Stretching: A Run Down
Or, Stretching Really Is Good For You
It’s time for some contentious words. Before I say those words, however, I want to make it known that I have been making money from stretching for a long time now. It’s true. Stretching the body is one of my passions and I’m pretty good at helping people improve their function through stretching. I don’t confine my work to only stretching but I gotta say, it is a lot of the work I do and, anecdotally, it works really really well. Of course there are other factors that come into play with its effectiveness, but that’s not what this article is about. That’s my disclaimer. Now, on to the lengthy words.
Stretching is an Experience
Lots of people have said lots of things about stretching.
I’m not going to say all of those things and I’m not going to speak to the contentious issues. I’ve read plenty of the research right up to 2018, including systematic reviews done in the last 12 months (and not just systematic reviews, either!), I’ve read the opinion pieces, I’ve read the terrible interpretations of the research on both sides of the camp — and there is a lot of error and silly things said by those pro- and those anti-stretching. This isn’t the place to unpack that and, realistically, it’s awefully big to unpack.
Before going any further, though, I will say this: Stretching, done well, done inoffensively to the body, and done mindfully, without hurry, with a view to fully experiencing the sensation in your body, with gentle and humble breath, is one of the most divine, wonderful and body-blessing things you can do.
Far from incidentally, I don’t think stretching is about changing muscle length or reducing muscle tension or avoiding muscle injury. No. I think it’s about mindfulness; it’s about turning up your parasympathetic tone; it’s about increasing your mindful tolerance of things you don’t want to tolerate but won’t harm you if you do; it’s about remapping how your central nervous system perceives your body in space; and it’s about giving your body a chance to exist differently. In short, stretching is about growing in personal insight and being changed because of it.
In the process of beautiful stretching, you’ll get changes in your body: muscles will relax, joints will move more freely, and your emotional state will change. There’s nothing esoteric or mysterious about it — these changes are all easily explained through neuroscience and physiology. For me, however, stretching is about the experience during and after the stretch and it’s the most mindful way to exist. Not just immediately, though, not just the acute changes. I mean a long term discipline of stretching and the changes it produces in my body. That experience — the freedom of movement, the freedom from certain pains, the feeling of comfort in my body— only comes about with a regular discipline of stretching combined with mindful meditation and strengthening.
For me, however, stretching is about the experience during and after the stretch.
It must be combined with strengthening and mindful relaxation to get the most benefit. And strengthening, in my opinion, needs to be combined with mindful, breath released stretching in order to get the most benefit. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
Stretching Improves Flexibility
There is little question about the efficacy of stretching to improve flexibility. It does. It will. In some people, the flexiblility change will be large and in others small.
As with all things though, if you overdo your stretching, you’ll probably not improve flexibility as much as you’d like. I’ve had a great many clients and exercise professionals tell me that they’ve tried stretching and it hasn’t worked. Typically, they stretch the same muscles every single day using the same stretches and they have no gains, so they say it doesn’t work. But as I’m fond of saying, if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got. How can you do it differently?
There are questions I might ask that client:
- How many times a week do you stretch? If you stretch too often, the body has little time to adapt. The changes we get in a muscle from stretching are largely neurological. It’s not about elongating the muscle or the fascia, get those things out of your head right now. Those things might happen, but they are simply an adaptation to allow your nervous system to re-set its parameters. It’s about teaching the nervous system to relax and feel safe in this range of motion. It’s the same with strength work: muscles increase in strength mostly through neural changes. So we have to give the nervous system time to recover (as well as the muscle tissue time to adapt — but the tissue adaptation is simply to allow the neromuscular adaptations to occur. They facilitate the true change). If you stretch too often, the body goes into protective mode and when it goes into protective mode, it tightens your muscles because tighter muscles can protect the nervous system. So maybe tone down the frequency, for a start.
- How long do you hold the stretch? There is so much behind this one. This is the single most important element I’ve found in helping someone improve their flexibility, especially if they no longer believe in its efficacy. Most people simply don’t hold the stretch long enough. I’ll get more into this detail further down the article. But you might want to seriously consider whether you’re holding the stretch long enough or not.
