Injuries, aging, poor posture, weak core, being sedentary, and sitting too much are factors that lead to bodily tightness and restriction. I think most of us are aware of these factors and we realize that we’d be well-served by stretching more often. Being more flexible would be good for us. Maybe we did a few stretches a while back and thought, “That felt so good!”.
There are a few specific reasons why we might want to stretch.
Some type of stretching/warm-up movement seems like a good way to avoid injury prior to vigorous exercise.
If we already have an injury or a sore spot, stretching seems like a way to relieve the pain. I often get asked by my students for a specific stretch to help with a painful body part. Listening to our pain is important. If we ignore it we risk causing further imbalances, muscle weakness, and joint wear and tear.
A MORE FLEXIBLE PERSON
People frequently tell me, “Oh, my body feels soooo tight. I wish I could be more flexible”. Simply put, they want to become “a more flexible person”. In other words, a permanent change.
Your reason for stretching actually is quite important. If your goal is to warm-up prior to exertion, that requires a different stretching technique than stretching to become a more flexible person. For example, warm-up is best accomplished with dynamic stretching, which is moving in and out of stretch positions gradually and rhythmically. I use this technique frequently in my active classes.
But what if our goal is to become a “more flexible person”? What does the science say? Increasing overall flexibility has been studied quite a lot. You absolutely can increase your flexibility. However, studies have shown that stretching doesn’t actually lengthen muscle. Fitness instructors, including myself, say this all the time. While it’s technically not accurate, I still think it’s effective languaging. I mean, it sounds nice! My instruction might sound like this: “Take a long, slow exhale through your nose and feeeeeel your muscle relaxing, softening, and lengthening“.
If stretching doesn’t actually lengthen the muscle and yet we feel more flexible because of stretching, what’s going on? Increasing flexibility technically is about the nervous system. Our brains are hard-wired to protect vital body parts for survival. While the heart and lungs are our most essential body parts, joints are important too. When our brains sense that we are in danger, we tighten-up to protect our joints. That’s effective in the moment for preserving the body, but bad news for our health and functionality when it becomes chronic.
Stretching, when done correctly, tells the nervous system to chill out so that muscles can actually become more pliable and thus more functional. But this doesn’t happen by holding stretch positions for only a few seconds and only doing it occasionally. It also doesn’t happen when we’re not paying attention. In other words,
You have to be willing to do the work.
I don’t want to scare you off from becoming a more flexible person. But getting there is no different than increasing strength or cardio capacity. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and patience. I’ll write more about this later. For now, know that what is required to become a more flexible person is the following:
1. Hold the stretch position for at least two minutes
2. Relax the muscle you’re targeting while in the stretch position
3. Find the middle ground of the stretch (not too easy, not too hard)
4. Breathe (this is key to changing the nervous system which is where improving flexibility really happens)
This is exactly what we did last Thursday in our stretch class. And yes, it was awesome! Join me again this coming Thursday for another stretch session. Let’s become “more flexible people”!