By JOANNE KAUFMAN
February 1, 2017
Nazare Rodrigues is 41 in human years. But as she learned recently at Power Stretch Studios when she sat on the floor, extended her legs and tried valiantly to touch her fingertips to her toes, she is a lot older — 56 — in stretch years.
“I feel very stiff, you know?” said Ms. Rodrigues, a legal assistant who signed up for a 45-minute session after seeing the company’s sign in a second-floor window in Midtown Manhattan. “I feel problems bending down and picking things up.”
The company’s owner, Hakika V. DuBose — Kika for short — is a former actor and dancer who opened her business in May 2011 to address what she saw as a gap in the exercise market: facilities devoted exclusively to relaxing the bundled muscles of the tired and toned. In addition to the Manhattan studio, she has three Power Stretch outposts in New Jersey and one in Florida.
“There are all these peak fitness places that have popped up,” said Ms. DuBose, who is 32 (but 25 in stretch years), referring to SoulCycle, Barry’s Bootcamp and CrossFit. “People go five times a week and their muscles are very overworked and contracted.”
She is far from the only entrepreneur who is confident that stretching is the new big thing in fitness.
StretchOut Studios opened seven months ago in the Boston area, specializing in a type of athletic stretching technique called active isolated stretching. In the Los Angeles area, Stretchlab, which opened in June 2015, has three studios and also offers one-on-one personalized stretch sessions. And Stretch Zone, which says on its website that it can “re-educate” the muscles of baby boomers, appears to be the largest national chain. It has 31 stores in California, Florida, North Carolina and other states, with locations about to open in Houston, Detroit and Milford, Conn.
“Stretching is especially important in our modern world because we don’t have as many slow movements integrated into most of our lives anymore,” said Diane Waye, the owner of Stretching by the Bay, a studio in San Francisco. “We need to keep our range of motion open to help prevent joint disease, pain and posture issues and to improve athletic performance.”
However worthy their cause, these stretching emporiums have an uphill climb. The fitness industry has seen its share of fads — step classes, Callanetics, dancercise, Zumba — and failures. In December, for example, David Barton closed its gyms in Boston, New York and elsewhere. Real estate prices are high, customer loyalty uncertain.
“Just like any small business, there are definite challenges to operating a health club,” said Meredith Poppler, the vice president for communications at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group. “High competition, especially in urban areas, is often fierce, and member retention rates keep many club operators up all night.”
Ms. DuBose and her peers face a particular challenge: Their programs are meant simply to supplement a workout. Also, stretching may hurt so good, but it still hurts (a lot, sometimes).
“You have to let your body get used to it,” Rick Charron, the manager of StretchOut Studios, said. “This is something that may start off painful, but you give it a couple of times and the pain will decrease as your range of motion increases.”
Power Stretch Studios’ aim is not just to increase flexibility but to reduce tension. “That’s the thing that makes me different,” said Ms. DuBose, who requires employees and customers to sign nondisclosure agreements about the moves involved in what she calls the Kika Method. (She is in the process of changing the company’s name to Kika Stretch Studios.)
To relax those taut muscles, so-called stretch coaches work one on one with clients in customized sessions that are part massage, part chiropractic, part dancer’s warm-up. “It’s all about creating space within the body,” Ms. DuBose said.
Her target audience: the sedentary souls perennially slouched over their computers, and fitness enthusiasts who view pre- and post-workout stretching as time better spent in transit or in the shower.
“Whether you work out or don’t work out, your muscles contract throughout the day,” Ms. DuBose said. “That keeps happening over time and puts pressure on your nerves and bones. People have nagging pain and they can’t figure out how to get rid of it, so they just live with it.
“It’s even worse for people who do work out,” she continued, “because when they stretch all that effort simply creates more contracting and more tension. People who are in pain have tried everything and they’re still in pain. Then they come to us and we’re like, ‘That isn’t pain; that’s tension.’”
Ms. DuBose, who majored in dance at Montclair State University in New Jersey, was a showgirl in “UniverSoul Circus” at the Apollo Theater and made two appearances on “30 Rock” before deciding she had had enough of life as a starving artist.
A single mother, she wanted both a reliable source of income and a flexible schedule. Braiding the skills she acquired during a stint as a personal trainer with the moves she learned as a dancer, Ms. DuBose began rolling on the floor until she felt certain muscles, then devised corresponding stretches, ultimately 35 in all. Thus, the Kika method was born.
It includes the High Five Stretch, which is meant to disperse tension held between the fingers and to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome; the Neck Peddle, which is intended to lessen shoulder pain; and the Quad and Hip Flexor, a stretch designed to relieve tension and lengthen the thigh muscle.
To build the business, she stood in front of her original studio in Montclair handing out fliers (while an actor dressed as Gumby demonstrated stretches) and left stacks of them at gyms and the local Y.M.C.A. She invited chiropractors to check out her studio and hired a search-optimization firm to improve her ranking on Google. “When I first started, I was met with skepticism all the time,” Ms. DuBose said.
The Montclair studio, which temporarily relocated to a church down the street because of a fire over Labor Day weekend, now has 300 regulars per month, Ms. DuBose said, many of whom come once a week. The Westfield studio, which opened in November 2015, has 171 clients, while the New York branch, which opened in August, has 350.
Customers can expect to expend 125 calories for a 45-minute session, which costs $80, or $100 in New York. An hour session is $90, or $120 in Manhattan.
Group classes were tried, then abandoned “because they don’t work,” Ms. DuBose said. She feels similarly about stretching machines, she said, “because they don’t know how far to stretch your body or when to stop.”
Low overhead may be helping stretch franchises expand. A mat, an exercise ball and cervical and lumbar pillows are all the equipment required at Power Stretch; other companies deploy massage tables and Mattes chairs (which are designed for stretching). But perhaps more to the point, the timing may be just right.
“For the last five to seven years, the trend has been high-intensity like CrossFit,” Pete McCall, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, said. “But now we’re seeing a shift in the opposite direction, where the thinking is, ‘Let’s work on passive mobility and range-of-motion and the recovery aspect of exercise.’ We’re starting to see more studios focus on passive stretching, or highlight it. They’re doing one-on-one sessions and group classes where the instructor coaches you how to position various limbs.”
Whether specialty stretch studios can compete with the stretching options offered at fitness clubs and elsewhere is another question. “There’s nothing unique about passive stretching,” said Arlen Zwickler, the general manager of the Athletic and Swim Club at Equitable Center in Manhattan. “Trainers who are well schooled can do it. A massage therapist can do it.”
On a recent Thursday evening at the Power Stretch Studio in Manhattan, Ms. DuBose headed to one of the three dark, small stretching rooms to work on Matthew Frankel.
“My wife got me a five-pack of sessions for my birthday, and I’ve been addicted ever since,” said Mr. Frankel, 45, a communications strategist who is usually stretched twice a week in Montclair. When he came in for his initial assessment, he was somewhere between 56 and 65 in stretch years, he said; now he is a brag-worthy 25.
Stretch 12 in the Kika manual had Ms. DuBose cupping her hand over a tight muscle on Mr. Frankel’s shoulder blade. “I’m compressing it and helping it stretch and release,” she said. “The goal is to open the chest.”
Then she positioned him for a hamstring stretch. “Now, this is a stretch where I lose friends,” Ms. DuBose said. “Sorry,” she said, exerting pressure on his thigh. “Do you still like me?”
He does. “This is a very relaxing way to spend 60 minutes,” Mr. Frankel said. “I could go to a national gym, but this is a small business providing craftsmanship.”