If you’re like me, you’ve spent a large portion of your life trying to increase your flexibility, but sometimes it seems like no matter how much effort you put into it, you’re still tighter than you’d like! So is there a better way to stretch? Is there some more efficient method that could help you achieve that range of motion you’ve always wanted to hit those high kicks.
Stretching isn’t just about the postures you adopt for your stretch routine, or the amount of time or repetitions you put into it. It’s also about how you perform a stretch. A lot of us grew up with static stretches, where we reached as far as we could, trying to fight against ourselves to get a little further each time. If you’ve done this, you may have achieved some initial measure of success, but you likely ended up sore afterward and may also have been a little disappointed by the results. How you perform your stretches is as critical for success as choosing the right ones for the job.
Today we’ll review the ten principles for optimal flexibility from Ann and Chris Frederick’s Stretch to Win to help you improve the quality of your stretch routine. The two of them are both heavily versed in the human body by way of education and practice—Ann has been teaching professional and academic dance, as well as kinesiology for nearly fifty years; and Chris is a fellow martial artist, dancer, and physical therapist. I deeply enjoyed their instruction; therefore, I’d like to discuss this topic and relate some of my own knowledge and experiences through the lens of their principles:
Principle 1: Synchronize Breathing with Stretching- It is nothing new to suggest attempting to deepen your stretch on each exhale as you allow your body to relax. I think most people know this already. However, the thing I liked most about this program was the suggestion of utilizing a “stretch wave” or “undulated stretch”. Using this technique, on each inhale, you fight the urge to press as deep as you can into your stretch in a desperate attempt to become more flexible (like I used to) and ease off the stretch a little instead. Then, on the exhale, you relax the muscles as much as possible and lean in. This is important, because there is a spindle-shaped sensory organ aptly known as a “muscle spindle” inside each of your muscles. Muscle spindles sense change in muscle length, particularly when it is changed rapidly. To protect you from tearing your muscle, it activates and thereby tightens the stretched muscle. This is called the myotatic or stretch reflex. By easing out of your stretch a little on the inhale, you are telling the muscle that it is safe, and allowing it to relax again. Now, when you ease back into your stretch on the exhale, the muscle will give you a little more leeway without a fight.
Principle 2: Regulate Your Nervous System While Stretching- I think this is an overly clunky title for the concept they’re trying to explain, but basically, they are referring to choosing the correct stretch protocol for the right part of your workout. If you are preparing to begin training, dynamic stretching—stretching in motion, such as walking lunges, for example—is preferrable. During the cool down, static stretching—easing into a stretch slowly, such as a hurdler’s stretch—is ideal. It is important to stretch appropriately for the kind of activity you’re undertaking.
Principle 3: Stretch in the Correct Sequence- The Fredericks’ recommend stretching deeper muscles and joint capsules first, then moving outward to more superficial ones, or from your tightest muscles to your less tight muscles. Generally, you’ll get this right if you move from the core (hips, abs, hip flexors) before you move onto more distal muscles (like the hamstrings or calves). I can say from experience, this is pretty effective, and I generally run my class stretches this way.
Principle 4: Stretch Without Pain- Stretching should NOT hurt. Relax. Again, you’re trying to ease into the stretch, not force it.
Principle 5: Stretch Fascia, Not Just Muscle- Many people believe that they are stretching their muscles when they undertake a flexibility program. That’s part of the equation, but you’re also stretching skin, collagenous tissues, and perhaps most importantly, tendons and ligaments. Muscle will more-or-less retain its shape no matter how many times you stretch it, but tendons and ligaments are more plastic. This means they are more likely to retain their new shape after you stretch them. By relaxing into deep stretches, you will stretch tendons and ligaments, as well as break up scar tissue and other inhibitors throughout all kinds of fascia, and thereby achieve more permanent changes to your flexibility.
Principle 6: Stretch in Multiple Planes of Movement- Muscles don’t just move one way. Mix it up a little when you’re stretching by leaning to one side or the other. If you’re mindful, you can feel out the directions that have the most tension, and where you really need a good stretch; then work that direction more. At the end of the day, successful stretching is all about being with and listening to your body.
Principle 7: Expand Joints When Stretching- “Almost half of a healthy person’s lack of ROM (range of motion) at the joint may be due to tightness of the joint capsule,” say the Fredericks’. Hip capsules are often where flexibility begins to go awry, so you’ll want to do two things. Ensure you include stretches to target these capsules, and stretch them in various directions. (In the case of the hips, this is every direction, because like the shoulder, it is a ball-in-socket joint!).
Principle 8: Use Traction For Maximum Lengthening- Traction is decompression of a joint, ligament, or other type of fascia. What’s being referred to here is partner stretching. If you are looking for maximal flexibility, before you engage in deeper stretches, it often helps to have another person pull or move a joint away from the body to help it decompress.
Principle 9: Use Resistance When Needed for Optimal Results- This is referring to a fascinating technique called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching. Imagine you are leaned over stretching your hamstring and you cannot stretch any further. Instead of just holding that position, try activating (curling) your hamstrings for a beat, then hold that tension for two to three seconds. Release, extending the hamstrings again, and you’ll find you drop naturally deeper into the stretch. PNF stretching can be done with almost any muscle on any stretch, and there is a lot of research indicating it outperforms static stretching in speed of results.
Principle 10: Adjust Parameters to Match Goals- What you are trying to achieve should determine the frequency (the amount of times you stretch a muscle per session and per week), intensity (how deep you stretch), tempo (how fast you move in and out of a stretch), and duration (time spent in a stretch) of your individual stretches. Generally, if you are trying to increase your flexibility, you should stretch most days of the week, with moderate intensity, at a slow tempo for one to three deep breaths per stretch. Muscles that are tight, or sides of the stretch that are tighter than the other, should be stretched more regularly.
I hope this overview helps to improve your stretching practice, regardless of what stretch routine you choose. Try implementing these strategies over the course of the next week, and you’ll see how much of a difference they can make!
1. Coburn JW, Malek M H. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2012.
2. Frederick A, Frederick C. Stretch to Win. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2017.