Introduction: This is the second in a 3-part series of our ultimate guide to stretching. It takes all the mistakes people commonly make and the things I regularly found people didn’t know about stretching and puts it into one guide. (the original draft was 10 A4 pages long – thus breaking it into a series!).
The link to Part III is below, once you’ve finished reading you can go straight there.
Recap from Part I
Part I explained why you should be stretching, aka the benefits of stretching (feeling lighter and stronger) and when you should stretch.
If you missed it, here’s the link to go back and read it now.
On to part II…
Part II: How to Stretch
There’s a 87% chance that you’re stretching incorrectly.
When I say incorrectly, what I mean is:
‘not in a way that gives you the most possible benefit in the least amount of time.’
You may be stretching in a way that does give you SOME benefit, and hopefully you’re not like so many of my clients who stretch in such a way as to ACTUALLY MAKE THEIR MUSCLES TIGHTER (yes, all caps was necessary).
Here are my five simple steps to stretching perfection, and then we’ll go through each step in more detail below:
- Start with your muscle in a slightly lengthened position
- Gently lean into the stretch (to a 3 or 4 out of 10)
- Stop leaning when you feel a gentle stretch or resistance
- Count to 10 and only deepen the stretch if it’s started to release – do 2-3 times
- If you haven’t felt a decrease after 10 seconds, come out of the stretch & start again
The 5 Steps to Stretching Perfection
1. Start with your muscle in a slightly lengthened position.
If you’re starting by folding or shortening a muscle, you have to do a lot more work to stretch it.
(I’m looking at you, chest stretch that starts with your hands clasped together behind your back.)
The first thing you need to do is identify what and where the muscle is that you want to stretch.
I’ve seen a ton of people stretching their ‘hamstrings’ who are actually stretching their adductors/groin (by twisting their hips and leg sideways – I’m guessing so they look more ‘flexible’).
Same thing with a chest stretch – you think you’re stretching the pecs, but because your shoulder is rotated down and in and your arm is against the wall and your shoulder is up, you’re actually stretching your biceps, or possibly your deltoid.
That’s a great stretch for the biceps, but not so much for the chest.
What If I Don’t Know Where the Ends of the Muscle Are?
Not everyone knows the attachment points of the muscles.
You have two choices if you’re not sure where your quads, hamstrings, pecs, or lats attach:
- Ask us in a session – we’ll be happy to tell you where the muscles you’re targeting attach.
- Check out this website that has a list of main muscles and pictures of where they attach: Key Muscles Locations and Actions
Now that you know which muscle you’re trying to stretch and where it is, and you’ve put it in a slightly stretched position (i.e. you wouldn’t stretch your bicep with your elbow bent at 90’), you’re ready for the next step.
2. GENTLY lean in to the stretch (until it’s a 3 or 4 out of 10)
There are a few things going on in the 2nd step, so let’s look at it one by one.
First is GENTLY.
Everybody thinks ‘no pain, no gain’. For stretching this usually means pushing into the most intense stretch they can handle and counting to 30 through gritted teeth (often while holding their breath).
Are you in the stretching camp that thinks ‘the stronger the stretch is, the better’?
When our muscles get pulled really hard, their reflex is to contract against that pull (to try and avoid tearing – it’s called the stretching reflex).
The harder you stretch, the more your muscles are trying to contract against that pull to protect themselves.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself
‘I stretch all the time, but my muscles never feel looser – in fact the more I stretch, the tighter they feel’
…this is probably why.
We see a ton of people who do this, and have really tight, taut muscles that have been trained to hold on and contract during a stretch.
For these people, their muscle may actually start getting a stretch much, much earlier in the movement.
Because they’ve always pushed past that point, they don’t even feel it. Their muscles are already contracting, prepared for the extreme push they’re used to.
In this scenario, the ‘stretch’ feeling is actually the point where their muscles are losing the battle against the extreme pull being placed on them.
Case in Point:
Early on in my career, I had a client with a chronic hamstring problem – they were extremely tight and he had a recurring pain at the attachment point in the hip.
