Good day, everyone. I hope you have enjoyed my previous post on how flexibility happens and what role the Central Nervous System (CNS) plays in it. If you have not had a chance yet to read the article I would suggest that you do so. You can find it here. It will help you get a better understanding of this post.
After my morning stretching session, a part of which you can see in this post’s picture (yes it is me), I decided to share some other aspects of the flexibility training. At my gym I often see people stretch almost every day with no or little progress over a long time. One lady spends an hour stretching every second day yet has the same flexibility she had twelve months ago.
Stretch almost every day - no or little progress
Why after having stretched for years one might not get a significant improvement in their flexibility? By “significant improvement” I mean going from 90 degrees at the hips to “stomach on the laps” position doing the hamstrings stretch or “stomach on the floor with flat lower back” with the pancake stretch. I am not going to say “They stretch wrong!” because it will be not a 100% accurate statement.
A stretch is a stretch. It is a simple activity. You elongate a muscle till you start perceiving some light (or not light) discomfort aka “good stretch”. If you feel it then the muscle is being stretched. Done. You cannot go wrong with it unless you pull the muscle too hard tearing its tendons.
Then why is there no progress? As odd as it might sound the less flexible you are the less stretch you need. Let’s talk about the hamstrings stretch for example.
Why is there no progress?
You got to the gym, you do your hamstring stretch for 20-40 minutes, 3-4 sets of 30-60 sec hold each. Great. After you go home, rest and come back tomorrow or the day after tomorrow and do the same. And that is what we do not want to do. We do not want to stretch the same muscles every day or every second day or even every third day. We want to have three, four or five days in between. Why?
We do not want to stretch the same muscles every day
At the beginning of your flexibility crusade when you are still “stiff”, after every stretching session (as described above, not after a light warm-up or cool down stretch), you feel some discomfort/tenderness/good pain in your stretched muscles. The reason you receive any sensory input from the numerous body parts is that the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) conducts signals, caused by different stimuli, from the nerves in those body parts into the Brain. If you perceive that signals as painful or uncomfortable it means that there is a tissue damage in that body part.
There is a tissue damage
Indeed there is. When you stretch the hamstrings you challenge their flexibility limit which at this point quite low. It makes the Brain tighten the hamstrings to resist stretching. This causes micro damages to the muscle fibers, similar to ones we get after weightlifting.
Stretching causes micro damages to the muscle fibers
Now if you stretch the hamstrings too soon then the Brain will tighten them even more to prevent any further damages in addition to the existing ones. As a result, you feel a good stretch when in reality the hamstrings are stretched less than the day before. You might not notice a change in your range of motion as we are talking about millimeters.
You feel a good stretch when in reality you stretch less
Not only do we miss the full potential length of stretching but we also keep the existing muscles micro damages going on for ….days….weeks…years. To make the things worse the Brain also has not enough time to make changes within itself to extend the hamstrings’ stretching limit (see my previous post).
The Brain also has not enough time to make changes within itself
The solution? Stretch less often. Wait for 3-5 days (NO stretching AT ALL). This time will be sufficient for the hamstrings to complete recovery and the Brain to make changes and increase the hamstrings’ stretching limit.
Stretch less often
Now you might say “But kids and gymnasts stretch every day! How come?”. Kids are a different topic but briefly, their CNS’ protective response (tightening the muscles) is less susceptible to greater stretching due to a lack of “bad lifestyle” experience such as sitting in an office for hours, working at a desk etc.
But kids and gymnasts stretch every day! How come?
Adults with good flexibility like Gymnasts who have already trained their CNS not to tighten the muscles while stretching can do it every day, twice a day or more. Simply because they do not experience muscle tissue micro damages after their flexibility training owing to the fact that the Brain does not resist stretching keeping the muscles relaxed.
They do not experience muscle tissue micro damages
But until we are at that stage we need to take stretching easy and allow a significant time to rest in between. In this case the less is more. Stretch wisely and thank you for reading my article.
The less is more