Most people throw in a few minutes of stretching at the end of their work out and don’t think much more about it. But to properly and effectively stretch your body without causing harm, there are some things that are very important to keep in mind. Stretching incorrectly isn’t just an issue of preventing you from gaining flexibility, but it can also cause harm to your muscles and tissues.
There is a lot of contradictory information and differing opinions on how and when to stretch. Some practitioners (as we’ll discuss further on in the article) actually don’t recommend stretching at all! To help you wade through all of the information, we’ve done the research for you and have put together some tips on how to avoid the common pitfalls of stretching and get the most out of your stretches.
As with so many things, we tend to be of the mindset that the harder we push, the more effective it will be. When it comes to stretching we often push ourselves into a pose and grit our teeth while we hold the stretch, hoping that we can force our muscles to lengthen and relax.
However, this can not only cause damage but it’s also just ineffective and can actually cause you to become more stiff and tight than if you hadn’t stretched at all. If we push into a stretch too fast or hard, our body will try to protect itself by tightening up, so you really won’t be getting anywhere.
“When the muscles are stretched too hard or to the point of pain, the body employs a defense mechanism called the stretch reflex (or myotatic reflex). This is the body’s safety measure to prevent serious damage occurring to the muscles, tendons and joints. The stretch reflex protects the muscles and tendons by contracting them, thereby preventing them from being stretched,” says stretch coach Brad Walker.
Instead, move easily and slowly into the stretch, making sure to take slow, full breaths as you go. Rather than pushing to the point of intense sensation (or pain), go just far enough to feel a gentle elongation. This allows your muscles to relax and gently release at a comfortable and beneficial pace.
Stretch throughout the day
Rather than simply sitting down at the end of a workout to stretch out your muscles, it’s ideal to keep your body moving and stretching throughout the day. Don’t worry though, this doesn’t mean you need to roll out your yoga mat at your desk or interrupt a meeting to go take a stretch break- just making small, gentle stretches throughout the day, such as doing a few neck or shoulder rolls or moving your hips, is enough to keep your body happy. Our bodies were designed to move, so the more we move, the better we feel!
If you’re used to seeing fit yogis pulling off some crazy stretches and poses on Instagram these days, you may be of the mindset that the more flexible you are the better. Despite what you see online though, overdoing it can be harmful. Our joints need a certain level of muscle tension to keep them properly functioning and in place, and if we over stretch, we can actually throw our bodies’ out of alignment.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the level of flexibility of your favorite IG yogi, just keep in mind that it is possible to over stretch, especially when you’re stretching to achieve a certain goal or pose, rather than working with your body to lengthen and relax your muscles.
Know why you’re stretching
There are many different types of stretching, and they all have their own strengths and benefits. To choose the right type of stretching styles for you, it’s helpful to think about why you’re stretching. Is it to relax and reduce tension? Release tight muscles? Gain flexibility for a particular sport? By understanding your own unique wants and needs, you can find a style of stretching that is best for you.
Don’t just relax your muscles, relax your mind.
This is a slightly corny way of saying that ideal stretching is more than just a physical release. It’s also an opportunity to focus your mind and get in touch with your body. Rather than running through your daily to-do list or thinking about your favorite TV show, take your stretching session as an opportunity to focus on your body and breathing and come into the present moment.
When you are present and bringing awareness to your body, you’ll be much more in tune with what you need, how far to push your stretch, etc., which brings us to…
Trust your body
Just as an animal stretches naturally throughout the day, we are meant to stretch and elongate our muscles regularly and automatically. We don’t always need to rely on a set of prescribed stretches but can benefit a lot from listening to the cues of our body. Notice how we naturally stretch when we get out of bed or up from a chair. Allow your body to move and stretch when it wants to.
You can also enjoy some unstructured stretching time. Simply find a comfortable spot on the floor, ideally on a padded surface, and allow yourself to move and stretch in whatever way feels right to you. This might feel a bit strange or uncomfortable if you’re not used to following your body’s guidance, but the more you do it the more comfortable and enjoyable it will become.
Stretching vs. Pandiculation
There is another technique used to lengthen and release the muscles that is popular in Somatic Movement. Practitioners of Somatics make the claim that stretching is a passive action that by-passes the brain and can actually cause muscles to tighten and remain contracted.
Instead, they teach an active technique that works with the brain to effectively release muscles from tight holding patterns. Pandiculation involves an initial short contraction, followed by a gradual lengthening of the muscles. We do this naturally when we yawn and stretch our arms overhead, and if you have pets, you’ll notice that they do it frequently throughout the day (think about a cat arching its back and then slowly stretching and lengthening out its back paws).
This involuntary movement is thought to reset the myofascial system in the body and release imbalances and incorrect holding patterns in the muscles. In a paper published in PubMed titled Pandiculation: nature’s way of maintaining the functional integrity of the myofascial system?, author LF Bertolucci says“This paper explores the hypothesis that the SYS [stretch yawning syndrome] might also have an auto-regulatory role regarding the locomotor system: to maintain the animal's ability to express coordinated and integrated movement by regularly restoring and resetting the structural and functional equilibrium of the myofascial system.
Pandiculation is the foundation of Clinical Somatics, which takes this natural and involuntary movement and uses it purposefully and therapeutically to re-educate the muscles and tissues in the body.
If you are interested in learning more about pandiculation and how it differentiates from stretching, there are lots of resources online and YouTube. You can also look for a Somatics practitioner online or in your area who can help you with the process.
We’re sharing the concept of pandiculation not to say that it is better than stretching but simply to offer you another option to consider. Above all, we recommend listening to your gut and your body to determine what is best for you!