Stretching’s a bad idea – true or false?

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Stretching can pull you into strange shapes

Stretch! – but could it be bad for you?

So, you’re combatting mid-life aches and stiffness with some healthy exercise.  Maybe running, tennis?  Or perhaps you are doing some yoga and/or Pilates?

They say you should stretch after exercise.  Some people say you should stretch before exercise too.  Lots of people talk about stretching as being part of yoga.

It feels pretty good, too.

Beforehand, you maybe need a bit of enlivening, and your stretch gives you a nice extra awareness of your body before you start – just as a stretch can have that effect when you first get out of bed.

And afterwards, when you muscles may well have tightened up with all that exertion, your stretch gives a feeling of release and calming-down.

And you know that they say you should stretch gently, but you get a much stronger sensation if you go just that teeny bit further – and you can’t believe that that’s bad for you.  It feels so good!

And anyway, you need to keep your flexibility up there with that of your friends, or with that of the person on the next mat…

Nothing like a bit of competition to spur us all on!

Stretching feels good, but how good is it?

The trouble with stretching is that it provokes the “stretch reflex”.

The stretch reflex is a very important protective mechanism for our muscles.  When the fibres in our muscles are pulled apart, as they are when we stretch, they send a nerve signal to our spinal column, which immediately sends one back to the muscle to contract against that pulling apart, to protect against the risk of the muscle being torn.  This mechanism by-passes – or, strictly, never gets as far as – the brain, is extremely quick, and is completely involuntary.  In other words, it’s a reflex, and there’s no stopping it.

So, when you stretch after exercise, it may feel good, but your muscles are actually being stimulated to tighten, rather than to free up.

Of course, we often feel freer after stretching, but this comes from having stretched our ligaments, not our muscles.  And our ligaments take a long time to recover from being stretched.

Muscle mechanics

But if stretching is a bad idea, but muscles have tightened after exercise (or stress!), what can be done?

The answer to this question becomes clear with a bit more knowledge about how our muscles work.

When we contract a muscle, this happens as a result of a nerve signal sent from the brain (or, in the case of the stretch reflex, from the spinal column) to the muscle.  The muscle responds to this signal by shortening.

But there is no equivalent de-contraction signal available for the brain to send.  The choice is either ‘contract’ or ‘do nothing’.  The physiological names for these messages are ‘excitatory’ and ‘inhibitory’.

Fortunately, when a muscle receives an inhibitory, ‘do nothing’, message, it will have a tendency to de-contract (i.e. lengthen, or free up).

Biceps contracting, triceps passive

Biceps contracts, triceps is passive

So when we bend our arm at the elbow, our biceps receives a ‘contract’ (excitatory) signal from the brain; and the triceps, on the back of the upper arm, receives a ‘do nothing’ (inhibitory) message.  And when we straighten the arm from its bent position, the opposite happens.

Sadly, many of us are really good at sending ourselves excitatory signals to contract our muscles, and less good at sending inhibitory signals to ease them off again.  And stretching has a tendency only to reinforce this pattern, through the stretch reflex.

The alternative to stretching

From all this, it follows that what we can do is practice the inhibitory messages, so that our muscles have the opportunity to lengthen and regain elasticity.

We can practise this type of inhibition at any moment of our lives, but in the after-exercise setting where we started this article, you could try adopting the usual position for a stretch, and then instead of stretching in your usual way, bring the thought of ‘doing nothing’ or ‘allowing to lengthen’ to mind in respect of the muscles you would otherwise have stretched – and make sure you don’t try to force it to happen.

This will for sure take a little longer, and you may not move as far as you would if you ‘stretched’ the muscles.  But you will in this way avoid the stretch reflex, preserve your ligaments, and help your muscles to remain flexible, elastic, and strong.

And try working with inhibitory messages at other times too.  You can even try counter-intuitive things like sending inhibitory ‘do nothing’ messages to your hips and ankles as you walk down the street – you may be surprised what happens!

