Learning the safe way to stretch can help you prevent injuries in sports and everyday life. Whether your goal is to stretch your body into pretzel-like shapes or simply touch your toes, stretching can help you reach whatever fitness targets you may have.
Most people have been conditioned to think that ultimate flexibility, no matter the cost, is the goal — and that might just be part of the problem.
Here are six ways you're stretching incorrectly — and how to fix it:
1. You follow the "no pain, no gain" rule.
Listen to your body and recognize pain as a message that something’s wrong. If you enjoy being benched due to injury, then go ahead and push past your pain. A better idea would be to start listening to your body. It’s smarter than you. Don’t wait for it to scream. Listen for the whisper, pay attention, and address the issue right away.
2. You always do the same stretches.
There are so many different ways to stretch, and you can hurt yourself if you pick a version that doesn't jive with your present condition. Get some advice from real professionals who can watch and guide you. This will go a long way to help you prevent an injury. Physical therapists, Pilates and yoga instructors, personal trainers and chiropractors can all help ensure that you're using good stretching techniques that are right for you.
3. You're stretching the wrong body part.
Understand what it is you’re trying to stretch. Some structures in the body are made of a particular type of tissue that does not necessarily react to a stretch in a positive way. If your physical therapist tells you to go home and stretch your IT band (the long tendon between the outside of your hip and your knee), you should fire them. All the stretching in the world won’t make that sucker longer.
What you’re after is more of a release of the tissues. Aligning the body and releasing restrictions in the fascial tissue (connective tissue system) will give you permanent elongation, musculoskeletal balance and pain relief. Trying to stretch your tendons will give you aggravation, and probably pain.
4. You stretch when you're experiencing asymmetrical pain — which can make it worse.
If you have tightness or pain, please check in with your body for asymmetries before you stretch the heck out of it. When a body is out of whack muscles can be tight on one side, weak on the other, and wreak havoc on the joints and bones.
Stretching the heck out of an area with symptoms may make it worse. You may have to reset the neuromuscular connections in several muscles before stretching will feel good and be effective. Asymmetries from past injury or poor postural habits are another reason to seek out a professional movement specialist.
5. You don't know how to warm up properly for certain activities.
If you’re warming up for a game or competition, you’ll want a dynamic or active stretching or warm-up routine to get the blood flowing to muscles and have them in peak condition for performance. Think jogging in place, or doing high knees or butt kicks. Static, long hold stretching in this case can mess with you, and even cause an injury.
6. You're stretching a muscle that needs to be strengthened.
Sometimes there’s a reason a particular muscle has tightened up on you; that reason could be that it’s weak. Stretching this muscle could cause further weakness or inhibition, and that will only enhance the bad pattern or habit, which can cause injury. Treat yourself like the athlete that you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned athlete, it always pays to learn new things about your body, get coached if possible, and strive for increased awareness and improvement.
The biggest key to great, effective stretching (or any kind of exercise) is listening to the messages your body sends you and adjusting your movements from there. Let your stretches be a form of body awareness. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not. Trust and honor what you feel, and you'll go along way to staying healthy and preventing injuries.