He spent 30 minutes every day stretching, including his hamstrings, and could get his leg next to his ear (eventually).
When I did passive range of movement with him (read: lift his leg up while he was face-up on the table), we got to 90 degrees (yes, 90 degrees) and his hamstring was tauter than a guitar string (yes, I could ‘ping’ it and yes, I did).
At 90′, he couldn’t feel even the slightest stretch, even though I could see and feel (and he could feel with his hand) how clearly it was stretching.
When you stretch gently, you’re telling your body, don’t worry, you don’t need to protect yourself, we’ll go at your pace and you can relax.
2. Gently LEAN into the Stretch (to a 3 or 4 out of 10)
The next key part of step 2 is leaning (not pushing) into a stretch.
When you’re stretching, it’s easy to ‘push’ into it – i.e. use the muscles in the opposite part of the body to push yourself down.
Here’s why this isn’t ideal: when you use an opposite muscle, something called reciprocal inhibition TEMPORARILY reduces the tone in the muscle (i.e., makes it looser but in a kind of false way).
When you stop contracting the opposite muscle, that reduction in tone stops.
So if you’re pushing with/contracting your triceps to stretch your biceps, when you stop contracting your triceps the biceps will tighten slightly.
While it’s not the end of the world (read: if you HAVE TO push to get into the position it won’t destroy your muscles or anything) in my experience it does make the stretch a little less effective – because it tightens up again when the muscle stops contracting.
2. Gently Lean into a Stretch (to a 3 or 4 out of 10)
Here’s your number: 3 or 4 out of 10.
That’s how intense or strong you want your stretch to feel.
Yes, you WILL be able to go further into your stretch.
Yes, you probably could touch your toes, or bring your foot higher, or lean further.
One of the most important tricks in stretching is to stop when you FEEL a stretch, not when you CAN’T GO ANY FURTHER.
This not only makes your stretch more effective, it helps you develop a better connection with your body.
3. When you feel a 3 or 4 out of 10, stop there
It’s sooooo tempting to want to push yourself into a stretch until you can’t go any further.
The earlier you stop, the more likely you are to get a good release in the tighter part of the muscle.
The more likely you are to get a good release in the tighter part of the muscle, the more benefit you get from your stretch.
4. Count to 10 (and repeat 2-3 times)
Once you’ve leaned gently into your stretch and stopped when you feel a 3 or 4 out of 10, count to ten.
Your stretch feeling should decrease or disappear by the time you get to 10.
Once that stretch feeling is down to a 1 or 0, lean into the stretch again until you hit that feeling of resistance or 3 or 4 out of 10, and start counting to 10 again.
5. If you don’t feel a decrease or it gets stronger, come out.
If the stretch feeling/resistance hasn’t decreased by 10, you most likely have gone too far and need to come out a little and start again.
Here’s what’s likely happening if your stretch feels stronger as it releases:
You were probably in a stronger stretch than you realised.
To really get the benefit of your muscle releasing, back out of it a little. This way you can take advantage of the muscle opening up as much as possible.
How Long Should I Stretch?
Generally speaking you can count to 10 two to three times, for a 20-30 second stretch.
There is also something called submaximal long duration stretching – that’s where you hold a very gentle stretch for 3-5 minutes.
That’ll be the topic of another post.
You now know all the steps to stretch effectively.
Because repetition fosters learning, here are the five steps again:
- Start with the muscle in a lengthened position
- Gently lean in until you feel a 3 or 4 out of 10.
- Stop leaning when you feel a gentle stretch or resistance (i.e. don’t go further)
- Count to 10, repeating 2-3 times
- If you don’t feel a decrease after 10 seconds, or it gets stronger, come out.
Now if you can (i.e. if you’re not reading this in your office) – try this stretching approach now.
Go on, do it.
Try the 5 steps.
Do a pre and post-test. Choose something that usually feels quite restricted and do a basic range of movement test.
Then stretch it according to these steps.
Now, re-test. Does it feel different? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to know what you stretched and how it feels!
Knowing how to stretch isn’t enough – you also need to know the common mistakes most people make so you can avoid them.
Are you ready to learn the common mistakes?