Three Principles for Stretching

Last week, I shared three fitness principles to help you work out better on your own. This week, I am going to share three principles to help you stretch and stay mobile in your busy life. Not everyone has time to make it to yoga, let alone can stand doing a yoga class, so think about these three principles next time you have a few minutes to limber up. Ten minutes of effective mobilization is better than an hour of ineffective movement.

Don’t Let Your Head Fool You

Often I see people doing the junior high gym classic “bend over and touch the toes to stretch the hamstrings” stretch or the “my back is tight” twist in a chair. People think they are stretching when indeed they just have the appearance of stretching because their spatial awareness has changed as a result of their head moving. Just because your neck is twisting while you’re turning through the chair, doesn’t mean your back has rotated enough to sufficiently stretch your back. Keep your head in alignment with your torso by imagining you’re wearing a neck brace -- no movement to either direction, up or down or sideways. I also often see this tactic when people are doing the pigeon stretch, the pretzel, side bends, and quad stretches.

Keep Your Back In Alignment

The human body is one big intricate interconnected mass of awesomeness. To keep functioning at peak awesomeness, keep a neutral spine while stretching will help the body stretch more effectively. Think about how your back is positioned when you are stretching.

If your back is bends forward (like in touching the toes), then you’re probably losing stretch in the back half of your body (the posterior chain). If your back is arching during a stretch (like in a classic quad pull), you’ve probably lost tension on the front half of your body (the anterior side). For the former, you’re likely reinforcing a bad motor pattern of forward hunching we get from sitting all our lives. For the latter, you’re probably putting undue pressure on your low back from too much extension.

Here are some quick tips to help your back position while stretching (assuming you’re not laying on your back for these).

First, pull your shoulder blades back and down together. This tightens the upper back and has a big tightening effect down your spine. Don’t believe me? Try bending over at your waste with soft shoulders vs tight, pulled back shoulders.

With soft shoulders, everything gives way down the back and all those muscles have to hit their end range of motion before they start to pull on the hamstrings. With tight shoulders, movement is limited there and you *should* have a better block of muscle to stretch the hamstrings. Also, think about the strength of your hamstrings versus your small back muscles: if you’re stretching the smaller muscle to get to the bigger muscle, isn’t that undue pressure on those muscles as well? Just a thought.

Second, get tight through your belly. Sufficient bracing through your abs/core/midsection helps stiffen the lower back to prevent “movement shift” through there while you stretch. Give it a try. Try doing a standing quad stretch without bracing your belly. Then, try a standing quad stretch with a tight belly (think squeezing your ribs down with your abs) and see if you feel a shift of pressure from your low back to your quad. Often, your bodies find ways to fulfill the brain’s commands by finding the path of least resistance, “shifting” the pressure from one part of the body to another. Keeping your core braced will help that.

Add Some Resistance to Your Stretch

Using a towel, a twisted up shirt, or a large elastic band during your stretches can make them more effective -- working your muscle through a range of motion it doesn’t usually get in to. For instance, lay on your back, take a towel, put it over your foot and pull your foot up. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings (don’t let your hips come off the ground ;) ). Next, apply pressure to the towel by pulling it toward you; soften your knee so your leg moves a little bit with the towel; finally, keeping the pressure, slowly extend your leg to a straightened position. This will more actively extend the muscle, rather than passively stretching.

You can apply this to stretching to any muscle. Want to stretch your trap? Grab the bottom of your chair with one arm and lean away then actively pull yourself with your shoulder back to upright position. Want to stretch your lats? Grab a door handle, sit back in to a hinge, relax your shoulder blade to get a big stretch through your lat, then actively squeeze your shoulder blade to its normal position. You should feel some tension release on any of these stretches.

Enjoy these three principles of stretching. Let me know if you have any questions -- you can take a video of you doing a stretch and send it to me at @samuelpfister on Instagram and I’ll give feedback on how it looks!

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