Do you feel that you keep stretching your muscles but that you’re not getting any more flexible? There are many reasons why muscles can be resistant to gaining length. Stretching for gaining range requires proper frequency, duration, force, technique and sometimes even outside assistance.
Frequency of stretching is important. If you need to gain muscle length, then stretching only when you exercise is not enough. Stretching before and after you exercise will help prevent injury and will maintain your current muscle length, but it will not increase muscle length. Stretching frequently through the day is the most effective way of stretching. A minimum of three times a day is needed to gain muscle length. Once you have gained sufficient length, stretching once a day and when you exercise will be sufficient to maintain muscle length.
How long is long enough? Studies have shown that the most effective duration of stretching is 18-30 seconds. Rushing through stretches is ineffective because the tissues require time to adapt to the new length. This time dependant characteristic of soft tissues is known as creep and has to do with the fluid content of all soft tissues. If you visualize a viscous fluid, you can see that it takes time to move. That’s why stretching needs time. Longer duration stretches have not been shown to gain significantly more range than does 30 seconds. I recommend either two sets of 30 seconds or three sets of 20 seconds each time you stretch.
When most people are asked how to strengthen abdominal muscles, they respond by answering ‘crunches’ or ‘sit-ups’. Both of these answers are correct. Crunches are basically a refinement of the sit-up, allowing for better isolation of the muscle with fewer low back (lumbar spine) complications.
How hard should you stretch? If you took a rubberband and you stretched it lightly, it would return to its previous length once you stopped. This also occurs with muscle due to its elastic properties when stretched within its elastic limit. If you took that same rubberband and stretched it very hard, you would probably break it. Now you probably won’t break your muscle by stretching it too hard, but you can cause microtears that will result in pain, inflammation, and ultimately tighter muscles. However, if you stretch the rubberband past its “elastic limit” but not hard enough to break it, it will ultimately deform and become longer. This is your goal when stretching muscles. A stretch should be moderate, not painful. If during your stretch the sensation of stretch lightens, you can add more force. If you’re sore the day after stretching, you’re stretching too hard.
Isolating the muscle you want to stretch is important in order to gain length. This can be harder to do than you might think. Lets look at the hamstrings. Many people stretch their hamstrings by doing the “hurdler stretch” or some type of “touching the toes” exercise. The problem with these stretches is that most of the movement is occurring in the low back and therefore not isolating the hamstrings. A better and also safer stretch is to lie on your back with the opposite leg slightly bent if needed, bring your knee up to your chest holding it behind the knee. Then hold the thigh steady and attempt to straighten the knee. This will isolate the hamstring and protect the back. A standing hamstring stretch can be done by putting your leg on a stool or chair with the knee straight. If you can’t stand up straight – put it on something lower. To stretch it, bend forward by pivoting at your hips not bending your back. If you do it right your buttock will be sticking out behind you! In all stretches of the leg and hip muscles it is important that your back is neither bending nor arching.
If you’re sure that you’re stretching correctly and frequently enough and you still feel tight, the problem may not be lack of muscle length but lack of muscle play. Lets use the rubberband analogy again. If the rubberband has a knot tied in it, you could stretch it all day but the knot would still be there. You have to untie it. This is true for the muscles too. If they lack muscles play, i.e., the ability for a muscle belly to move side to side, then stretching isn’t enough. Specific soft tissue massage or mobilization may be needed in order to allow the muscle to stretch. This is where the good manual physical therapist or massage therapist can be helpful.
People who are tight hate to stretch. But if it’s done correctly, it will get easier and easier and soon it will start to feel good.