The Way You're Stretching Might Be Increasing Pain. Here's How To Fix It
"I need to stretch more" seems to be the go-to phrase whenever someone is feeling stiff or when they haven’t been as active recently. It’s true: These days, the majority of us spend far too much time sitting in front of a computer and only getting active when we exercise for an hour or so per day.
Stretching may not be the answer, though: Stretching is more complex than a simple sit-and-reach, and it doesn't help matters that every other trainer, instructor, and physical therapist has a different opinion on the matter.
At the end of the day, every person has different needs and abilities, so my intention is not to tell you about stretches that will magically turn you into Simone Biles—it's about giving you the understanding you need in order to stretch more efficiently and safely. Here are five things that you may not know about stretching that can completely change your path to feeling and moving better:
1. Flexibility and mobility are not the same thing.
As a trainer, a common goal I hear during an initial client assessment is that people want to get more flexible. About 90 percent of the time, what they really mean is that they want to improve their mobility. Can’t do a toe touch? Your immediate thought may be that your hamstrings are tight, but it is just as, or even more likely, that hip mobility is what you're lacking
Mobility refers to the ability to move through a joint. Flexibility refers to a connective tissue’s ability to temporarily elongate. Flexibility of a muscle is like a Chinese finger trap: The actual length of the material doesn't change, but you can stretch (lengthen) and shorten (contract) it. It is physiologically impossible to "lengthen" your muscles. Both ends of a muscle affix to bone at a joint
Joints like your hips, shoulders, thoracic spine (t-spine), and ankles are built to move. But when those joints lose mobility, other joints meant for stability like your cervical spine (neck), lumbar spine (lower back), and knees decide to be superheroes and try to help you move. But that's not a good thing. How often do you see people reaching for a pillow for lumbar support or complain about how they have "bad knees"? Chances are, the root of the issue is not their lower back or knees. It's that their hips and t-spine decided to stop helping them move, because of their decreased mobility. So in that case, stretching or more flexibility won't help you, but working on your mobility will.
2. Stretching until it hurts wins you an injury, not a trophy.
Stretching something that always feels "tight" or going super deep into a stretch because you don't "feel it" yet is not wise. It's ignoring your body's yellow flag. Your body is insanely smart and knows things before your brain can process what is happening. Everyone has normal muscular imbalances, but it’s when they get out of control that injury happens.
Let’s say that your hamstring feels extra tight and it’s not going away. The only thing that makes it feel good is to stretch, so you just keep on stretching and stretching because it feels like it "loosens" up afterward. That hamstring of yours is likely tightening up on purpose to protect itself as a result of some other muscular imbalance happening. In this case, stretching is treating the smoke but not the fire.
3. Static stretches are best saved for last.
The goal of warming up before exercise is to get your body temperature and heart rate up, to mobilize and activate the areas you are planning to utilize for that workout. Conversely, static stretching signals to your body that it's time to cool down and relax. Deep breathing and static stretching activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for starting the recovery process.
There's also a significant amount of research on the decrease of athletic performance after stretching. A muscle does two primary things: It contracts, and it relaxes. A stretch is meant to relax the muscle so the fibers can elongate. When you do any movement, muscles contract so that you can exert strength. Don't you think that stretching out a spring and holding it for 20 seconds will remove some of its elasticity and ability to tightly bounce back? We've all had the sad experience of ruining a slinky as a kid because we pulled it a little too far.
4. Not everyone needs to be super flexible.
Unless your goal in life is to work for Cirque du Soleil, there's no need to bend yourself into a pretzel. With trainers, we assess our client’s movement to make sure his or her range of motion falls into a healthy range. If it does, we don’t really need to work on flexibility unless they have a specific goal that depends on it. Not everyone’s bodies are built the same way, nor are our bones and joints. For instance, yoga has immensely wonderful mental benefits as well as physical. However, one of the common goals for people doing yoga is to "improve flexibility." But for a person who isn't necessarily built to be quite so flexible, shoving oneself into a challenging bind and holding for 20 seconds is just asking for a potential injury down the road.
5. Bouncing is reserved for trampolines.
When you jump on a trampoline, every time you land you can usually hear the springs stretch, and you make a dent in the trampoline only to spring back up. Your muscle is like the surface of the trampoline, and the springs represent your connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) that help secure everything. By bouncing while stretching, you're effectively increasing the risk of a connective tissue tear or strain.
Muscles also have a natural protective reflex. Ever feel that when you dive right into a stretch, you instinctively tense up momentarily but then after a few seconds of breathing and "sinking into" the stretch, you can go a little farther? That initial tension is your body's way of making sure you're not injuring yourself. This is a good thing! Don't push recklessly past it, and especially don't bounce your way past it.
Want more tips on how to get more flexible? Here's what everyone gets wrong about flexibility.