3 Essential Stretching Basics

Stretching can be the first step in injury resistance but only if you do it correctly! Understanding how to stretch is the only way to make it effective. This whole post will center on the Myotatic stretch reflex (MSR). The difference between stretching a muscle and fully releasing it.

This reflex is your bodies natural reflex to protect itself when it feels a muscle lengthening. It is initiated more strongly when your body senses lengthening of a muscle with velocity. Understanding and playing by the rules of this innate reflex is the difference between stretching in vain and having some real flexibility results from your stretching.

The first thing you can do to quiet this reflex is to slow everything down. Move into a stretch slowly. Don’t remember how far you folded yourself yesterday and automatically go there. Move in a gradual and gentle manner and see how your body responds. If you feel that muscle start to contract and fight the stretch, come back a little and breathe there. As the muscle “releases” the contraction, you will be performing an effective stretch.

The second thing you can keep in mind is to take gravity out of the equation. This will piggy back on #1 but gravity increases the speed of movement, so eliminate as much of it as you can. Example, instead of a standing hamstring stretch, lay on your back and pull one leg into the air.

The third thing that will aid your stretching is something called reciprocal inhibition. Or more simply, flex the opposing muscle group. This is one way your body is wired to calm down your MSR. Back to stretching the hamstrings…those hammies work to flex the knee and extend the hip. The opposite actions will stretch them, so extending the knee and flexing the hip. The muscles that flex the hip and extend the knee are the quadriceps. Engaging or flexing the quadriceps will help relax the MSR in the hamstrings allowing you to stretch them more effectively. This begins to introduce the idea of “releasing” as a separate goal from “stretching”. Just know that getting the muscle to release means that you’ve performed effective stretching.

In addition to these three things, you will want to keep in mind the concept of time and progress within each stretch. In order to make a significant and lasting impact in a muscle group, it is recommended to hold a stretch for 1 to 2 minutes. Some forms of yoga (namely Yin) can hold stretches as long as 5 minutes! So don’t rush your stretching…take your time and enjoy it. The progress concept is simple. As your body acclimates itself to a certain degree of stretch in a muscle group, feel free to slowly move a bit further or a bit deeper into the stretch. Keep aware of your own body and let that be your guide for when you can move more or when you need to stay put.

Enjoy the benefits these stretching tips will grant you!