Over the years, I have seen an evolution in massage chairs and the stretch programs available in those chairs. Each stretch offers a different physiological benefit to the user.
I have broken down the different stretches into 3 types: full body extension stretches, segmental stretches, and hip distraction stretches.
Segmental stretches are available in very few chairs anymore but involve stretches to different areas/segments of the spine, most particularly the neck/shoulders, the back, and the hips. It is a stretch that utilizes airbags and rollers to work on one segment at a time, either by distraction, rotation, or translation of the segment. This type of stretch is primarily found in the older S-track chairs. An example of a neck stretch would be the seat airbags inflating to lift the whole torso and then hold, followed by the rollers moving to a spot just below the back of the skull, and then the seat airbags deflating so that the torso slowly drops and the rollers hold the head up from under the skull. Hard to describe with the written word, but it feels great. The idea of the neck segmental stretch can best be illustrated by a neck traction device, as seen in the image to the right.
Full Body Extension Stretch vs. Hip Distraction Stretch
The mechanics of the full body extension and hip distraction stretches are very similar but differentiated by whether the massage chair is an S-track or an L- or SL-track massage chair. Both of these stretch programs involve the chair reclining, shoulder airbags inflating to pin the shoulders back, and airbags in the feet and calves inflating to hold the legs while the ottoman drops down.
The difference is that in an S-track chair, the chair back can move independently of the seat whereas in an L- or SL-track chair, the chair back and seat are always articulating/moving together, thus always keeping the body in the L-shaped position and not flat, like the S-track chairs. Because the S-track chairs can recline to close to horizontal, the full body extension stretch is provided. It feels like the full torso and hips are being pulled apart. Because the L- or SL-track chairs cannot full recline horizontally, when the ottoman drops it tends to pull on (or distract) the hips rather than extend the whole body, like the S-track chair does.
The full body extension stretch of the S-track chairs is quite a bit stronger than the distraction stretch of the L-track models. The trade-off is that the L-track gives you a roller massage on the buttocks muscles, whereas the S-track chairs provide a much stronger extension stretch.
J-track configurations were created to try to get the best of both worlds…a full body extension stretch as well as a roller massage to the buttock muscles. Theoretically, the J-track chair would recline back with the seat being closer to horizontal than the L-track seat, thus facilitating a stretch that is more full body extension than a hip distraction stretch. In reality, however, it is still more of a hip distraction stretch.
Because of the physics of each stretch program, based on the design of the chairs that deploy them, you can expect a very different feel and result from each of those three stretch types. Folks sitting on an L-track chair expect the stretch to be the same full body extension stretch of an S-track chair. The industry has tried to replicate the full body extension stretch of an S-track in the L-track configuration, but it is virtually impossible to do that because of the physics of the two different chair types. As a result of the different builds of the S vs. L-track chairs, and the completely different feels of the stretch program in each, we need to develop a different nomenclature when it comes to naming and describing stretch programs. That is what I’ve tried to do with this article.
Rather than say that the stretch program of an L-track chair is “not as good” as the full body extension stretch of the S-track chair, since we do try to group them into the same description, it would be better to say that they are different stretches with different physiological stress points and benefits. One is not necessarily “better” than another…they are just different. That is why I have broken down stretch programs into these 3 types.
Dr. Alan Weidner
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