Stretching is not only one of the most neglected areas of fitness, but is also one of the most misunderstood and poorly practiced. Regardless of your goals, stretching is a vital component to any exercise program. Whether you want to be outrageously strong and build huge muscles, or simply want to move and feel better, effective stretching will drastically improve your results and reduce your chances of injuries, aches, and pains. Proper stretching doesn’t have to be tedious and time consuming, but it simply can’t be ignored. Here are the 4 most common mistakes I see (and how to correct them) when it comes to stretching:
1. Not Understanding How Stretching Affects Overall Strength & Fitness
Most people (especially men!) barely stretch at all because they simply don’t think that it’s important to their goals. I should know, I used to be one of these guys myself. Stretching was nowhere near the top of my priority list because my goal was to be big and strong, not flexible. What I didn’t take into account is that better mobility leads to better movement, which leads to better leverage, which allows you to lift more weight over a longer range of motion with more load on the muscles and less on the joints. In the end, healthy muscles are much easier to strengthen than tight, dysfunctional muscles.
This same principle also applies to areas such as athletic performance, basic cardiovascular exercise, and especially to general daily function and posture. An activity as simple and basic as running actually has an incredibly high injury rate – and it’s absolutely not because running is “bad”, it’s because of dysfunctional movement and poor mechanics that result from chronic tension and imbalances (and SHOES, but that’s a different subject addressed here: Running How Nature Intended). We all spend far too much time in bad positions, such as sitting at a desk, and stretching is a vital part of releasing the tension created by these activities so that we can correct imbalances and move better.
2. Focusing on Length, Not Relaxation
This is possibly the #1 reason that most people who do stretch don’t get the results they are hoping for. I would personally prefer that we change the term stretching to a more accurate and less misleading term – releasing. The goal of stretching is not to pull on a muscle to make it as long as possible. The goal of stretching is to release tension. The misleading nature of the word “stretching” leads to a practice that does not feel very good and often creates as many (or more!) problems than it fixes. Being inflexible is not primarily a result of having “short muscles”, it’s the result of tension being created by your nervous system to protect you… from yourself.
Productive stretching is actually more about your nervous system than it even is about your muscles. Sure, there are physical signs of “tight muscles” such as myofascial adhesions (knots), but if you address the root of the problem (tension) then your body will naturally address and correct the symptoms on its own. It wasn’t an accident that those knots got there. They were put there to serve a specific purpose, and until that purpose is no longer necessary then they will keep coming back every time you try to force them out manually. This “purpose” of muscle tension and knots is to protect the joint that the tense muscle acts on by not allowing it to move beyond a certain point. This becomes necessary when you spend too much time in poor positions or make a habit of moving forcefully and ignoring your body’s warnings. The most basic of these warnings being pain – if something hurts, it’s your body’s way of saying STOP! You can push through fatigue, but do not push through pain! If you don’t respond to it’s not-so-subtle hints, your body will take matters into it’s own hands by restricting your movement with tension.
Just like with another person, you have to gradually earn your body’s trust back if you want to regain your lost range of motion. Here’s where we get into the practical side of how to correct this entire problem, and it’s remarkably simple. All you have to do is put the emphasis on relaxing into positions rather than pushing into them. Let’s say you’re doing a basic standing “toe reach” stretch. I want you to try doing this stretch in 2 different ways to feel the difference. First, with your legs completely straight, try to push and reach as far down as you possibly can with all of your might. After doing this stretch, do you feel like you were creating or releasing tension? Next, try the same stretch again but with a light knee bend and just completely relax and let gravity do the work. With every exhale, just try to relax even deeper, especially in the specific areas where you feel the tension. Did you notice yourself gradually getting deeper into the stretch as you relaxed further, without even trying to get deeper? This is what happens when your nervous system no longer senses danger and trusts that it’s okay to release the stored tension so that you can increase the range of motion in that joint without doing harm.
Every time that you stretch, remember that your goal is to release tension, not create it.
3. Incorrect Timing
Another important part of stretching is knowing exactly what your immediate goal is for every stretching session. In particular, it’s very important to know the difference between how to stretch before exercise compared to how stretch after exercise.
Before exercise, the goal of stretching is to loosen up the muscles and prepare them to be able to move through a healthy range of motion during your workout. While you still want to release tension from the muscles as stated above, this is not the time to hold stretches for prolonged periods of time and create excessive relaxation. Holding stretches of 1 minute or longer has been shown in many different studies to create a lasting relaxation effect that will temporarily prevent your muscles from firing at maximal strength during a subsequent workout. Either active (moving) stretches or short duration (just a few seconds) stretches are usually going to be your best bet here. You’ll still want to emphasize moving without tension and releasing excess tension in the areas being stretched, but just without holding any single stretch for too long. That being said, moving into and out of a stretch position and accumulating a total stretching time of a minute or longer is perfectly fine.
The goal of stretching after exercise is completely different. This is when you want to really focus on relaxation and releasing as much tension as possible so that you can recover more effectively and have a more lasting effect on flexibility / mobility. While a typical rule of thumb is to stretch for at least 30 seconds in each position to get this effect, it’s really more about what you feel while in a stretch that will tell you when your time is up. If you’re pushing too hard into a stretch, the muscle may never relax, regardless of how long you hold it. I recommend only going into a stretch far enough to feel the first sign of tension, and then only move beyond that point once that initial tension has released. By taking lots of baby steps, you can inch your way into a deeper stretch while still maintaining the necessary level of relaxation to get the benefit of the stretch. My rule of thumb when stretching is that every stretch should feel better by the end of the stretch, not worse. This is how you know if you’ve been creating or releasing tension.
4. Streching Individual Muscles Rather than Functional Positions
The final mistake on this list comes back to the notion of knowing the goal of each stretching session before you begin. Most people just start stretching a few muscles where they know they are tight, and leave it at that. While this can be very helpful, it doesn’t take the big picture into account. Stretching, as I teach it, isn’t about being more flexible just for the sake of being more flexible. Functional flexibility (often referred to as mobility) is less about being able to bend yourself into a pretzel and more about being able to get into better basic positions that are fundamental to functional movement. The single best example of this is being able to get into a deep, well-aligned squat – a vitally important position that will be used in countless activities both in and out of the gym.
The primary emphasis of successful stretching routines that translate into practical results is that they mimic the positions you want to be able to get into more effectively. Want to squat deeper? Do more stretches that mimic a deep squat (and SQUAT MORE!). Want to be more comfortable doing overhead exercises? Do more overhead stretches. Muscles don’t work individually, they work in harmony with many other muscles all at once – so stretching a single muscle will rarely be as effective as stretching groups of muscles that all work as a unit. Not only will this yield better results, it’ll also save you a ton of time since you won’t need to do a separate stretch for every single muscle.
Stay tuned for my upcoming video blog series that will cover the 3 most important areas to cover in your mobility routine and a few simple stretches that can address all 3 in a very short time!