Keep Your Body Safe While You Stretch

If you clicked on this article, our guess is that you’re already a physically active person with a regular exercise or yoga practice.  Although you likely feel good in your body most of the time, any consistent fitness regimen can cause the sensation of chronic knots and tightness. Whether these symptoms are related to a previous injury or simply pushing yourself a bit too far during your last vinyasa flow, it’s never fun for the body to feel stiff and constricted. Even with regular stretching, you may find that you just can’t get those chronic areas to change! 

Don’t worry; it’s not you. It’s not uncommon to be taught that stretching is a laborious process in which we go to our edge, then try to go farther. But here’s the deal: Our concept of stretching may be outdated. “Relax when you stretch” and “farther is better” could actually be causing more harm than good! Indeed, as it turns out, static stretching is not all that effective in reducing muscle stiffness or tight joints. In all likelihood, most people are over-stretching. Thanks to extensive research in exercise science, there’s more than enough evidence to convince folks to hold their horses on the static stretches.

“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told the New York Times. “The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.”

So what to do? First we need to distinguish hyper-flexibility from true flexibility. Flexibility means your tissue feels pliable, elastic, well-hydrated and ready to pounce. In cases of hyper-flexibility, the joints may appear to be extremely loose, but the supporting muscles groups are actually very tight. For example, a hyper-flexible individual may have plenty of range when taking a forward fold — they might even be able to touch their toes — but if the lower back or sacral area feels achy, this person may be experiencing hyper-flexibility at the joints. 

And what about the protective tissue between the joints? If such tissues are not able to extend and flex with equal functionality, one may be at risk of overstretching or tearing the synovial membrane. Once these tissues and membranes around the joints are overexerted, they act more like an overused rubber band — loose and unstable around the joints, unable to apply tension to the muscles, and causing the body to remain tight.

Studies are now showing us that overstretching can tear or weaken our tissue and leave it feeling less flexible. When you overstretch, your body attempts to repair itself by producing a substance called lactic acid, resulting in that feeling of stiff muscles the next morning. Ouch! Furthermore, wherever you are hyperextended, your body will try to find balance by repairing tissue tears to stimulate muscle stability— this process often produces issues like neck pain or achy hips. 

A study done at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Texas compared changes in muscles that were stretched and not stretched in the same person. They found that stretching one muscle can impair another muscle that was not stretched, possibly through a central nervous system inhibitory mechanism. That means that stretching (and weakening) a muscle in your left leg could weaken a muscle in your right leg that you didn’t even stretch.

VIDEO: Sample Flow of Bonnie (this hasn’t been posted or shared anywhere yet!)

So what should you do? Start here: 

1) PROTECT: Work with shorter ranges of motion to stay out of your joints.

If you’re used to overstretching, this may feel limiting at first, so be sure to check in with how your body feels in the days after you try this technique. Chances are, you will feel less achy and stiff.

2) ACTIVATE: Try active stretching instead of passive static holds!

ACTIVATE the muscle you are working on while you ELONGATE (stretch) it. Not only will it bring the stretch into the belly of the tissue, but it will also affect the connective tissue (fascia) in a supportive way. Try not to hang out at the end of your range of motion, as this is where micro tearing usually occurs. 

Is the ACTIVATE/ELONGATE concept making you go cross-eyed? Here’s one way to think about it: It's a lot like how animals stretch. Picture a cat or a dog pawing the ground as they lean back, or how you naturally yawn in the morning. Animals instinctively contract their muscles as they stretch. This is called pandiculation when applied to animals, but humans would refer to a virtually identical process as engaged elongation. We can take that concept of engaged elongation and apply it to specific muscle groups. Instead of a static hold, perform the active stretches in reps. This creates heat and oxygenation in the target area, and it can even turn into a workout if you choose. 

Doing this kind of stretching can help that tight tissue to change to elastic, springy, and hydrated tissue! 

If you are not hyper-flexible and instead feel tight or even super tight, this work applies to you in the same way: activation plus elongation will make your tissue elastic. We want you to gain range that is functional, sustainable and makes you feel comfortable in your body by harmonizing imbalances.

To learn more about how muscle tissues plays a vital role in physical health, be sure to read our accompanying blog on fascia, exclusively from Ghost Flower.