Loosen Up! How to Stretch Your Way to Flexibility
By: Jill Miller
A few months ago I wrote a blog on the perils of over-stretching that seemed to strike a chord with many of my students and readers. But for every over-stretched yogi or yogini out there, there are four times as many folks who are bound up and moving like the Tin Man! Most folks I meet want to know how they can become more flexible, not less flexible. So I dedicate this blog to all of you who wish to become more supple and mobile. Let the bending begin!
Phase 1: Your muscles are tight. Tight-person anatomy lesson 101.
Do any of these describe you?
- You recognize that you cannot stretch as far as you did when you were playing high school sports.
- You attend a yoga class with your niece and are sore for days in lots of weird places.
- Stretching hurts. It really hurts.
To understand what causes all that misery and tension, we have to understand a little basic muscle physiology. Take a breath; this can get a little heady.
Muscles are designed to contract. Yes, they actually love contracting, and they resist being told to lengthen. Your muscle cells (also called fibers) contain a special stretch receptor that receives signals from your nervous system via a motor neuron. When this signal is “ON” it tells those fibers to shorten. The fibers do what they’re told and remain in a shortened state unless that signal is turned “OFF.” There are many motor neurons assigned to each and every muscle in your body. Your brain decides how many neurons to assign to a task. Much of the time only some of the fibers within a muscle will contract because you may not need as many contracting muscle cells to lift a feather as you would a kettle bell.
- But sometimes, our nervous system tells certain parts of your muscles to stay stiff and contracted. This is “unconscious tension,” and regular stretching is one of the best ways to help calm down that unconscious firing.
Muscles lengthen too, but not on their own! So when your brain tells the motor neurons to turn off, the muscle can stop contracting and be easily pulled into a stretch by two major assistive forces: 1) the position of the body and 2) the lengthening of the surrounding muscles coupled with the seeping of the connective tissues that permit the muscle to physically elongate and lengthen. Have I lost you yet? Take a deep breath, reread and read on.
Muscles are surrounded and penetrated by fascia. Our muscle fibers and tissues are surrounded by a living cobweb-like blanket called fascia. Fascia is loaded with collagen and elastin fibers that are enrobed in liquids. This fascia is not an inert tissue — it responds and gives signals to the nervous system, and also assists (or restricts) movement of the muscles that it encases. When a muscle remains shortened, these fascias also shorten and can actually lose their liquids and become dehydrated and brittle and less able to “seep” and elongate.
What do we feel when we feel a stretch? So when you are stretching a tight muscle, you are actually feeling two main things. 1) you may be feeling the muscle’s natural resistance to being pried open, which is the stretch receptors within the muscle attempting to remain contracted (can someone please turn off my motor neuron!). 2) You are feeling the shortened and dehydrated fascias also lengthening and releasing a bit of heat.
Phase 2: You need to stretch more. Seriously, you need to stretch more.
Sorry to spoil the fun, but flexibility is a “use it or lose it” type of thing. When you don’t stretch, you keep your muscles in a chronically shortened state. Your muscles and fascias adapt to the way you use them, and over time, these soft tissues will start affecting the alignment of your joints. When those joints start wearing out because of inefficient movement patterns, you can develop osteoarthritis, bone spurs and other painful inflammatory responses and injuries. All because you didn’t stretch enough.
Stretching isn’t just for athletes, or ballerinas, or yogis. Sitting at your desk, gardening, filing papers — these activities all involve repetitive actions that over-work some muscles while under-working others. Those over-worked muscles will benefit from stretching as they will be restored to a more functional length.
Phase 3: There’s more than one way to stretch!
The good news is that there are a multitude of ways to stretch those muscles and fascias. Stretching can be a fun and variety-filled activity. No really, it’s fun!
Here is a menu of different ways to stretch your body — some familiar and some novel approaches, but all very good for your tight tissues.
Static stretching is still and statue-like, like you would do in yoga.
- Dynamic stretching involves continuous motion.
- With passive stretching, someone else stretches you. Hooray! Activities such as Thai massage are a form of stretching.
Self-massage using balls eradicates tightness quickly by providing a “mini-stretch” that pinpoints specific knots, or trigger points, within the muscles and can provide a deep penetrating stretch into hard-to-reach places. Often called yoga balls or therapy balls, these are portable “stretchers” that can be used anywhere, anytime — even at your desk!
- Foam rollers are another great method of stretching the larger muscles of the body.
- Stretching can be aided by using strong elastic bands to create traction and joint movement.
Phase 4: Stretching becomes a way of life.
Look around at your environment to aid you in a stretch.
Lean back in your desk chair and arch your back with your arms reaching to the sky once every 30 minutes.
- Walk into a stairwell and let your heels hang off a step to stretch your calves.
- Stand in a doorway and place your palms on the sides of the door frame and step through to stretch your chest.
- Lastly, join the “stealth club” like my friend Kelly Starret who manages to incorporate his stretching routine while at a night club!
So what are you waiting for? Loosen up!