Stretching and lengthening are related but different. A lack of flexibility, like when you have trouble touching your toes, is often less about your ability to stretch your muscles and more about your connective tissues (fascia) and their length.
Our fascia is connective tissue, and it surrounds each of our muscles. It is the health and elasticity of the fascia that determines how much length you get when you stretch muscles. When the fascia gets built up and thickened, it loses its elasticity. This means that your muscles lose some of their room to stretch within the fascia that covers them.
For example, if you have a shoulder injury where it goes out of joint and hurts, the muscles around your shoulder will work together to protect you. They will limit your range of motion for a while so that you don’t do more damage. Your fascia will thicken due to the lack of movement, because movement is what keeps fascia healthy and elastic. Afterward, stretching will help maintain the health of your tissues, but it will not correct the thickened fascia, and so your stretch will stay limited.
Bodywork helps lengthen fascia again. There are specific techniques that help correct the ways that fascia can get short and thick instead of elastic and thin. This in turn allows the muscles to stretch, relax, and regain more of their range of motion. Working with therapy balls also helps nourish the fascia and other tissues, bringing in lymph, blood, and oxygen.
Often, when we talk about flexibility, we think it is about stretching muscles. However, it is more important to maintain the health of our fascia in order to improve range of motion and reduce tension and pain. Stretching is important, and so is lengthening our fascia.