How To Stretch… Correctly!

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Regular stretching is necessary for optimal health. The cause of many avoidable aches and pains is lack of suppleness and excess tightness in the muscles. Not stretching is a problem, yet stretching the incorrect way is also a problem.

Many athletes and active people stretch before or after their activity yet still experience muscle pulls and tendon tears. The problem is they’ve been taught the wrong way to stretch since childhood. Incorrect stretching can lead to pulls and tears of muscles, tendons and ligaments. And most people, when they feel their muscles are painful or tight, will (incorrectly) stretch them more in the hopes of stretching through the problem. But they are only exacerbating it.

In this article I am going to give you guidelines for stretching correctly. I will explain two different methods to do so: one for lay people who want to feel good and the other for more active people or athletes whose activities require flexibility.

Stretching To Feel Good
For people with any kind of localized or general acute or chronic pain, stretching is a must. Sitting on a chair all day—whether at a desk, in a car or on the couch—leads to shortening of various muscles in the body.

The position of sitting often shortens the piriformis muscles, which lie underneath the gluteus muscles. Tightened piriformis can make the pelvis rotate off center, which can cause hip pain, leg pain and low back pain. Sitting slouched on the sofa or chair can cause pain across the mid back rhomboids and also the levator scapula and trapezius muscles. Sleeping with your head placed incorrectly or typing or reading while looking down can cause tightening of the many neck muscles.

The simple fact is that even without engaging in athletic activities, the muscles of the body tighten as a result of our daily activities. And chronic tightening can cause chronic pain, tension and soreness. Stretching is the answer.

Stretching for the purposes of wellness (as opposed to athletic activity) should be done slowly, rhythmically and quietly. In this regard you stretch to feel good, not to gain flexibility. Here are the guidelines:

  1. Isolate the muscle or muscle group you want to stretch.
  2. Find the position where you feel the very first sign of tightening or pulling in the muscle group.
  3. Remain still and wait patiently for that sensation to disappear.
  4. Only then do you lean or bend further in the direction of the stretch.
  5. Again feel the first sign of the stretch, and repeat the steps above.

There are many good books on the market that give the positions for stretching. Most of them should suffice, as long as there is no undue pressure put on any joint. You are probably safe doing some basic techniques you already know. To stretch correctly you must not rush, must not push to where it hurts and you must patiently await the muscle’s natural release of tension.

Stretching For Flexibility
Athletes often injure themselves by stretching improperly. Either they warm up a bit before engaging in their activity and then stretch afterward, or they stretch too much in the beginning and not enough at the end of it.

It is imperative that athletes warm up thoroughly and then stretch properly prior to the activity and after the activity. Athletes must warm up to stimulate blood flow and increase body temperature to allow the muscles to become supple.

Then stretching to elongate the muscle resting length can begin so the activity does not tear anything. After the activity the athlete should stretch in order to soothe the muscles and help prevent them from cramping.

Sounds time consuming, I know, but doesn’t chronic pain take more time from you?

For athletes I recommend a method of stretching called muscle energy technique (MET). This is similar to proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), but is not as rigorous and potentially damaging to the athlete if done incorrectly. And remember, correct stretching is what is important. Here’s what you do:

  1. Isolate the muscle or muscle group you want to stretch.
  2. Find the position where you feel the very first sign of tightening or pulling in the muscle group.
  3. Apply resistance for that muscle in the opposite direction you are trying to stretch into.
  4. Only apply 20 percent of your strength in the resistance. Maintain a steady pressure at that level for seven to 14 seconds.
  5. Release the resistance, but do not allow your stretching limb to change position by either flexing or extending. Wait five seconds.
  6. Slowly glide deeper into your stretch, until you feel the next level of pull, and repeat the above steps.

While many of the MET stretches require a partner, enough of them can be done alone. Since PNF stretches are gaining more publicity these days you can pick up a book or video on them. But use the MET method above.

Essentially they are the same, but PNF requires more force for a longer duration and from deeper positions. MET is the way to go, especially if you are not properly trained in PNF and want to avoid injuries. Moreover, simply relaxing into the stretch is too time consuming for athletes who need the extra time to warm up and cool down.

—Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley

is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach.

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