Let’s look at the key differences between stretching and pandiculation. Pandiculation is used extensively in Clinical Somatic Education to regain the brain’s control of tight painful muscles, and normalise musclte tension.
Stretching sends sensory information only as far as the Spinal Cord
When a muscle is stretched, the sense receptors (muscle spindles) within that muscle send information to the spinal cord to indicate that the length of the muscle has changed, in this case lengthened. The spinal cord in response sends a motor impulse to the muscle being stretched, triggering a contraction (tightening), it also sends an impulse to the opposing muscle inhibiting a contraction.
So, stretching a muscle causes it to respond by contracting. This is counter to what you’re are trying to achieve when you stretch. This is a very basic explanation of the stretch reflex. As you can see the higher, learning part of the brain (cortex) is not involved in the process at all, the stretch reflex is a spinal cord reflex. That means it is mediated at the level of the spinal cord.
Pandiculation sends new sensory information all the way to the Brain
When a muscle is contracted deliberately, the sense receptors within that muscle send information all the way to the Sensory Motor Cortex of the brain (see image below) to indicate that the length of muscle has changed, in this case shortened, and also that the level of tension in the muscle has increased. Because this information has reached the Sensroy Cortex of the brain, the muscle(s) can be sensed or ‘felt’. Those muscles are now under your conscious, voluntary control. At this point you can choose to increase, maintain or decrease the level of contraction/tension. When pandiculating you will slowly decrease the level of contraction all the way down to complete rest. The take home point is; you re-establish control over the muscle when you contract it voluntarily.
Stretching is passive
Stretching is passive, you are not actively using the muscle, you are merely pulling on it. You are trying to affect change from the outside in.
Pandiculation is active
During a Pandiculation you are actively using the muscle, your brain is involved in the process. You are trying to affect change from the inside out.
Stretching decreases potential power output of the muscles involved
Passive stretching and even PNF* stretching temporarily reduce the potential power output of the muscle.
Pandiculation increases sensation & awareness of the muscles involved
Pandiculation strengthens the connection between the sensory motor cortex of the brain and the muscle. The muscles can be sensed more clearly and control of the muscles (the ability to contract and relax the muscles in question) increases. This is because the muscle is both contracted and then slowly and carefully relaxed during a pandiculation, essentially allowing you to practice and re-learn both contracting and relaxing.
Stretching provides no new sensory information to the brain
In a passive stretch there is no new sensory information for the Sensory Motor cortex. Therefore no new sensory motor learning takes place. This may be the most important difference between stretching and pandiculation
Pandiculation provides lots of new sensory information for brain
When you contract muscles voluntarily and deliberately, as we do when we pandiculate, you immediately engage the sensory motor cortex, this sends new sensory information to the brain. Therefore new sensory motor learning takes place.
Stretching can be painful
Passive stretching can be uncomfortable and can even be painful especially if Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is present.
Pandiculation feels good
Pandiculation performed correctly does not hurt, it feels very pleasurable and relaxing. It has the feeling or quality of a yawn.
No attention required to stretch
There is no focused attention required to pull on a limb and evoke a stretch. You can stretch mindlessly whilst wathcing tv or chatting. (Granted you can stretch with attention too. You’re still at the mercy of the stretch reflex though)
Attention required to pandiculate effectively
Focused attention is absolutely required to perform an effective Pandiculation, both to contract the desired muscle(s) and also to control the slow relaxation phase so that it feels smooth.
Temporary change in length
Passive stretching confers only a temporary change in length, if any, as the muscles reflexively recontract in response to the stretch.
Long term change in length
Pandiculation confers more permanent changes in muscle tonus and resting length as you brain LEARNS a new longer resting length for your muscles. Please note the changes in muscle length that are achieved through pandiculation are as a result of the reduced level of tension in the muscle. They are not as a result of tissue remodelling.
Stretching does not eliminate Sensory Motor Amnesia
Passive stretching does nothing to eliminate the habituated levels of chronic muscular contraction that are typical of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
Pandiculation eliminates Sensory Motor Amnesia
Pandiculation eliminates SMA quickly and easily by returning control of the muscle to Sensory Motor Cortex and allowing you to learn how to relax and lengthen your muscles.
These are the main differences between Stretching and Pandiculation. One final point to note is that often when people stretch they will stretch muscles in isolation, whereas with pandiculation one contracts many muscles at once. This allows us to release large patterns of tension more quickly and effectively.
The learning component of pandiculation allows you to develop better sensorimotor control over your muscles, and muscles that you have full control over will not cause pain. It is only those muscles which you have lost control over that become chronically tight and painful. The pain is the warning sign that you do not have control any more, and that the muscles are too tight.
I think it is important to note that there are scenarios where some form of stretching may be required, such as in the practice of dance, martial arts, gymnastics etc. In these activities a high degree of flexibility, beyond what is considered normal, is required to perform certain techniques. However it is known and acknowledged that muscle tension must be normalised before stretching of this kind take place.
“In instances of excessive tension (excessive neural stimulation) or weakness (excessive neural inhibition) caused by misaligned joints or neurological problems, typical strength training exercises will not help you either… …To fix such problems you need the help of an applied kiniesology specialist who, among other modes of treatment, may prescribe special exercises for normalizing the tension of muscles”
Kurz, T. (2003) Stretching Scientifically p.11-12
Furthermore this kind of high level flexibility is best attained through the intelligent application of dynamic stretching, static active stretching, isometric stretching etc. If this is something you are interested in I highly recommend the book quoted above; Stretching Scientifically, By Thomas Kurz.
Interestingly, when we research the different methods of stretching it becomes clear that the most effective methods of stretching all favour preceeding a stretch with some kind of muscular contraction.
The ‘excessive tension’ noted in the quote above is no different to the Sensory Motor Amnesia we recognise in Somatic Education. And Somatic movements can perfectly fulfill the role of the ‘special exercises for normalizing the tension of muscles’. Once muscle tension has been normalized, other methods of stretching can be implemented safely and more effectively in accordance with your goals.
So just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with stretching, but we need to understand what we are trying to achieve, and what is the best tool for the job. If muscle tension is already excessive, pandiculation will serve you better than stretching. Once muscle tension has been normalized, you can begin to explore other methods of stretching again if you wish, however for most people, Somatics can provide you with the requisite mobility to be comfortable in your day to day activities.
If you would like to learn more about Somatics and how it can help you to normalize muscle tension, improve your movement, relieve stress and reduce or eliminate your muscle pain, check out my online offerings here.
You can also check out my YouTube Channel and start pandiculating right now.
*This post updated 20/05/2021.