Why Everything You've Been Told About Stretching Is Wrong
You’ve probably heard, and maybe followed, some of the advice out there about how to increase your flexibility. Perhaps you’ve tested out some of the stretches in a round up, or followed step-by-step instructions in an article offering tips for how to loosen up your tight muscles. But then, did you ever wonder why you didn’t see (or feel) the kind of change you were hoping for?
Conventional wisdom, flowing through the mainstream, says you should hold a stretch for 30 (or 60) seconds; or that you should strike a position without much additional guidance about what to do with it once you get it there; or that a strap or rope is all you need to help you stretch your legs. Back stretches, hamstring stretches, neck stretches, shoulder and triceps stretches, every time, all the time, they tend to look the same. That’s because they are.
So let’s analyze the pitfalls of the most widespread beliefs… and fix them, right here, right now!
Problem: The average stretch targets major muscles, (think hamstrings, quads, triceps, lower back, etc…) and typically only the main part – or belly – of the muscle. This is done without regard for the fact that you need to also hit the ends of the muscles because the top of one muscle connects to the bottom of another. You need to stretch the whole thing. Otherwise, tightness living in the ends of the muscles can pull on you, cause pain, limit your range of motion, and over time, create problematic imbalances.
Solution: The way to fix this is to incorporate gentle movements into your stretch. By employing small moves you can find and release the tension throughout the entire muscle by lengthening it, and the area surrounding it. Without making these connections, your flexibility will not change.
Problem: Relying on ropes and bands, or rings. They create a crutch wherein your body does not have to learn how to move the muscles in a way that lengthens/elongates them.
Solution: Lose the props. They form a dependency that causes certain parts of the body to collapse. Critically, if you collapse (e.g. bend) where it’s tight, you are not stretching in a way that will produce results.
Problem: Assisted stretching. It’s very common for folks to think they need to depend on the likes of a personal trainer to get a good stretch. But if you let someone else do the stretch for you, like with the props, you are basically “dumbing it down” for your body and depriving it of a vital opportunity to develop its own intelligence.
Solution: Similar to the props, learn how to move your body on your own from the inside, rather than depending on something that interferes with that process from the outside. To learn more about the effects of assisted stretching, you can read here, here, and here.
Problem: Holding a stretch for a designated period of time – usually 30 or 60 seconds – is kind of the gold standard in stretching. But it makes no sense. If you get into a position without the proper form, it doesn’t matter how long you hold it, and if it’s the wrong form, you shouldn’t being holding it at all. Plus, some areas are tighter than others, meaning varying degrees of effort – and time – need to be devoted based on what’s happening in your body on any given day. So the length of time you stay in a stretch should correspond with the work needed to get “in there,” rather than some arbitrary “hold” number.
Solution: Every type of exercise applies form and technique. Flexibility training is no different. You have to control your body and connect to it with your mind. Once you discover that, you can find your form, then your stretch, and hold it. The best way to gauge how long is to measure it with breaths. Some areas may need 5 – 10 breaths and others may need 1. Your body will tell you how much you need because when you let go of your muscles, they let go of you, and you can feel them release.
Problem: Dynamic stretching suggests the opposite – that you take your body through a range of motion to stretch it. But the same rules apply. It doesn’t matter how you move if your form and technique are wrong or non-existent to start.
Solution: Fixing this is similar to the solution for holding a stretch. You have to control your body so the tight spots don’t pull you out of the stretch. See more about that, along with a visual example here.
Finally, here is a back and hamstring stretch you can try, which will show you what I mean: bent is not stretched, a little technique goes a long way and connections are what makes your body (and you) feel whole. Enjoy!!
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