Guidelines for Better Stretching

In General by Adam Friedman

Hi, it’s Adam…would you stretch more often if it weren’t so painful? For many of us, the major deterrent to making stretching a habit has been the immediate pain or high level of discomfort felt while stretching. Stretching should be pain-free and can easily become something that you look forward to doing by following a few of the methods I’ll share below.

You are correct if stretching through pain seems counter-intuitive. This is because that pain is your body’s internal defense mechanism fighting against you, warning that if you continue there will be a price. If you ignore those signals you can potentially create small micro-traumas in the muscle, tendon, and/or ligament. If this stress is repeated over and over, more severe and chronic issues may ensue. In addition the nervous system becomes traumatized, and overly sensitive or hyper-reactive to stimulus, which creates a level of dysfunction rendering the muscle weak. Temporarily the muscle will actually anticipate danger without there being any, creating a pathological paranoia-like state. The muscle becomes on edge like when you have too much caffeine, and you can’t focus on the task at hand.

Conversely, if you stretch before reaching that threshold of pain, you will ensure that your muscles, tendons, and ligaments will maintain their integrity, and you can reach your desired result of attaining greater flexibility without the trauma. This is the best way to reach longer lasting results, and prevent injury for longevity purposes.

The science of stretching has come a long way since your physical education class in elementary school. Today, educated trainers and physical therapists use methods designed to “outsmart” the body to achieve the desired affect. Understanding the body’s defense mechanisms, and knowing how to prevent them from firing off is the trick.

Inside the muscle, tendons, and ligaments are sensory receptors, otherwise known as proprioceptors, which send messages to (and receive messages from) the brain so there is constant feedback. They help us to know where our body is in space, otherwise known as having a kinesthetic awareness.

The particular sensory receptors in the muscle, called muscle spindles, keep track of the length of the muscle. If the length-tension limits are breached, the muscle spindle has the duty to reflexively contract to protect the muscle from tearing. These reflexes exist throughout the body, much like your eyelid quickly shuts to protects the cornea from being breached. It is this reflex in the muscle, referred to as myotatic, that is the resistance that we feel our body giving back to us when we are stretching beyond the muscle’s comfort zone.

The involvement of the myotatic reflex is counterproductive to what we want to accomplish in stretching, so we have to learn to work with and around those receptors to get what we want. In the act of stretching we are inevitably going to create some tension in the muscles and connective tissue. What we can do is apply specific steps to alleviate the pre-existing tension from the start, and to turn down those over-reactive proprioceptors.

To accomplish this, start with a low intensity warm-up for 10 minutes by either walking, or cycling, etc. To know if you are sufficiently warmed-up, you should feel a light sweat, and noticeable increase in body temperature.

Next spend about 5 to 10 minutes using a foam roller to desensitize and relax spots along your muscles that seem to push back on the foam roller and/or are painful. These pain centers are referred to as trigger points, and can be like a thorn in our side inhibiting our muscles unless we make the effort to release them. Think of the foam rolling as a search and destroy mission. To learn how to foam roll, please visit to watch the free videos.

The combination of warming up and foam rolling will create a very friendly environment for your proprioceptors, and they will be more willing to work with you, which should be the objective through out an entire stretch session.

Another important aspect of learning how to stretch is having a basic foundation of knowledge in being familiar with the muscles that you are stretching, and how to position the body to create the desired effect.

Here are some basic guidelines to follow during the act of stretching:

When met with the resistance in the muscles, make a conscious effort to breathe through the tension. As a means of protection in our inherent “fight or flight” response, is among many of our natural subconscious tendencies to hold our breath when faced with a high level of discomfort or stress. However, holding the breath is actually counterproductive to the result we are seeking with stretching, and actually creates unnecessary added tension, which brings us closer to reaching the threshold of experiencing the pain.

When you are faced with the greater resistance in your muscles, after a proper inhalation make an concentrated effort to have a long exhalation. This act of focused breathing allows your subconscious mind to relax and let go of the need to fight because you are in control of what’s happening. As a result you will find that your body will respond much better, and achieve better flexibility.

Smooth Flow
Ease into a stretch, and ease out of the stretch to decrease the likelihood of setting off the alarms, which create a muscle-shortening reflex and negating potential improvements.

Short and Sweet
When stretching before an activity it is important to focus on stretching only to align the body through lengthening specific trouble areas that are chronically short and tight on your body. Only hold those stretches for short duration of around two seconds for five to ten repetitions, to prevent the myotatic reflex, and the potential inhibition of that muscle for any subsequent activities.

Last Step
The absolute best time to stretch is after physical activity or at the end of your day. Since physical activity involves repetitive muscular contractions that are mostly leaving your muscles in a shortened state, from which they’ll stay until you stretch them. It’s like taking two steps forward, then one step back.

After the workout, or at the end of your day is when you should stretch longer and more intensely to leave your muscles in a relaxed state for the rest of your day or evening. I encourage you to take time for yourself every day to stretch toward making a new healthy habit.
In the next stretching article I will discuss the pros and cons of certain types of stretching, and which ones are the most effective.