I began teaching yoga and training clients one-on-one over 15 years ago, and started my company, The Flexibility Coach, over 10, yet I still remember one of my earliest revelations: Few people know how to stretch. I mean REALLY know how to stretch, specifically, in a way that achieves the desired effect of increasing their muscles’ flexibility. In those early days, I found myself often scrapping my initial, meticulously designed lesson plans and client programs and instead focusing on the basics: how to stretch, what to expect in terms of body sensations, and applying these guidelines to straightforward, easy-to-access stretches and exercises, many of which were based more on everyday movements than on “official” fitness or sports drills. Much to everyone’s delight — mine, my clients, and my students — this simplified approach brought results. Not just results, GOOD results. NOTICEABLE results. Results that showed themselves both in people’s everyday life and in their fitness and athletics.
Of course, I have built a sizeable repertoire of exercises and stretches since those inaugural years, but the experience gave me a number of important lessons that have become part of the foundation to my instruction. One of those lessons is that no matter how “great” the stretch or exercise, the degree to which it will benefit the person is directly proportional to that person’s ability to perform it with optimal technique. And in the case of stretching, that optimal technique includes accessing that all-important “stretch zone.”
The “stretch zone” is a term I have come up with to describe the tension that a muscle needs to feel in order for a stretch to enact any change on the muscle’s flexibility. This is where there’s a little bit of art injected into the science of stretching: Although stretching a muscle entails clear-cut physiological processes, in order to activate those processes, you have to know and observe your personal boundaries, which are highly individualized. You must be able to decipher the difference between a position that isn’t accomplishing a whole lot (in terms of flexibility promotion), vs. a position that has taken your body TOO far, into a degree of stretching that is harmful and possibly injurious to your muscles or joints. The challenge lies in finding the “zone” in between those two extremes.
The best way to try this out is with a stretch that isn’t particularly risky for most of us, yet involves muscles in which we all tend to feel some degree of tension or tightness.
Let’s take the Doorframe Chest Stretch: Assuming you are injury-free in your chest, shoulder and neck region….
- Go to a doorframe and rest your right hand on it, at about the height of your chest
- Walk far enough from the door so that your arm is stretched fully; your right palm should be facing forward.
- Now, slowly turn away from your hand, both with your upper body and with your feet.
- Keep rotating in this way until you start to feel a stretch. The stretch might be in your chest, in your shoulder, in your neck, your arm, or some combination of these muscles.
- Pause here, take a deep breath, and consciously relax your neck muscles when you exhale. Now, evaluate. Can you rotate just a little bit further — that is, without causing pain? (As always, if you feel pain, stop immediately.) If you can turn a little bit more and feel a deeper stretch, do so. Otherwise, stay where you are.
- In either case, do you feel some tension in your muscles? A sense of their being stretched? Is the tension enough that you have to concentrate a bit in order to relax, yet not so intense that you can’t breathe smoothly or you’re forced to assume a pained facial expression?
If you feel the tension and stretch sensation, then are able to relax somewhat, and there’s no pain involved, congratulations! You have successfully found your “stretch zone,” at least for this particular muscle or group of muscles.
Now that you know this feeling, keep this in mind when you practice other stretches, particularly those that are aimed for long holds and deep stretching, such as those you would perform at the end of a workout. For example, the next time you try out a calf stretch, make sure you’re manipulating the stretch to access that same stretch tension/sensation in the calf. When stretching your hamstrings, try to isolate your hamstrings as opposed to stretching your low back muscles, which is a common error when attempting a hamstring stretch. Remember, if your body finds a way “around” a stretch for a given muscle, the stretch isn’t doing the intended muscle any good. It’s less a matter of what the stretch LOOKS like (though the technique and alignment do matter), more a matter of how the stretch FEELS internally.
If you keep the above in mind, and really apply your breathing and consciously relaxing your muscles when you stretch, you will find a world of difference both in how you feel right after a stretch session, and the positive impact it makes on your flexibility and fitness overall!
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