I’ve addressed the correct way to stretch in several other blog posts so today I’m gonna tell you what not to do. Now, I’m not normally one to focus on the negative but people will insist on stretching in ways that don’t work and then claim that stretching is useless. The only time stretching is useless is if you’re stretching the wrong muscles or stretching the right ones incorrectly.
It’s more work than I want to take on today, and more than you want to read, to describe how to tell the right muscles from the wrong ones. Hint: It goes far beyond which muscles simply feel tight. So, for the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that you’re stretching the correct muscles.
I get it. There’s nothing like the feeling of a “really good stretch.” Go big or go home. Trouble is, that really good stretch feeling is nothing more than the feeling of a tug of war triggered by the stretch reflex. When a muscle is stretched too far, it tears. The only way a muscle can protect itself from harm is to contract. When you try to push a stretch deeper than your muscle feels is safe, it will contract and undo any benefit your stretch might otherwise have had; the muscle you’re stretching might even end up shorter than it started due to the stretch reflex.
You know that stretch reflex I just told you about? It doesn’t just kick in when you stretch too deep, it also kicks in if you hold a stretch too long, especially if you haven’t felt the muscle relax yet. By the way, stretching for a long period of time without feeling a release is a good indicator that you’re either stretching too deeply or you’re stretching the wrong muscle.
Pain may make if feel like something is happening, and it is, it’s just not what you’re hoping will happen. You see, pain triggers a protective muscle contraction which shortens the muscle instead of lengthening it. That is the exact opposite effect to the one you’re after. The old mantra of no pain, no gain is out. I want you to remember this new one instead: Pain = No Gain.
This is what I refer to as the pretzel stretch: legs crossed one way, body twisting in the other direction. Answer me this: How often do you ever find yourself needing to be in this position in the course of a normal day? If you do this, you’re probably hoping to hear and feel a nice loud pop or crack in your back that will relieve some of the pressure or tightness you’ve been feeling. Amiright?? That pop may feel good in the moment, but it rarely has any long lasting effect. If fact, that pop probably isn’t doing what you think it’s doing anyway. That popping sound is often created when air is forced out of a joint space, whether that joint space is between your vertebrae, your knuckles, or any other joint. But, then again, it might be a tight tendon or ligament snapping over a bone that it’s supposed to glide over seamlessly. It’s rather anticlimactic when you stop and think about it. All that noise and sensation for some escaping air or to prove that yes, your muscles really are as tight as you thought. Rarely is any kind of lasting stretch achieved with this attempt.
I know I said I wouldn’t tell you how to stretch because I’ve already done that several times, but I just can’t help myself: The best way to stretch is gently. Slowly move into the stretch until you just start to feel a stretch, and then hold for 5 -30 seconds until you either feel the muscle lengthen (talk about positive reinforcement, right?) or the stretch feeling intensifies. If it intensifies you may have inadvertently moved deeper into the stretch without realizing it or you could be stretching the wrong muscle. For now, it doesn’t matter why; it only matters that you stop if you feel the stretch getting more intense.
What’s your experience with stretching? Let me know in the comments below. And don’t forget to share using the handy buttons below.