Learn To Stretch

Next to massage and cardiovascular workouts, stretching is key to muscular health. But even stretching can be dangerous! Please take a mental survey of your body before you start any new routine. Age, weight, injuries, balancing abilities, and know-how are all factors for stretching correctly and safely. Using Active Isolated Stretchingwill keep your muscles from tearing and provide the most thorough stretch. See a short description below.When in doubt, ask your doctor about new activities.

When stretching any part of your body, not only are you stretching muscles, but you are also stretching fascia, the tissue that surrounds muscles, bones, organs, and the nervous, circulatory and lymph systems and sometimes muscle tendons. Fascia is a three dimensional fibrous network that serves a structural purpose as well as delivering oxygen and storing water. It can get “bunched up”, “glued” or “stuck” which can cause as many problems as a muscle contracture (chronically tightened muscle).

Muscles that have contractures or are tight are weak muscles in the sense that part of the motion they make to move a body part is already used. Nerve impulses have been slowed or shut off, which can lead to muscular issues along the nerve pathway.  To do work, a muscle must contract / shorten to bring the two ends of the muscle closer together. If you are lifting an object and your biceps are in contracture, the force exerted by your biceps is lessened by the already shortened muscle.

animated wall stretch

animated hamstring stretch


Simple things you need to know for proper stretching:

      1. Have a picture in your mind of the muscles you are stretching and where they attach to bones.
        Check out this site to find a drawing and action of each muscle Lumen’s Master Muscle List
      2. Your muscles work and stretch synergistically through agonists (the muscles being contracted) and antagonists (the muscles opposite to the contracted muscles)
      3. Contracting a muscle on one side of a joint will activate a stretch reflex causing the opposite muscle (antagonist) to relax. Take a look at the animation on the right. Even if your leg stays straight, contracting your quadriceps will relax your hamstrings.  This is the law of reciprocal inhibition.  This is also the main principle of AIS.
      4. A thorough stretch comes from lengthening the muscle across all associated joints and through all available planes.  There are some muscles that cross 2 joints (like quadriceps whose origins start at the front of the hip and insert below the knee on the tibia (lower bone of the leg)).  To get a good stretch of your quadriceps you need to bend your knee AND move your leg backward at the hip – you can use your foot as a lever.
      5. A muscle will stay relaxed only when muscles that work synergistically with that  muscle are relaxed.  Deep muscles must be fully stretched/relaxed as well as the superficial muscles, otherwise the superficial muscles will begin to tighten again to assist the deeper muscle.
      6. Opposing muscles must be equally strengthened and stretched for optimal flexibility and health.
      7. ACTIVE ISOLATED STRETCHING provides the best method to lengthen muscles without tearing! To stretch an area of the body, you would move to lengthen the area (move into the stretch) WHILE actively contracting the opposite muscles throughout the stretch. (ex. Quadriceps/Hamstrings shown in the picture) Once you have reached the end of the motion (end of range of motion) you would then use an assisting tool, whether it be your hand or a rope, and give an extra force in the same direction (not too hard) for 1 and 1/2 seconds. You should re-align your body/appendage to a neutral position before performing the next repetition. Use around 6-8 repetitions for each stretch.
      8. 3 Minute Stretches– If you have chronically tightened areas in your body, it is better to stretch those areas many times a day than to do a one-hour stretching session of your whole body once or twice a week. Chances are, your daily routine is what causes the inflexibility and taking care of specific areas is more helpful to your overall health.

        Take 3 minute stretch breaks against a wall (great for low back pain and associated hamstrings).

        With your back to a wall place your feet far enough out from the wall for support and bend at your waist.  Check out the animation on the right. Don’t forget to drop your head! Use the same principles listed above for isolated stretching. Here you can keep your hamstrings in motion (keep from muscle tears) by slowly bending your knees during the stretch. Come back to neutral and repeat.

      9. Core muscles are the hardest to stretch. They are the closest to the midline of your body; therefore, lengthening away from their origins is sometimes impossible. It is better to contract and relax those muscles or get a deep massage to loosen them.  To relax the muscles of your spine, lie on your stomach and lift your head, arms and legs all at once for just a few seconds.  Relax.  If your muscles are really tight and you feel like they are tightening even more; in between lying on your stomach, you may need to get on your hands and knees and arch your back bringing your head down and towards your knees.  Repeat both several times.

A chronically tight muscle (contracture) is weak and undernourished. Contractures in muscles can occur from overuse, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and trauma.

The stretch reflex is an arch mechanism between muscle body and tendon cells (Muscle Spindle Cells and Tendon Organ cells) and the nervous system. It monitors proprioception (your body’s spacial displacement) and rapid muscle movement so as to prevent tearing of muscles through relaxation of antagonist muscles. An example of this can be seen when a persons arm is forced or pulled toward their backside – the biceps would be triggered to relax so they wouldn’t tear.

Stretching in all available planes: This concept is easy to understand if you think of every stretch existing within a circle. Think of moving your head, arms and legs in circular motions along the front of your body, your side, and behind you. Those ranges of motion are clues as to how to best stretch away from a tight area. Finding the point of tightness and potential pain is sometimes elusive, especially on the body’s trunk. But, if you can palpate (touch and feel) areas on your limbs that are sore, tender or emit some unusual sensation, you can easily lengthen muscles and alleviate pain.  Find your pain, locate the nearest joints, and visualize where that muscle crosses joints. ( Lumen’s Master Muscle List)  Stretch, bringing your limb as far away as possible from the painful site. You don’t have to know exactly what the muscle looks like or where it attaches to bone to find the right movement. Making minor tweaks in the circles of the ranges of motion will give you the perfect stretch. Movements within the circle can bring awareness to other muscles that are tight along that grouping. Pathways in larger muscles might be tightened along other routes besides directly through the main thickness of the muscle.

Stretch your quadriceps by standing next to a wall. While grabbing hold of a foot, push through that hip moving forward so that both the origin and insertion of the muscles are being stretched. This is a nice stretch through the hip area and helps low back aches feel better. You can use your foot as a lever and push away from your body and in toward your midline to stretch thoroughly.

Stretch your right hip by sitting cross-legged (Indian style) on the floor with your right leg crossed in front of your left.  With a straight back, lean forward.  Feel the stretch along your sit bones.

Sherrington’s Law of reciprocal inhibition and muscle contraction states that when a muscle on one side of a joint is contracted, the muscle on the opposite side is sent a neurological signal to relax or release.

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