How not to stretch

When I started training seriously, my then kung fu teacher was of the old school: train hard, don’t whine when you’re in pain, then do it again the next day. There’s a lot to say for that method but in hindsight, there were also a lot of things wrong with it. But that’s not really what I want to talk about now. My teacher’s background is though, especially the consequences it had on his teaching.

He started as a gymnast when he was a kid in the ’60 and his warm ups and stretching reflected it. We used to do a lot of extreme ballistic stretching:

  • Launching the legs all lover the place.
  • Doing deep stretches and bouncing into them as hard as we could.
  • Pushing harder and harder with every single rep.

I did get more flexible but progress was slow and often very painful.¬† But that’s how it was back then so I didn’t really question it.

I’d been training like that for years before I read up on stretching and noticed that every book¬† I picked up said this was the worst way to go about it. There is a time and place for dynamic stretching methods but what we did was not all that good for you if you kept at it for years on end. In a nutshell: you shouldn’t force a stretch.

Now I know some trainers and well known experts say otherwise and they have nifty methods that increase your flexibility big time in a matter of minutes. Which is all fine and dandy, right up to the point where something goes wrong and a muscle or tendon snaps or tears. I’ve had that happen too many times to mention and have seen it happen to others even more. It always resulted in loss of training time because you need to heal first. If you mess up the healing process, you get scar tissue in the worst possible way and lose both flexibility and a part of the muscle’s function. Not a good thing in the long run. .

Nowadays, I pay more attention to taking care of my body. It’s the one thing that is truly mine and I’ll be stuck with the consequences of everything I do to it, good or bad. I believe that staying flexible is a key part in your overall health and how you go about it makes all the difference. How to stretch correctly is a broad topic but let’s just say that this is not the way:

Now this may be a hoax but I’ve seen it happen a lot in some schools and gyms. The idea is to force the muscles to let go and therefor increase flexibility. Again, good for you if you can make it work but don’t come crying if your body decides to show you how displeased it is by tearing up. Or worse, you do this with one of your students and cause permanent damage. Which I’ve sadly seen happen too.

I guess my point is that knowing how not to stretch is just as important as knowing how to do it well.

UPDATE: Here’s part two of “How not to stretch.

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Comments

  1. Article in today’s paper brings up the notion that stretching is, as often as not, a waste of time. Studies seem to indicate it doesn’t really prevent injuries, and that past the normal ROM, you don’t need to bother.

    Warming up, they say, is much better than stretching.

    I am not sure the jury is in on this yet, but there are instances where loose joints aren’t called for, and if you overstretch a muscle you get micro-tears in the fiber. Likewise, pushing connective tissue too far causes cumulative injuries there, too. How necessary is it for your art that you be able to do a full split?

    • @ Steve: In the last 20 years, this always crops up once or twice a year: Some study claims stretching is useless or even bad. The problem is that you rarely get the full explanation of the study. What did they test? How? What was the population? Which type of stretching are they talking about? Etc. So I take all of those with a grain of salt.
      I work on the principle of a flexibility surplus: For every move I do, I need to have a surplus of flexibility for the ROM required. That margin gives me some leeway to compensate for potential errors that could cause injuries. For some moves, this isn’t a big deal. For others, doing full splits isn’t necessary but it sure helps. And it also allows you to do the move at a much more complex level. So I it depends on what you’re studying.
      The other principle I use is no stretching without strengthening. I want flexible AND strong muscles, not just flexible.

      Just my personal preferences.

      Wim

  2. Article in today’s paper brings up the notion that stretching is, as often as not, a waste of time. Studies seem to indicate it doesn’t really prevent injuries, and that past the normal ROM, you don’t need to bother.

    Warming up, they say, is much better than stretching.

    I am not sure the jury is in on this yet, but there are instances where loose joints aren’t called for, and if you overstretch a muscle you get micro-tears in the fiber. Likewise, pushing connective tissue too far causes cumulative injuries there, too. How necessary is it for your art that you be able to do a full split?

