It takes the right amount of effort for you to create a positive change when you stretch. Because if you’re not giving the right level of focused effort, you could end up doing more harm than good.
Some athletes are passive in how they stretch, while others are aggressive. Which bucket are you in?
Know that neither approach to stretching will help you to reach your potential mobility any sooner.
I’m going to tell you why that is. And what the right amount and direction of effort should be to make positive changes that last.
It’s about control
When you stretch, your goal should be to gain control of your joint on its path to reach an optimal end range of motion. That should help you promote the optimal resting length of your muscles and tendons. And vice versa. (Optimal in this case means the most efficient and effective for functional movement)
This commitment to gain control over your joints is the best way to build long lasting mobility.
The source of that control is your nervous system’s ability to recruit and relax your muscles. And it takes the right amount of effort on your part to steer your nervous system to get your muscles to do what you want.
But if your effort is too low, then your nervous system will not have ample control to make progress in a safe manner. So when you’re not ‘engaged’ enough as you try to reach out of its comfort zone, your body will anticipate potential harm. This triggers reflexive mechanisms that serve as part of its automated protection network.
Those involuntary contractions are the resistance that you feel when you stretch. And that tension will hold you back from your goal to gain range of motion.
On the flip side, if you are too aggressive with your effort, then your nervous system will respond in kind. It will over-recruit the surrounding muscles to compensate. This compressive strategy can become a new normal, and work against you.
That’s because you’re left with a faulty pattern associated with a range of motion that you wanted to gain. And it results in further dysfunction and stiffness elsewhere.
To avoid those reflexes, you must be at least one step ahead.
The way to do that is to stretch with finesse by using the following six efforts:
1. Positional effort
The positional relationship of all parts of your trunk and limbs is crucial. That’s because it determines the area of isolation during a stretch. So if any one part is out of position, then you move further away from isolation.
For example, it’s important to maintain a 90-degree angle in both hips and knees in the 90/90 stretch. For many athletes, they may lose position and isolation if they are not paying attention.
It’s an odd request of the body to isolate body parts since it’s not normal in everyday movement. As a result, the nervous system will resist this effort because it’s out of its ‘comfort zone’. In particular when there is a structural restriction. Then it further resists by trying to break the form you’re trying to keep so that there is less stress on your body.
This is why it’s important that you apply an effort great enough to prevent those breaks in stretch form. But not so much that leads to compensation.
It will feel like controlled chaos to your nervous system. But in your body and mind, it will be slight discomfort. But as long as you have composure with the below points, your nervous system will allow you to make progress.
2. Irradiation effort
The root of your effort to hold your position matters for the best use of your energy. That source is your abdominal core. That’s because it has the greatest ability to provide your nervous system with a sense of control. And as mentioned above, a sense of control is the fastest and safest way to make progress.
Start by taking an inhale, and then on the exhale tighten your abdominal core. Then spread that tension outward throughout the body, except for the joint(s) you wish to isolate. This effort is what allows you to have a voluntary dissociation from adjacent joints. Hence, better mobility.
For example, it’s important to tighten your abdominals before you stretch your quadriceps. That’s because it prevents extension in your spine and helps isolate the front of your thigh.
3. Reciprocal Inhibition Effort
Your effort to irradiate should still allow you to initiate reciprocal inhibition (RI). This natural function is when a muscle(s) contracts, its antagonist (opposing) muscle(s) will relax.
You can apply your own effort to create an isolated muscular tension to kick-off RI to help relieve areas of chronic stiffness. At the same time, improve activation in areas deficient in strength. For example, you can fire your glutes to help ease short-and-tight hip flexors.
4. Breathing effort
With all your effort to create tension to irradiate and have RI, it must not take away from your ability to breathe.
As I mentioned in my last article, a tactful stretching strategy begins with your breath. That’s because that function has a direct impact on the state of your nervous system.
When you use your diaphragm to breathe, it helps you move towards a parasympathetic nervous system state. This calming state settles your nervous system so it feels in control, instead of threatened. And allows you to create relaxation when and where you want during a stretch.
The opposite is true if you fail to maintain correct breathing when you stretch. It heightens your sympathetic nervous system. This “fight or flight” state triggers your body’s defensive systems. And blocks your ability to direct change without traumatizing your nervous system more.
So as you ramp up tension to isolate a joint, you’ll need to resort to a voluntary effort to breathe using your diaphragm. This means that you must learn to breathe behind that wall of tension in your abdomen. And do this throughout the stretch so you don’t misguide your efforts.
Try this when you stretch. Take a breath in, over a three-count, into any and all areas of discomfort. Do this as if you were inflating a balloon. Then exhale over a six-count to deflate that imaginary balloon to release the tension
5. Directional effort
To create length you’ll need to apply an effort that moves opposing parts of your body away from the area you wish to stretch. So in a direct way you are providing a distraction of the isolated muscles and joint(s).
This directional effort should be enough that you feel a light taught sensation in the area of focus. This helps you to stay better connected to your body and what it’s telling you as you challenge it. So you don’t take it too far, to soon.
An example of this effort would be in a half-kneeling hip flexor stretch. Here you would drive your down knee into the ground, press down into the foam roller with your hands, and create space between your ears and shoulders. And that effort can range between a 2-4/10 throughout the stretch.
6. Visualization effort
When you put in the effort to visualize the area of isolation, you’ll have much better results than if you don’t. To help, look at anatomy image of the involved area. Then study the direction of the muscle fibers. So that when you stretch, you can imagine those fibers moving in the direction you want.
As you can see, there’s quite a bit of effort that goes into a stretch.
The big takeaway is that it’s important to remember that the total effort of your stretch should feel around a 4-5/10. It’s that sweet spot of being not too low and not too high. When you do this, your nervous system will reward you with greater and long-lasting mobility.
To help make the most of your efforts, I’ve laid out all the details in my Search And Rescue Mobility program. With it, you’ll receive a custom daily routine of exercises. All you have to do is follow it to receive a solid foundation for performance and prevention. So you can become an Athlete for Life.