Stretching studios muscle their way in to St. Louis area – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Flexologist Taijhan Nelson stretches Kathy Von Minden at the Stretch Lab in Town and Country on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Assisted-stretching studios have started to become more popular with multiple new locations opening in the St. Louis area recently. They claim to improve flexibility, speed recovery and prevent injuries. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
Flexologist Reid Spencer, standing, talks with owner Laurel Burke as he performs her weekly stretch at the Stretch Lab in Town and Country on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Assisted-stretching studios have started to become more popular with multiple new locations opening in the St. Louis area recently. They claim to improve flexibility, speed recovery and prevent injuries. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
Flexologist Taijhan Nelson, front, demonstrates the posture he wants Dan Gould to be in for the next stretch at the Stretch Lab in Town and Country on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Assisted-stretching studios have started to become more popular with multiple new locations opening in the St. Louis area recently. They claim to improve flexibility, speed recovery and prevent injuries. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
TOWN AND COUNTRY — Shon Gregory of Brentwood works nights as a nurse in an assisted-living facility. She’s on her feet the whole shift, lifting, bending. By the next morning, her muscles are sore and knotted.
So Gregory enlisted the aid, once a week, of a professional “flexologist” at StretchLab off Woods Mill Road, to stretch her out, unkink her knots.
“It’s like breaking new ground every time I do it,” said Gregory, 51.
Assisted stretching, once reserved for elite athletes, has become a regular habit for many workaday folks, costing as much as $50 per 20 minutes. In the past two years, at least five studios dedicated to the practice have opened in the St. Louis area, with more on the way. The National Academy of Sports Medicine launched a curriculum last summer to train coaches on stretching and flexibility. The work harnesses interest in recovery and restoration services, like yoga and meditation, that have flourished during the pandemic.
Practitioners say almost anyone can benefit from flexibility training: It improves range of motion, reduces pain and decreases the likelihood of injury. The need has grown: As the population ages, baby boomers who ushered in the jogging and aerobics crazes of the 1970s and ’80s are getting creakier. Blurred work-home lines and excess screen use mean more time in ergonomically questionable postures. And even casual competitors are looking for any kind of performance edge.
Personal trainer Alison Hyde of St. Louis noticed more than a decade ago that her clients were not availing themselves of the advantages of a stretching routine.
“They were so inflexible,” she said. “I wanted to learn how to stretch people safely.”
Hyde traveled to Miami to learn Ki-Hara, a method of applying resistance to the other person’s muscles as they are lengthening. She adopted the name STL Pro Stretch, started a YouTube channel and gained a following from middle-schoolers to retirees.
Some “graduate” after just one $75, 90-minute session at her Central West End home; others, like a tightly drawn professional trumpeter, come for weekly maintenance.
“You’re not just getting moved about,” Hyde said. “We’re firing up the muscles.”
Dave Reddy, the director of the exercise science program at Webster University, places flexibility as one among equals in what he calls a “fitness portfolio” of strength, balance, agility and endurance.
He said you get more out of stretching when you do it independently. Doing it by yourself activates the nervous system, engages core muscles and improves balance. Still, he acknowledges that stretching studios have their role. They offer accountability to folks who would otherwise skip their toe touches or hip rotations.
“You’ve got to pick your battles,” he said. “Sometimes it’s worth it to hire someone to help.”
Stretch U, the first assisted-stretching studio in St. Louis County, opened about eight years ago.
Maurie Cofman, 66, of Clayton was hooked immediately.
“I’m an active person, and it just keeps my body feeling right,” Cofman said.
She visits the Rock Hill location twice a month, reclining on one of the four tables in the back room. A “stretch tech” — trained in exercise science or a related field — unfurls Cofman, muscle by muscle and joint by joint, from her feet to her fingertips.
Stretch U packs a series of 108 stretches into a 20-minute appointment. A starter package of four visits costs about $200. For longer sessions, trainers employ a process called “lock and stretch,” which applies sustained pressure on the tough myofascial connective tissue that surrounds muscles.
“We hit every major muscle group,” said owner Mark Bryan.
Stretch U opened a second location in Creve Coeur in 2020, and another was added in Chesterfield last year. Bryan is scouting for a fourth space in St. Peters.
The Chesterfield Stretch U already faces a nearby competitor: Stretch Zone, partially owned by former Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, opened there in September.
Stretch Zone’s method involves strapping clients’ limbs into different positions to isolate and elongate the targeted muscle. That allows other muscles to relax, said general manager Sarah Jerden, and is particularly useful for the difficult-to-reach, injury-prone iliotibial band, which runs along the outside of the leg.
William Lee, 25, of the Central West End likes to take his lunch break at Stretch Zone. Until a couple months ago, the Logan University student felt like he was stuck on a fitness plateau. But the facilitated stretching has dislodged him.
“It helps with stress relief. It helps with imbalances in the body. And I can lift more,” Lee said.
StretchLab, the new franchise on Woods Mill, built its membership even before it had a storefront by hosting pop-ups at boutique gyms and retailers weeks before its official opening in Town and Country in September.
Co-owner Alan Burke became a convert to stretching after he discovered it relieved his chronic pain.
“People just want functional movement,” he said. “It gives you the freedom to move.”
StretchLab calls its practitioners flexologists. Most have studied athletic training, exercise science or physical therapy. The stretch sessions are customized to clients’ goals. A 3D body scanner measures mobility and symmetry to help track progress over time.
Burke and his wife, Laurel, opened their second StretchLab this month in Ladue and are planning a third in Creve Coeur. A monthly membership for four 25-minute stretches runs about $150.
Dan Gould, 56, of Maryland Heights has been going since October.
The retired firefighter spent decades climbing ladders, hauling hoses and moving machinery. The heavy lifting caught up to him.
“I got kind of banged up,” he said. “I know the value of stretching, but it’s hard to stretch yourself.”
Gould set simple goals: to get up and down the stairs more easily and to lace up his shoes without being reminded of his stiffness.
It’s working, he said: “You can tell as time goes on, you’re really progressing.”
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Colleen Schrappen is a reporter at the Post-Dispatch.
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Flexologist Taijhan Nelson stretches Kathy Von Minden at the Stretch Lab in Town and Country on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Assisted-stretching studios have started to become more popular with multiple new locations opening in the St. Louis area recently. They claim to improve flexibility, speed recovery and prevent injuries. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
Flexologist Reid Spencer, standing, talks with owner Laurel Burke as he performs her weekly stretch at the Stretch Lab in Town and Country on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Assisted-stretching studios have started to become more popular with multiple new locations opening in the St. Louis area recently. They claim to improve flexibility, speed recovery and prevent injuries. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
Flexologist Taijhan Nelson, front, demonstrates the posture he wants Dan Gould to be in for the next stretch at the Stretch Lab in Town and Country on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Assisted-stretching studios have started to become more popular with multiple new locations opening in the St. Louis area recently. They claim to improve flexibility, speed recovery and prevent injuries. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
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