- How much distress (or allostatic load) would you say you are under in your life? Feeling like the load on your life (all the stuff — work, play, family, sport, finance, everything) is greater than the resources you have to handle it often results in tight muscles. Your body wants to fight it or it wants to flee from it. So if you are not handling your distress well then your body will get tighter. It will increase the tone of your muscles. So maybe learn some effective ways to manage that stress and give your body a chance to adapt. Stretching is a type of stress — if it’s the straw and you’re the camel, then I’m afraid you’ll just be adding to the load on your body and it will tighten up in response. Let’s not break that metaphorical camel’s back.
- How much sitting do you do each day? The body adapts to whatever it does the most of, or whatever is frequently the most intense. So if the amount of sitting you do everyday isn’t outmatched by the intensity and quality of stretching and strengthening you do each week on average, then the seated posture will win out. The body draws up a map like an average of everything you do, and the average of that stuff becomes your ‘normal’. So if your average is sitting with bent legs with occasional walking through the limited walking range of motion, then your ‘normal’ range will be much shorter than someone who stimulates the muscles through a full range of motion under load.
- How much other exercise do you do and what kind of exercise is it? If you do lots of walking or endurance cycling or triathlon training or heavy lifting, then you’re likely to have tighter muscles if you haven’t been simultaneously managing your stress and doing mobility work.
- How intense is the exercise you do? Higher intensity exercise will usually need longer to recover. If you do too much too close together, it can result in tighter muscles because the body hasn’t had a chance to recover properly. Throw into that mix a lot of stretching and it may be a recipe for tightness and soreness that refuses to go away.
- What other things do you try to improve your flexibility? Some of those things may be useful and some may be counterproductive. Too much of anything is probably going to be unhelpful and inefficient.
There may be other questions depending on the client and the need of the moment.
If you get these kind of things under control, you can find that flexibility starts to improve. But the goal should not be quick-fix flexibility. It should be long-term to achieve the best benefits. By that, I mean, is your goal to be able to do the splits in four weeks time? Or is it to be more mobile, more flexible and stronger in 15 years time?
Having a long term plan is likely to result in less disapointment and safer gains and far more enjoyment from the journey.
This reminds that there is another question to ask, but it needs to stand alone.
8. Are you trying to force your body to improve flexibility? This one is vital. We cannot force the body into a greater range of motion because it is designed to resist that kind of force. We have a reflex built in that’s called the stretch reflex and it, in turn, feeds into a second reflex called the withdrawal (or flexor) reflex. This one, in turn, integrates with a third reflex called the crossed-extensor reflex. I won’t go into the physiology of these beauties here, but suffice it to say this: The stretch reflex makes the muscles contract if they get stretched too hard too quickly. This results in a signal from the central nervous system that this is a bad position to be in, and if it’s too hard too soon, the central nervous system will send out an alarm signal known as pain. You’ve met it before.
Then, the withdrawal reflex kicks in. The body withdraws (pulls away from) the strong, undesirable sensation. The next thing that happens is that the body activates the crossed-extensor reflex, which is designed to simultaneously push away the thing that was dangerous and withdraw the threatened body part quickly. In other words, if you stretch too hard and try to force flexibility out of your body, it will resist you with all of its automated might.
And here’s where the really cool neural stuff comes in. At this point, you will have triggered some kind of anxiety response. This reponse occurs deep within your brain, in concert with your amygdala, and when it is activated strong enough and repeatedly, then the body creates a more solid picture of that anxiety-inducing phenomenon. It induces fear. The fear of doing that stretch. The anxiety of unwanted sensation. Once that happens, the body won’t want you to go anywhere near that stretch position. Push it as much as you like and you’ll just reinforce the negative association.
There is, however, some evidence out there in the literature to show that a slow and almost coaxing stretch will elicit a better response. You still need to take yourself to the point of discomfort, but you do it slowly and without offense. You have to convince your body it wants to change, calmly coax it into the place where it can’t help but change itself.
