You're Probably Stretching Wrong — Here's How To Keep Your Joints Healthy
If you clicked on this article, chances are you're already a smart mover with a physical practice of some kind. Maybe you feel pretty good most of the time, but perhaps you also have some places that chronically feel a little tight. Whether due to previous injury or habitual movement patterns, certain parts of your body can feel tough, hardened, or even dry. And stretch as you might, you just can't get those chronic areas to change!
For our whole lives, the dominating stretch paradigm has taught us to go to our edge, then try to go farther. But here's the deal: Our concept of stretching may be outdated.
Those popular words of encouragement ("Relax when you stretch!" and "Farther is better!") could actually be causing us damage. Turns out, passive, static stretching is not all that effective to change the hard, tight places, and you may even be overstretching. Studies have recently been infiltrating the athletic arena, encouraging folks to hold their horses on the static stretches1.
"There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching," Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told the New York Times. "The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout."
So, what can we do?
First, we need to distinguish hyper-mobility from true flexibility. True flexibility means your tissue feels pliable, elastic, hydrated, and ready to pounce. In hyper-mobile cases, the joints are usually super loose, but the supporting muscles groups are actually very tight.
For example, you may have plenty of range when you take a forward fold—you might even be able to touch your toes—but if your lower back or sacral area feels achy, you are likely forcing hyper-mobility at the joints. And what about the tissue between the joints? If it's not able to extend and flex, it is at risk of overstretching or tearing. Once tissues around the joints are overstretched, they act more like an overused rubber band—over-lengthened and unstable around the joints, enabling the already tight areas to remain tight.
Studies are now showing us that overstretching can tear or weaken our tissue2 and leave it feeling less flexible. When you overstretch, your body attempts to repair itself by laying down more stabilizing tissue, resulting in that feeling of stiff muscles the next morning. Oy! Furthermore, wherever you are super mobile, your body will try to find balance by creating restrictions (scar tissue) nearby to stabilize—that's the familiar nagging neck pain or achy hip.
How to make sure you stretch the right way.
So, what can you do to make sure you aren't overstretching? Here's where to start:
- Protect: Work with shorter ranges of motion to stay out of your joints. If you're used to overstretching, this may feel limiting at first, so be sure to check in with how your body feels in the days after you try this technique. Chances are, you will feel less achy and stiff.
- Activate: Try active stretching instead of passive static holds! Activate the muscle you are working on while you elongate (stretch) it. Not only will it bring the stretch into the belly of the tissue, but it will also affect the connective tissue (fascia) in a supportive way. Try not to hang out at the end of your range of motion where micro-tearing usually occurs.
Is the activate/elongate concept making you go cross-eyed? Here's one way to think about it: It's just like how animals stretch. Picture a cat or a dog pawing the ground as they lean back, or how you naturally yawn in the morning. Animals instinctively contract their muscles as they stretch, called pandiculation, or what we are calling an engaged elongation. We can take that concept of engaged elongation and apply it to specific muscle groups.
Instead of a static hold, perform the active stretches in reps. It will create heat and oxygenation in the target area, and it can even turn into a workout if you choose. Doing this kind of stretching can help that tight tissue to change to elastic, springy, and hydrated tissue!
Tip: If you are not hyper-mobile and instead feel tight or even super tight, this work applies to you in the same way: Activation plus elongation will make your tissue elastic. We want you to gain range that is functional, sustainable, and makes you feel comfortable in your body by harmonizing imbalances.
Kaita Mrazek, RYT-200 & Bonnie Crotzer, RYT-200 are yoga instructors, fascial stretch therapy experts, and co-founders of Ghost Flower Activewear, a clothing brand inspired by Chinese medicine.
Kaita is a certified Fascial Stretch Therapy practitioner, PMA Certified Pilates Teacher, and has gone through the BASI Pilates Comprehensive Teacher Training and E-RYT 200 Hour Raja Yoga Teacher Training. Her research has been published in Frontiers, and she has been featured in the New York Times. She currently instructs clients in the form of private sessions and classes inspired by Pilates, Yoga, FST, and the Ghost Flower practice.
Bonnie is a professional ballet dancer, a soloist at State Street Ballet (among others) for over 10 years, a former Elite trainer at the Genius of Flexibility and is now a resistance stretching trainer, as well as a yoga instructor at Sky Ting in NYC. She studied at the University of California and also under Bob Cooley, who taught her how to manipulate fascia and scar tissue. She received her yoga teacher training at the White Lotus Foundation.