First of all, effective stretching is not a total secret, though in my experience it is not a commonly understood concept. When we think about stretching, it’s often done with the idea that it’s like taking a piece of leather and, using force, mechanically lengthening it out. One of the problems with this idea is that ligaments and tendons are not designed to lengthen. Muscle tissue is designed to actively shorten and lengthen, however it will not lengthen effectively if it is held in an activated or tense state. Activation or tension causes muscle tissue to be more rigid—more leather-like—and it can be irritated if forced. That may be one reason some people don’t ‘enjoy’ the process of stretching. The other problem is that rigid tissue, like Turkish taffy, gets thinner and weaker as we forcibly stretch it out. That doesn’t sound good, especially to athletes who simultaneously want to optimize their strength.
Now, instead of thinking of leather that you are stretching and thinning out, think of a spring that has shortened, and your goal in stretching is to relax the tension of the spring.
Muscles will shorten when we activate them, just like tightening a spring. When we release the tension on a spring it lengthens and becomes longer. This is not an ‘all or none’ concept. If, for example, you tense your muscles to make a tight fist, you can ‘let go’ of the fist a little, a lot, or somewhere in between. Our effectiveness is the
degree to which we can intentionally ‘relax’, ‘release,’ or ‘let go’ of our muscle tension. For some, it’s helpful to picture the tissue doing this. It seems tensing our muscles is easier than selectively releasing muscle tension. But it is a skill and, like any skill, we can improve with practice.
The final piece to understand is that we activate groups of muscles. And we often tend to activate groups of muscles in patterns. Developing skill to release groups and patterns of muscle tension can result in tremendous success. Whether for athletic performance or just basic daily living, this can result in increased freedom of movement, comfort and ability.
Start with stretches that focus on only a few or selected muscles. For example, stand and pull one ankle back toward your buttock, bending your knee to stretch the front of your thigh. Another simple stretch, from the standing position, is to flex forward from the hips without rounding your back, to stretch the hamstrings on the back of your thigh. Then, gradually move into more complex stretches.
Lengthening on diagonals, and when different parts of our bodies are positioned to go in different directions simultaneously, can be especially effective. It requires us to release holding ‘patterns’ of muscle groups that can be a fundamental limiting factor on greater dynamic movement. For those reasons, some yoga poses can be of particular value. Warrior Pose is one example.
So the next time you do some stretching, think of “releasing” your body into that position. See how far it takes you. It’s safer, and quite possibly more enjoyable.
I hope you found this helpful.
Billy Cioffredi, PT/founder
Cioffredi & Associates
P.S. Our eldest daughter, Anna, was kind enough to model these stretches for me. She is now a school teacher (English as a Second Language) in the Greater Boston area, and was home for a summer visit.