This doesn’t mean the stretch won’t be uncomfortable. Much of the research shows us that what happens when you stretch is you grow in your ability to tolerate the stretch sensation. The same signal of stretch is going to the nervous system, it’s just that you change your relationship with it. This is similar, if you think about it, to what happens when we remap someone with a traumatic experience. We teach them to play again, to expose themselves to playfully challenging scenarios with a safe and easy escape system, one where failure is part of the process of change. We gradually expose them to the perceieved dangers until they can distinguish between the things that are truly dangerous and the things that are not. So it is when you stretch: the strong stretch sensation may not actually be one of pain but of strong discomfort because your body doesn’t yet understand that this position is safe.
Of course, we never go into a stretch if it elicits a strong pain sensation — the pain of injury. Our goal is to avoid the pain of injury and to discern the difference between a strong stretch sensation and pain. That will feel different to all people and will take a lot longer in some people than others. That’s why we approach it slowly and almost coaxingly try to give the body a chance to adapt. Edge close to that place of discomfort and rest there calmly and help the body adjust its response accordingly; do it lovingly. Do it gently. Do it with a long view in mind.
How long should you hold a stretch for?
The literature is pretty solid on this one. The best range to hold a stretch for is somewhere from 90 seconds to 180 seconds. That is, between 1.5 and 3 minutes. Now for some muscles and some people, it can be five minutes long; and I have to say, personally, I do love a long stretch. Never in a hurry. But generally, you want to hold your position for up to three minutes.
That’s a long time.
During that time, you can expore the sensations in your body. When your mind daydreams, which it will and that’s to be expected, acknowledge that it wandered off and then bring your attention and awareness back to the sensations coming from the stretching region. I invite you to feel those sensations. Perhaps you can expplore what colour they are, or what other thing they feel like. Perhaps you can feel the sensation change from one region to another. Maybe you can notice at some point the joint eases a little or the sensation increases a little.
Some people find their body temperature increases and others find their mood calms dramatically. Some people experience feelings of anxiety for a time which tend to melt away at some point and return to normal or even to a sense of calm elation. Whatever you do, sit with the experience, immerse yourself in it and let it be for you a mindful meditation.
Of course, through it all, you can remember that you are coaxing your body into feeling safe here, reminding it that this position actually is safe. So make sure your experience is a safe one. Don’t force it. Just sit there with it on the edge of discomfort, breathing slowly in and slower out and discovering that this place can, in an instant, become a place of comfort.
I want you to understand at this point that not everyone has profound sensations when they stretch. It’s true. In fact, you shouldn’t make feeling profound sensations or emotions your goal — it’s just not the way some people experience it. Rather, just feel whatever you feel, without judgment either way. If you feel something, simply attend to it. If you don’t feel something, simply attend to that non-feeling.
It’s common for one side to feel vastly different to the other. That, too, is okay. Simpy feel that feeling. It’s also common for a stretch today in one body region to feel entirely different to the same stretch on a different day. That’s enitrely normal also. The goal is not to feel any particular sensation but to feel whatever sensation the body gives you in that moment.
There are different ways to stretch. I usually advocate one sometimes known as the contract-relax method of stretching … but it’s not the only one I use. Suffice it to say, find the method that works well for you and become comfortable using it. When your body can tolerate well the strong sensations and you have a different relationship with the stretch experience, then perhaps you can seek out some new ways of stretching. And remember, you don’t want to do strong, long stretches before a workout, competition or training. Put stretching either at the end of a workout or on a completely different day.
Here’s a nice summary.
- Stretching is an experience
- Stretching improves flexibility
- Have a long game plan rather than a short, quick fix one
- Stretching should never be forced but coaxed
- Stretch for between 90 seconds and 180 seconds
Stretching is a wonderful addition to any health program. It’s needs to be seen as an experience and not a means to an end. Journey before destination and all else will follow.
Hey there. I just want to say thank you for taking the time out to read my article. I really appreciate it, so thank you! Stumac.