. Splits also fall into this category. This is how we force the muscle to be more flexible and direct our consciousness away from the movement so we can deal better with the pain caused by the stretch reflex, which is triggered in the muscle being stretched.
We start pandiculation with a conscious contraction of tense and painful muscles or muscle groups, outside the range of their usual tonus. From tension, we transition into a careful, slow and conscious relaxation of the muscle or muscle group. This is how we send feedback to the brain and enable resetting of the muscle tonus and length. The nervous system is therefore in charge of the changes in muscles, which increases and changes our awareness, control and motor coordination in the long term. Pandiculation enables and facilitates muscle relaxation by increasing our awareness and control over it. Only the conscious part of our brain (cortex), namely our mind, is capable of fully relaxing a muscle.
In contrast to pandiculation, static stretching does not encourage learning the correct movement. Static stretching has no benefits in the long term because it does not teach the brain the kind of relaxation that would include the entire group of certain muscles. Over and over again, it triggers the protective stretch reflex that causes the muscles to resist the stretching, which in turn decreases our awareness and control over the movement. Pandiculation is an active learning process that resets and relaxes the muscles on the level of the nervous system. Feedback, which the brain receives, enables the resetting of the muscle length that leads to a more relaxed, efficient and coordinated functioning of the muscles. In stretching, we overcome the limits by struggling and using force, which causes resistance and pain. In pandiculation, we reach a limit but do not overstep it. By doing this, we encourage the brain to overcome this limit spontaneously. A pandiculated movement does not cause pain, therefore the brain does not need to resist and maintain its limit when this is not necessary.
A few more points to think about
Muscles do what the brain tells them to. If our muscles are tense even when they do not need to be, they receive incorrect information from the brain. With stretching, we do not change commands in the brain and thus cannot eliminate the cause of pain in the long term. At the same time, we decrease flexibility and efficiency. Trying to eliminate pain with more pain, successfully and in the long term, is impossible. It is like trying to put out a fire with a flamethrower. Muscles are in pain because they are overly tense and tired and further pain stiffens them up even more. After all, the purpose of pain is to protect the muscle from even greater damage. We usually describe the feeling after stretching as relaxation but in reality, this relief offers only a short term feeling of progress. Yet, the problem persists because we did not address its cause on the level of the central nervous system.