Once you’ve established a climate of inhibitory, un-excited messages to your muscles, a brief, gentle stretch will feel better than ever, and give a lively ‘zing’ to your muscles.  But you’ll need to practice, and feel the effects of, the inhibitory messages first.

Over to you

Do let me know what you find with these ‘do nothing’ messages in the Comments below.  You’re sure to find something if you try it – even if only that you haven’t quite found the mental wave-length to make a difference.  Even that can be a useful discovery – there are lots of other ways to tackle it if you need them!

What next?

If you’d like to hear more on this and related topics, sign up below for my fortnightly articles – you’ll be the first to know when new ones are published.

Or contact me here to arrange some Toe-in-the-water lessons with me.

I shall look forward to hearing from you.

Photo credits:

Stretch! – monkeybusiness/depositphotos.com

Biceps contracts – pixelchaos/depositphotos.com

4 Responses to Stretching’s a bad idea – true or false?

  1. T Shah November 10, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    I noticed a lightness in walking when I directed, ‘do nothing’, to my hips and ankles. However, ordinarily during my heavy walking, I’m also ‘not doing’ anything, consciously that is. So why do you think there is such a qualitative difference between directed and undirected, not doing? Is it that the conscious not doing overrides the unconscious habitual tensing (doing)?

    I’m delighted with the result regardless, just a bit puzzled about why this happens.

    • Peter December 14, 2015 at 10:43 am #

      Hi Tulika – it sounds like you’re experiencing the difference between ‘inhibition’ and ‘habit’. When you give no conscious thought to the activity you are engaged in, habit rules; but that doesn’t mean you are not tensing more than you need to. It just means you are not aware of it, as it is so normal for you. The conscious not-doing is you making a decision not to tighten, which in physiology and AT is called ‘inhibition’ – it is more (consciously) mentally active than allowing (unconscious) habit to rule, but involves a lot less tightening/stiffening in the muscles. You experience a difference because it is genuinely different from the normal, habitual, way of doing things. It’s a bit of a paradox that the habitual feels like doing nothing, but that is in the nature of habit – we don’t notice it because it is so ingrained.
      In the context of stretching, a stretch in an habitual (i.e. not inhibition-led) mind-set will almost certainly result in more tightening; pause to establish active inhibition first, and a gentle stretch will be much more ease-ful.
      Hope that helps!

  2. Sarah Compton March 1, 2016 at 10:18 pm #

    Hi Peter, Just wondering if you have any ideas as to why cats and dogs and even my horse, have a jolly good stretch in the mornings when they wake up. Each species goes through a similar routine – legs in front, arch spine, bum in air, then back legs stretched out behind and spine stretched the opposite way. The horse even gives himself an “under-arm” stretch sometimes by hooking a front foot over his strong wooden fence and leaning back and breathing out! Other times he puts his two front feet way out in front and leans down into them, stretching his ribs, backside up in the air like the cats and dogs. He also stretches his neck by putting his nose to the ground and raising his spine, and has a wonderful grunty exhale while he does so. I guess the animals are not doing themselves any damage by stretching beyond what they are easily capable of, but they clearly love to do it, and it seems to be instinctual across the species. I also don’t think they are going around habitually tightening themselves the whole time like us humans.

    • Peter March 2, 2016 at 10:24 am #

      Hello Sarah, this a very good point. The key to it lies in your last sentence – the stretching that animals do is in what I think of as an ‘untightened environment’. In other words, their stretch is a kind of enlivening, rather than against a contracting resistance. Of course, humans can set up an ‘untightened environment’ too – that is part of what Alexander Technique is aiming for – and occasionally, when the conditions are right, I will encourage a gentle stretch in my Alexander Technique pupils. But the article above is more general: the stretching done in the park after a run is against tightness, rather than in an already-lengthening environment. I hope that helps to explain it a bit more – but do please come back to me if not!

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