    • @ Steve: In the last 20 years, this always crops up once or twice a year: Some study claims stretching is useless or even bad. The problem is that you rarely get the full explanation of the study. What did they test? How? What was the population? Which type of stretching are they talking about? Etc. So I take all of those with a grain of salt.
      I work on the principle of a flexibility surplus: For every move I do, I need to have a surplus of flexibility for the ROM required. That margin gives me some leeway to compensate for potential errors that could cause injuries. For some moves, this isn’t a big deal. For others, doing full splits isn’t necessary but it sure helps. And it also allows you to do the move at a much more complex level. So I it depends on what you’re studying.
      The other principle I use is no stretching without strengthening. I want flexible AND strong muscles, not just flexible.

      Just my personal preferences.

      Wim

  3. Danny Young says:

    Thank you Wim! This is great advise. Proper stretching is so important for overall health and fitness, as well as MA.

    Danny

  4. Danny Young says:

    Thank you Wim! This is great advise. Proper stretching is so important for overall health and fitness, as well as MA.

    Danny

  5. Steve Holley says:

    I’m fairly sure that instructor now works for an intelligence agency doing black ops work. Waterboarding? Hah? Wait ’till HE gets a hold of you.

    I trained with a well known Japanese Karate sensei back in the 70’s and we were doing the “Butterfly” stretch. You know – the one where you put the soles of your feet together and bounce your knees up and down. I’ve never had good lateral flexability and my knees didn’t go very close to the ground.

    Sensei came up behind me and said “Make a knees touch a floor”. I said “I can’t Sensei”. He said “Oh, we make a knees touch a floor”. And without further ado, he put his hand on my shoulders and jumped into the air, his feet landing with his full body weight on the inside of my knees.

    He was right. My knees DID touch the floor. And I couldn’t train for 2 weeks.

    I came back though. I have no sense.

  6. Steve Holley says:

    I’m fairly sure that instructor now works for an intelligence agency doing black ops work. Waterboarding? Hah? Wait ’till HE gets a hold of you.

    I trained with a well known Japanese Karate sensei back in the 70’s and we were doing the “Butterfly” stretch. You know – the one where you put the soles of your feet together and bounce your knees up and down. I’ve never had good lateral flexability and my knees didn’t go very close to the ground.

    Sensei came up behind me and said “Make a knees touch a floor”. I said “I can’t Sensei”. He said “Oh, we make a knees touch a floor”. And without further ado, he put his hand on my shoulders and jumped into the air, his feet landing with his full body weight on the inside of my knees.

    He was right. My knees DID touch the floor. And I couldn’t train for 2 weeks.

    I came back though. I have no sense.

  7. Oh my gods…

    That’s not training or stretching — that’s torture. I can just imagine the poor guys groin muscles tearing more every time they lift him up or push the legs further back.

  8. Oh my gods…

    That’s not training or stretching — that’s torture. I can just imagine the poor guys groin muscles tearing more every time they lift him up or push the legs further back.

  9. I was just pointing out the study. I have done stretching long as I’ve been exercising, and will keep doing it, though I tend to warm up first and then stretch, whereas I used to do it the other way.

    And not as much. I’m not going to get the full split, and since nothing I do requires close to that level of flexibility, it’s a diminishing return for me. Of course, I don’t do high kicks any more, either.

  10. I was just pointing out the study. I have done stretching long as I’ve been exercising, and will keep doing it, though I tend to warm up first and then stretch, whereas I used to do it the other way.

    And not as much. I’m not going to get the full split, and since nothing I do requires close to that level of flexibility, it’s a diminishing return for me. Of course, I don’t do high kicks any more, either.

  11. Danny Young says:

    I for one believe in stretching, and I do believe from empirical evidence it does help prevent injuries when done in a correct manner that does not injury the muscle. This is just my humble opinion. Thanks!
    Danny

  12. Danny Young says:

    I for one believe in stretching, and I do believe from empirical evidence it does help prevent injuries when done in a correct manner that does not injury the muscle. This is just my humble opinion. Thanks!
    Danny

  13. Danny Young says:

    Wim,

    You make an excellent point here, what does the Martial Art you practice require? I have never heard anyone say that before, it’s always been flex as far as you can, and then some.

    Doing what you need certainly free’s one from the guilt of, “why can’t I do the splits?” Or, I should be more flexible.

  14. Danny Young says:

    Wim,

    You make an excellent point here, what does the Martial Art you practice require? I have never heard anyone say that before, it’s always been flex as far as you can, and then some.

    Doing what you need certainly free’s one from the guilt of, “why can’t I do the splits?” Or, I should be more flexible.

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