How not to stretch, part 2

I received a lot of feedback via Facebook on my “How Not to Stretch” post from yesterday. Several people also contacted me via mail to ask some questions. Here are some ideas to get you started. This isn’t any sort of definitive guide to stretching so don’t take it as such. I’ll just give you some of my personal views and experiences, the stuff I do in my own training.

Basic guidelines
Before we get started, let’s look at some basic guidelines and concepts.

  • Stretching isn’t a short-term thing. You have to be in it for the long haul and for the right reasons.
    • Some stretching methods give quick results, others don’t. Some will work for you, others won’t. Either way, you’ll have to find out which protocol is best for you. This may mean it takes a while before you make the progress you want.
    • Flexibility means better mobility. Mobility means better techniques (providing you train hard of course).
    • Just because you’re flexible enough to do a high kick, don’t think you know how to use it. Flexibility is only one of the requirements to pull that technique off. Stretching is always just a tool to improve your techniques, not the end goal.
  • If you force it, you’ll get injured. You might perform a good stretch, one you always do, a wee bit too far and suddenly pull a muscle. It happens, there are no guarantees. However, forcing a stretch on purpose will definitely increase the odds you get injured, big time. Think of your muscles and tendons as rubber bands (just an image, nothing more): if you pull too hard, too fast, they snap.
  • Breathing is important. You can go extremely far with breath control and stretching but you don’t have to. As long as you don’t hold your breath all the time, you’re not doing too shabby.
  • Relaxing is important. If you want to stretch a muscle, don’t contract it. Yes, I know about PNF and CR stretching, but even those don’t have the muscle contracted all the time. Learning how to relax while the muscle is being “pulled” is something many folks struggle with. I’ll give an exercise below to help you get started.
  • Read up on your anatomy. If you don’t know where your muscles are located and what their function is, how can you stretch them?
  • Learn to feel and concentrate on the muscle. This sounds all woo-woo but it isn’t. This is just a skill you need to develop, one that is useful for much more than just stretching by the way.  More in the exercise below.
  • Don’t be competitive. It doesn’t matter how far you can stretch or if your fellow students are more flexible than you. It’s not a competition, there is no prize. If you force it because you want to “beat” somebody, you’ll end up injured. Follow the pace your own body sets, not the one set by others.
  • If it hurts, stop. Stretching to increase your range of motion is rarely fun. You should expect to feel uncomfortable. But you should never feel pain. The difference between these two can be small so here’s a rule of thumb: If if feels like the muscle is being pulled (even hard) that’s OK. If it feels like somebody is stabbing it with a knife, if it feels like a bunch of needles are bing stuck in,if  it burns: you’re  going too far.
  • How to relax and feel your muscles
    Here is an exercise I often give to students and clients who are too tense. It’s nothing new or fancy, but it works for most of them. The goal is to recognize the difference between contracted and relaxed muscles. At the same time, you learn to feel where they are located. Here’s how it goes:

    • Lie down on your back and take a couple deep breaths.
    • Lift your right leg a few inches from the bed, keeping it straight, and tighten all the muscles in it as hard as you can.
    • Hold for five seconds and concentrate on feeling where there is tension in the muscles.
    • Let your leg fall on the bed as you suddenly relax every muscle.
    • Stay totally relaxed for 10-20 seconds and focus on the sensations in your leg: warm, tingly, relaxed, etc.
    • Repeat 2-3 times.
    • Do the same exercise for the left leg, arms, torso and head.

    There are many variations of this exercise but this one will get you started right away. Here are some more tips:

  • Once you know the difference between contracted and relaxed muscles, focus on smaller muscles/parts of your body.
    • Instead of lifting/contracting the whole leg, work on the calf muscles, quads, hamstrings and adductor muscles separately.
    • Do the same with all other body parts, isolating different muscles. If you don’t know how, use the anatomy reference work again.
    • This might be frustrating and difficult at first. Don’t give up, it takes time.
  • The relaxation you feel after the first repetition will be different than on the third rep. Practice until you can get that level of relaxation after the second rep. Then after the first.  This is a skill, not something that comes naturally.
  • Slowly decrease the number of seconds you contract the muscles. Go from a five count to just one second in several steps. As you do so, you still want to have the same deep relaxation in the muscles when you let go. Once again, this takes practice.
  • Once you can do this, try it as you’re sitting on a chair. Then as you’re standing. This teaches you to selectively contract and relax parts of your body. You’ll need that when you stretch.
  • Your final goal is to have the control to instantly relax any part of your body by just thinking about it. The better you are at this, the easier it will be to stretch and become more flexible.

    UPDATE: Here’s part Three of “How not to stretch” with some ideas on setting goals.

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    Comments

    1. At my dojo, there’s talk that if we drink a lot of water, we’ll be more limber. Have you heard this? Any thoughts? It’s an interesting but very open-ended idea.

      • I haven’t heard that before. IIRC, dehydration causes muscle cramps and will probably make it hard to stretch well. But I don’t know if the opposite (drinking lots of water) will automatically result in more flexibility.

    2. At my dojo, there’s talk that if we drink a lot of water, we’ll be more limber. Have you heard this? Any thoughts? It’s an interesting but very open-ended idea.

      • I haven’t heard that before. IIRC, dehydration causes muscle cramps and will probably make it hard to stretch well. But I don’t know if the opposite (drinking lots of water) will automatically result in more flexibility.