Difference between stretching and lengthening the muscles
Muscles are controlled and operated by the central nervous system.
Brain continuously receive information about the condition of the body and our environment during the movement. Instructions, commands are formed based on this information and they are transmitted through the nervous motor system. This sensory-motor (feedback) loop allows us to move our bodies and perform a voluntary movement. We learn to perform more complex, and hence more efficient movements growing up; we invest most of our time and attention (mostly through play) in this learning. And so we gradually develop bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, which depends primarily on our environment and habits that we acquire and cultivate due to the demands of our surroundings.
A person living in an environment with high entropy (wilderness), lower options and need for multi-tasking and greater dependency on own body for survival has significantly higher kinesthetic intelligence and adaptability. His joints are less worn out, and he has less or no chronic pain, than a person living in a more regulated environment (city), torn between many activities, but not needing to struggle to survive.
Kinesthetic intelligence can be improved by training the awareness of the senses provided to us by the movement and can either be pleasant (enjoyment) or unpleasant (pain). We are becoming more physically agile through learning, our moves become more coordinated and efficient (better consistency of shortening and lengthening the muscles during the movement), usually to the level the environment demands from us.
The role of the unpleasant feelings (pain) is to transmit information about the inadequacy of the move (hence the pain) to our conscious mind. Pain is an indicator that the current movement is too demanding and complex for our current kinesthetic intelligence and abilities, too fast, too intense or it takes too long to be performed without feedback in the form of unpleasant feelings and pain. We can accept that and change with regards to such feelings, or we can overlook that, save time and continue into greater disorder.
This educational function of the pain is less evident and used in a modern environment with the fast pace of life. Furthermore, pain is undesirable in such situation and it needs to be eliminated or avoided, so it doesn't slow us down. Progress is primarily achieved by increasing the level of pain tolerance and by an effort in such environment, and not by learning to feel the moves and changing the movement patterns. Children in primary schools, or even younger, already start picking up the approach mentioned above to pain.
And that modern environment offers a variety of possibilities to alleviate and eliminate pain without one even trying to find out what caused it and apply changes. Pain warns us about the inappropriate movement and life, it makes us think of the changes that need to be done, but they take time and attention, the two factors we always lack in the modern way of life.
Pain reminds us about the lack of time, which results in not giving enough attention to physical sensations. The body tries to achieve two things by being in a clenched-like state: to draw the attention of the conscious mind (the only one that can change the functioning of the nervous-muscular system) for one, and the second one is to limit the harmful movement by 'applying' pain and stiffness. This activates the body's defense function to irrational and uncoordinated mind. When the body is incapable of following the mind's demands we define the condition as underdeveloped nervous-muscular system. As we live in an organised environment where we always run out of time but at the same time we have plenty of energy, the nervous-muscular system doesn't even have the time nor the need to develop to the level that was needed in the past.
Despite the immaturity of our soma, the way of life offers and demands more from our bodies. However, our minds don't follow the warnings about exceeding the bodies' physical limitations; the latter is usually encouraged and rewarded. Because of that, the body becomes stiff and hence makes it difficult for the mind to exaggerate. Similarly to the road obstacles that force the driver to be alert (tense) and eventually make him slow down and become more cautious. Mind accepts the stiffness, adapts to it, but it doesn't adapt its demands and tasks. Instead, it puts in more energy to compensate for the inefficient movement. People in developed societies have enough power to maintain this fictional balance for quite some time. However, this situation creates a more significant gap between mind and body and also an unclear communication leading to conflicts, more pain, injuries, wear and tear and depression.
This kind of understanding of physical pain and stiffness, the ever more present elements in our lives, gives us an option to comprehend the actual impact, benefits and need for stretching and other routine approaches used at warm up, eliminating asymmetries, unsuited ROM and stiffness of muscles and joints.
Static stretching is the most commonly recommended method for dealing with tense, sore muscles and pain related to sports activities. In general, a person should stretch before and after training and hence loosen up tight and hard muscles. Stretching is an integral unit of any training, whether of professional or recreational athletes, but despite that the opinions regarding its effectiveness are divided; there is no real proof to whether it prevents injuries, eliminates tensions and significantly contributes to muscle relaxation. This article aims to clarify the reasons for that.
Basic features of static stretching
We start with a single move and then smoothly and with control proceed to stretching, which we achieve with gravitation or other external forces, a concentric contraction of antagonists, or combination of both. At the end of the range of motion, we halt the position for a certain amount of time (static position) and then return to the starting position and repeat the exercise. It is recommended to stretch a bit further after the effect of the initial stretch unwinds. Most stretching exercises entail three to five series repetitions where each stretch lasts from 10 to 30 seconds. For example, lifting a leg and holding it in this position with your hands; the splits is in the same category. We force muscles into greater mobility (range of motion) this way; our consciousness is usually distracted from the very move to sustain the pain in the stretched muscle better.
