Things I’ve learned about stretching:
First rule of any fitness: If it hurts, stop.
There’s a difference between tension and pain. Tension is something you can work through. Pain is a sign to step back.
Dynamic and Static stretching are different, and to understand it’s helpful to think of a rubber band. If you take a rubber band our of a freezer and pull on it, chances are it will snap. If you warm the rubber band up first, it will slowly expand the range it can stretch. It’s the same thing with Dynamic and Static stretching. Dynamic stretching (pulsing into a stretch rather than just holding it) is great when you’re starting a workout, and Static is great for cooling down. BUT IT’S NOT JUST THAT CLEAR CUT.
Once you get used to the difference, you can use Dynamic and Static stretching interchangeably to get the most out of a movement. Say you’re bending to the ground with straight legs and you’re not getting as far as you’d like, stop. Gently bend your knees. Then cycle back and forth, straightening alternate legs. You’ll probably find that in those small increments, you can stretch further than you could in a Static stretch. Once your legs feel sufficiently warmed up, try going back to Static stretching, straightening both legs. It’s likely that you’ll be able to stretch deeper than previously. You can do this again and again until you have the stretch you’re looking for.
Once again, if it hurts, stop.
You can step back and recalibrate at any point. If something doesn’t feel right, ask yourself why that is. Can you gently change the angle? Rotate somehow? Move other parts of your body to stimulate different muscles? Here’s an example. Spread your fingers out as wide as they go. Now bend your index finger. Bend your hand forwards and back. Feel what the movement does. Now try this with your middle finger bent instead. Move through all your fingers one by one. Do you feel how it engages different parts of your hand? These are all technically mildly different stretches with different applications. If you do this with rotating your wrist instead of bending your hand, do you feel a difference? It’s the same with most stretches. If you’re bending to the ground with straight legs, what happens if you rotate your torso? Trying new things out is a great way of exploring how your body is connected, and may lead to releasing tension in areas you didn’t realise you were holding them.
I must repeat, if at any point it hurts, stop.
Just because you know that a particular muscle is sore, it doesn’t mean you can take care of it right away. Sometimes particular muscles are near inaccessible until you’ve relaxed the surrounding muscle. Say you have a sore knee, and stretching isn’t helping. Could you try stretching your ankle? Your quads? Your abductors (outer leg) and adductors (inner leg)? Your IT band (a long thread that runs from your knee to the outside of your hip. You probably have IT band issues, we all do)? They’re all connected in ways we don’t realise. The good news is that once you stretch all the surrounding musculature, the particular muscle is likely a) already feeling some relief and b) far easier to work into.
BE PATIENT. Never rush. If you’ve just done a deep stretch, please do not pull out of it quickly. Slowly release that tension. Remember what I was saying about the cold rubber band earlier? Same thing. Work back into it. If you’ve been stretching your knee, maybe start by gently wiggling your toes. Then rock your foot from side to side. Rotate your ankle. THEN start to straighten your leg. I know it sounds silly to spend upwards of 30 seconds to a minute coming down from a stretch, but if the goal of stretching is either healing or preventative action, take care of yourself and spend the time.
Learn to tighten your core. If you can tighten your core, it helps you isolate particular muscles without putting unneccessary strain on supporting muscles. Stretching with isolation is an entirely different level of stretching.
It’s very helpful to examine your framing around stretching. Is it something you do to get you ready for a workout? Or are you looking for long term change? They have different applications.
The bad news is that stretching for long term change is not as quick a process as most of us would like. Some things take a long time, and the bigger issue it is, the longer it takes. There’s pain management, and there’s fixing body trauma. The more you learn about stretching, the more there is to learn. You may even realise just how much tension you’ve been holding, and be amazed by how long you’ve been holding it.
The good news: The way you think about your body might be wrong. Things that you assume are the way your body works might be patterns you’ve created around ingrained and normalised tension. These are things you can change, and potentially fix.
Story time: Last week I was thinking about that thing where you put an arm behind your back and reach over with the other arm to grab it. Ever since I was a child, I’ve only been able to do it with my left arm behind my back. So I tried to consciously think about what would need to happen to do it with both arms. I pulled my right arm behind my back, and gradually inched it up. I got a thick rubberised band and grabbed one end with my right hand. I pulled my right hand behind my back, and used my left hand to pull on the other end of the band from above. Then I noticed there was tension at the front of my right shoulder. I did a chest stretch with my right arm taught, and felt around the front of my right shoulder for where the pain was centred. I pressed down on that spot with a finger on my left hand. While flexed, I massaged this spot and gently worked out the tension. I tried the arm behind my back thing again. I did it. For the first time in my entire life, I could reach my right hand behind my back and grab it with my left.
This whole process took five minutes. Five minutes, with the right knowledge, meant I could correct something I didn’t know wasn’t working right. Take whatever metaphor you want from this.
That’s also not the extent of it. In the past ten or so days I fixed wrist issues I’ve been dealing with since I fractured my ulnar styloid two years ago. I released a whole block of tension in my back I thought was just how my back worked. My entire back eased up. I did not know that your whole lower back was not supposed to tighten when you tighten your core. Things had been that way for so long, I thought that was standard. My body physically is different now. My shoulders are not constantly taut. My back was literally swollen with tension, and that has all receded.
Around ten years ago I tore my PCL. Knee pain has been a constant in my adult life. Last week I spent over an hour working on my knee. Testing each point of articulation, breathing deep and gradually working my way through it. My knee no longer hurts. Seriously. Over a decade of daily pain, and it’s gone. Whoosh. I could not believe it. I’m not saying it’s fixed forever, but it’s at such a low level that it’s incredibly easy to maintain, and I know how to ease it back to normalcy going on. If you told me two weeks ago I’d be without knee pain now I would have loudly and rudely laughed in your face. And enjoyed it. Turns out, things we think we know aren’t always true.
The worst and best part is, I still have so, so much to learn.