How to Stretch Properly
Types of Flexibility
Non-dynamic – Passive, self-myofascial release, active, isometric, and active assisted stretching techniques are all non-dynamic. This type of flexibility is less complex and usually achieved in one movement plane, sometimes two, and is best used to correct posture imbalances and elongate muscles because of its relatively simple methods. It does not transfer very well into dynamic or multi-planar flexibility because it lacks the neuromuscular coordination. Non-dynamic flexibility is the foundation of stretching and should be the first goal of any novice or injured person.
Dynamic – Dynamic techniques, like Yoga movements, are the only way to achieve dynamic flexibility. This type of flexibility is controlled by the neuromuscular system and allows the muscles to elongate while controlling the body’s speed, direction, balance, and coordination. Therefore, coordination is required to avoid injury. All three planes of movement should be challenged in a way that prepares the body for real life situations, such as reaching behind the wash machine to pick up fallen clothing. Dynamic flexibility cannot be totally converted into non-dynamic flexibility because the maximum length allowed by the muscle is rarely reached in a dynamic stretch.
- Both types are needed for overall flexibility.
Example: An athlete has a daily routine of non-dynamic stretching for the entire body and can pass every basic ROM test there is, but he/she does not do any dynamic stretching. If they are blessed with great coordination and flexibility it is possible to escape wear and tear or clumsy injuries. But, if they are like most people, they will need to practice dynamic flexibility, otherwise a situation will eventually occur that puts the body into a position it has neither the strength, flexibility, or coordination to control, all of which could have been trained through dynamic stretching.
How far is enough to get a good stretch?
The goal isn’t to go as far as one can, rather as far as one should. The end-feel of a stretch is the best guide to how far and even if stretching should be done. If the end-feel is a structural blockage or sharp pain, then stretching can do more harm than good. But if the end-feel is a leathery restriction, like muscle, then stretching should help the limitation.
Stretch the muscle to the barrier (first point of moderate tension), hold until the muscle “let’s go” or about 20-30 seconds is reached, then, relax it or gently stretch it to the next point of noticeable tension.
Repeat this cycle 3-5 times total.
More is not always better when it comes to twisting, bending, pulling, pushing, and everything else that is possible to do to the body. It can be a fine line between injury and improvement depending on the condition of the surrounding tissues and the stretching techniques used. Stretching to the limit will often create instability in the involved joint(s) due to surpassing the ability of the antagonistic muscle to stabilize the joint(s). A great way to prevent overstretching is to stretch slowly and smoothly, get the muscles warm, and make sure the surrounding muscles (especially the antagonist) can support the joint in that position.
If breathing isn’t relaxed and synchronized with the stretch, then results will be poor. The exhalation helps relax the muscle and is most beneficial during the elongation phase. While holding a stretch for the appropriate time the inhalation should be similar to the exhalation in force and duration (3-5 seconds in, 3-5 seconds out, with a pause in between). This isn’t always possible at the beginning of a difficult stretch, but by the last few seconds a rhythm should be achieved, otherwise the muscles won’t completely relax and accept the new length. At first it will seem impossible to relax in some of the new positions, but by focusing on proper breathing it is possible to reach the muscle’s greatest stretch potential.
The physical aspect of stretching
Thinking about it energetically, the brain sends impulses to the muscle telling it to move, receptors in the muscle are constantly sending impulses back to the brain informing it about the muscle’s position, speed of movement, length, and tension.18,19 Receptors in the muscle also send signals back to the spinal cord that shoot right back to the muscle, totally bypassing the brain, these are reflex arcs, the simplest being the stretch reflex.18,19
The stretch reflex increases tension in the muscle being lengthened, and has a static and dynamic component16,27 so as long as the muscle is moving it will have some tension in it that interferes with its passive stretch potential. This tension will increase proportionally with the speed of the stretch.16,27 Therefore, a slow stretch should be applied to inhibit tension in the muscle (autogenic inhibition) and facilitate its elongation.17 Also holding the stretch for at least twenty seconds will stimulate the golgi tendon reflex and inhibit the muscle spindle’s stretch reflex, which will create an adaptation in the muscle spindles and allow the muscle to stretch further without initiating the stretch reflex.27
These reflexes help the body function on a daily basis (maintaining posture and muscle tone)18,19 but can limit stretching if they are not understood. If the reflexes are not taken advantage of, then stretching is just like any other movement, it will move the muscle without any affect on its long term length.
Experience leads the author to believe that the reflex arcs are hypersensitive when the mind is busy, therefore allowing a smaller stimulus to activate the reflex and decrease the muscle’s stretch potential. In order to best override the stretch reflex the mind must be relaxed. When the mind is focused on body awareness the muscles can relax along with the reflex arcs, allowing for a maximal stretch. Injuries and sharp pains are exceptions, even if they can be tuned out, they shouldn’t.
While relaxation is often a goal of stretching, the rest of the body should not be limp during the stretch. For instance, while stretching the low back it is often beneficial to activate the abdominal muscles in order to stabilize the intervertebral segments against excessive motion.
The mental aspect of stretching
Stretching is best done with a quiet mind and some knowledge of how the muscles respond to lengthening. The mind and body are always communicating, and when the mind is busy their connection is weakened. What one did and what one has to do are thoughts that often cause a level of anxiety undetectable to a busy brain but are enough to interfere with the reflex arcs.
Stretching can act as a time out from the daily routine and unite the physical with the mental. Instead of the muscles reacting to the brain (stress), the brain should interact with the muscles when stretching. For instance, during a stretch if it becomes uncomfortable, one can back off, breath through it, or hold it anyway while gritting the teeth and hardly breathing (yes, you). This last technique usually adds more stress than it takes away. Instead, interact with the muscle by breathing smoothly and clearing the mind, this takes practice. Then it is possible to feel the muscle and each tightness surrounding it. Without reacting to the tightness the breath can be used to sooth the muscles and establish a new and improved length that wasn’t possible with the old reflex arc, not to mention increase circulation and body awareness.
This doesn’t have to be an enlightening experience, rather a timeout from the outside world and a union with the inside. This moment should be enjoyed; it’s a great thing to be able to improve health just by breathing and paying attention to the body. Without this “timeout” stretching is just another movement that can add stress to the body.
This is of course an ideal way to stretch that is not always possible, but time should be taken to have ideal sessions whenever possible.
In general, if stretching is not the minds focus and enjoyable, then it will not fully benefit the body.