We stretch muscles this way and not improve the ability to lengthen them. Also, the technique doesn't reduce the energy consumption during movement as stretching doesn't increase the movement complexity and coordination. Our body is constantly reminding us of this flaw with pain and problems. Other methods have similar dilemmas; use of massage rollers, massage balls, elastic bands, electrical muscle stimulation and painful massages. All these approaches provide benefits in certain specific cases, but not in general use as it is usually portrayed and understood.
In my opinion and experience stretching is needed and suitable only when our natural mobility (with regards to bone and body structure) isn't enough to execute certain moves. This is usually the case at gymnastics, dancing and martial arts where the movements are adapted to different mobility and shape of the pelvis of the Asians, so we need to increase our mobility with stretching. Furthermore, people who need to improve their mobility beyond their natural abilities should be aware of the consequences and long-term negative impact on muscles of the pelvic area, hips, spine and knees. They should increase their sensitivity and control over the state of the body accordingly.
Approach to learning the AEQ method enables a gradual increase of the sensitivity and control over the muscles by executing the AEQ exercises consciously, feeling and eliminating inconsistencies and reducing the loss of conscious control over the body movement.
Basic features of AEQ movements
We start an AEQ exercise by tightening the muscles or muscle groups outside of their usual tone, but only to the pain. Our focus is on the movements and how we feel those movements. In case the pain occurs we need to ask ourselves why it occurred and what can be done/changed, so it stops. Pain during an exercise doesn't mean "stop" or "ignore", it means "observe, think about and change". In other words, when you feel the pain you think about it and change or temporarily stop (if there's no necessary attentiveness) or slow down to enable myself return or raise my attention on a suitable level of complexity. Then we switch from the tense muscles to sensible, slow and conscious muscle relaxation. Our conscious mind gets the more feedback this way, and therefore we can improve our awareness of the actual condition of our body. The more repetitions of an exercise we do over time, the more information (feeling) we get and we also become more aware of our wellbeing and how could we improve it. All this gradually leads into a change of patterns and habits we've acquired throughout our lives and with uncontrolled, uncoordinated movement. Length of the muscles and their average tone will change when we apply this new way of studying movement. This means learning and altered functioning of the nervous - muscular system are the keys to the changes in our muscles - their tone and timing are more realistic, and we slowly change the feeling, control and motor coordination for the better in the long-term. AEQ exercises enable, realistic muscle tension and relaxation and at the same time increased sense and control over them. Our conscious mind (cortex) is the only one that can relax (lengthen) a muscle by learning.
Stretching doesn't encourage us to learn the movement correctly, as opposed to lengthening and control the muscles. Static stretching doesn't have such long-term benefits as it doesn't teach our brains to relax the muscles in such way to include the entire set of muscles. Namely, static stretching triggers protective stretch reflex, which means the muscles fight against stretching and hence decrease the feeling of muscles and control over them.
An AEQ exercise is an educational process that enables resetting and relaxing a muscle on a level of changes of commands from the nervous system to the muscles; the changes are the result of an improved feeling of the muscles in the conscious mind. More realistic feedback received by the brain enable a shift in muscle length, which leads to the more efficient cooperation of muscles. Stretching makes us move the boundaries with struggle and force, leading into even more resistance and pain. However, learning how to lengthen a muscle gets us to the point we don't cross. And this incites our brains to move the boundary themselves as such movement doesn't cause any pain, or one can learn from the pain the things that aren't good for us, and the brains don't have any need to set the boundaries where they aren't needed.
Some facts for consideration
Muscles perform actions that brains tell them to perform. If muscles are tense even when that's not needed it means the brains are sending the wrong commands and the reason for it is the wrong interpretation or to little feedback in cortex part of the brain. Stretching doesn't result in changing orders in the brain, so the causes of pain are not eliminated for long; moreover, mobility and efficiency progressively deteriorate at the same time. It's not possible to remove pain successfully and long-term by applying pain. The latter equal to trying to extinguish a fire by using flamethrowers and hoping a house would stay intact. Painful muscles are like that because they are overstrained and tired, and pain only makes them even tenser (after all, this the function of pain - to protect a muscle from even higher damage). Feeling after stretching is usually described as relaxation, but in fact, it's a relief, which offers an only short-term feeling of progress. So the problem is repeating as we didn't eliminate its cause in the central nervous system. By shortening the muscles during the AEQ exercises we are at the same time consciously lengthening the opposite muscles, but with a caution to avoid the point of pain. On the other hand, by shortening the muscles at stretching, we passively stretch the opposite ones, which usually leads to pain and also the opposite effect than desired.
The most common reaction to pain nowadays is a thought about which medicine to take to make it go away as soon as possible and not what to do or change to remove the cause of pain.
Aleš Ernst, teacher of the AEQ method Level 5