I'm not limber. And I don't mean that in a cutesy "I go to yoga every week and I still can't put my ankle behind my head!" kind of way. I'm talking being 14 and — even after several years of having done gymnastics — still being the only girl on the cheerleading squad who couldn't touch her toes. Shockingly that situation has not improved with age. So it's not like it was a total revelation when my coach at Power Stretch Studios assessed my flexibility as "very poor."
Stretch studios are the underground fitness trend that aims to be antidote to high-intensity workouts like Crossfit and bootcamps that have taken over in recent years. Where those focus on muscle-building, stretch studios turn their eye toward improving flexibility and posture, two things that often become compromised with muscle growth and age. Stretching, these studios claim, helps alleviate strain in overworked muscles, makes moving easier and can even improve sleep.
I've always liked the idea of being flexible; not because I'm bothered by my massive, over-exercised muscles or want to show off some crazy pretzel-y asanas. Honestly, I just wanted to fulfill the lukewarm fantasy of being able to do a simple downward-facing dog without having to go into a full squat position. Achieving it has always seemed out of my grasp, though; stretching is the sort of thing I tend to think about when I'm trying to find a comfortable position on a cramped airplane seat or when my hip flexor decides to spasm when I step over my cat — not the kind of daily ritual that it takes to actually improve. So when I first started reading about stretch studios I thought, at the very least, that it was worth a shot.
The Lexington Avenue walkup that houses Power Stretch Studios' New York location (the business also has three outposts in New Jersey and one in Florida) is bright and cozy, with smooth wooden floors and a spa-like atmosphere. After answering a few general questions about my health and fitness (is there anything in the world more humbling than having to put down your lack of workout regimen on paper?) my coach, a sweet former-dancer named Elizabeth whose temperament suggests she would have made a better cheerleader than I ever did, sat me down on the floor, slapped a yardstick down between my feet and had me do the thing I've dreaded since those long ago middle school days: try to touch my toes.
This is where my "very poor" designation comes in. Because yeah, for my age bracket, my measly 8.5 inch stretch (somewhere around mid-calf, FYI) qualifies as "very poor" on Power Stretch Studios' proprietary Kika Method scale. Embarrassing? Hell yes. But Elizabeth, the consummate fitness professional, remained supportive and encouraging as she walked me back to officially start my session.
If you stuck yoga, those fancy guided Thai massages and the experience of trying really hard not to cry in front of a stranger into a blender and mixed it up, you'd have something kind of like the stretch studio experience. In the New York location, the sessions take place in a curtained-off cubicle, like a large, empty dressing room, with soothing purple walls and spongy yoga mat floors. With the lights dimmed down, my coach ran me through a series of familiar stretches: bending at the waist, sitting down and stretching with legs splayed, side bends and so on. If you've ever done basic stretching before, there's nothing here that's going to blow your mind, because it's not really the moves that you're here for; it's the helping hands.
Power Stretch Studios, like most stretch studios, practices what they call "passive stretching," meaning rather than straining for your own toes, your coach is the one applying pressure to your body to help the muscles loosen up. Power Stretch Studios uses The Kika Method, a technique designed by founder Hakika Dubose that borrows from her dance training as well as "personal training, the Alexander technique, Laban movement analysis and advanced anatomy," according to the company's site. And no, I'm not exaggerating when I say that I wanted to cry. Despite being the polar opposite of fit, I pride myself on a certain stubborn persistence in these kinds of situations. Even during intense massages or painful beauty treatments, I don't tap out, so it's sort of funny that these simple stretches are the closest I've ever gotten to it.
"Deep breath in... and out," Elizabeth said, over and over again as she had me move through stretches for my legs, arms and sides, applying pressure and weight each time I breathed out, easing off on the inhale. With the added push, I found myself stretching far deeper and holding each stretch for longer than I would ever have been able to on my own. My muscles strained and shook. I caught myself breaking out into a sweat, less from exertion than out of a strange sort of animal panic that comes from being pushed right up to your limit, far enough that the self-preservation instinct starts to kick in.
According to the studio, the coaches come from many different backgrounds, including dance, physical therapy and even an Olympic athlete, who are in turn trained either directly by Dubose or by her personally chosen lead stretch coaches. However they do it, despite a few moments there when I was honestly afraid that a muscle was just going to *pop!* right out of place, Elizabeth always seemed to know exactly how far to go.
By the time the session was over, I could already tell that I was going to be feeling it the next day. My legs had that vague trembly feeling you sometimes get after being on the treadmill for a while, and going back down stairs was definitely more of an effort than ascending them had been. That said, when I repeated the old "reach for your toes" measurement in the post-session debrief/stretch test, there was an actual measurable improvement: a full four extra inches of flexibility, almost enough to get me out of the "very poor" category. Sad trombone.
The next day, I did indeed feel the after-aches of the stretching session, a soreness indistinguishable from typical muscle pain after a hard workout, through the backs of my thighs and hips as well as along my sides. "Muscles get sore due to delayed onset muscle soreness," a representative from the studio explained to me. "This is actually a sign of your muscles becoming stronger. Stretching is a workout." Of course, according to Power Stretch Studios, with continued sessions, the pain afterward should ebb away as your flexibility increases; they recommend coming in for weekly sessions, ranging from $50-$100.
Overall, I found the stretch studio experience to be worthwhile. Unlike most workouts I've tried, I could at least see a noticeable (and even quantifiable) improvement from the beginning of the session to the end. But unlike most classes you might take, I wouldn't exactly call it a workout. While there was certainly effort involved, and my heart did pound, stretching isn't going to replace your usual gym session for cardio or do much in the way of helping to build muscle. Still, if you've got the time and the disposable income, it could definitely benefit whatever fitness routine you're doing, or act as a stepping stone for those who need to get out from behind their desks and do something but might be intimidated by more aerobically oriented fitness. Just keep in mind that, like any other fitness regimen, stretching really only works if you stick with it, meaning it may be a long, long time yet before I can touch my toes.