The Truth About Stretching Part 2 – Aspects of the Intelligent Stretch

Written by Philip Walter on Apr 5 at 5:51 pm in itBODYnature, stretching, The Truth About Stretching

Photo courtesy of
hisashi_0822

So in Part One we learned about proprioception and how the myotatic stretch reflex helps us do a great number of things. We also learned that most muscle and tissue tear injuries (including strains and sprains) occur not as the result of a singular stretch beyond maximum threshold, but because of a combination of extreme stretch on one hand and sudden contraction due to the stretch reflex on the other hand. Finally, we discovered that the sensitivity of the stretch reflex varies according to several factors that affect its “gain.” In this part of the discussion we will establish the basic tenets of intelligent stretching in a practical setting.

The Aspects of Intelligent Stretching

An intelligent stretch accomplishes four main things: 1) it reduces the likelihood of injury, 2) it mitigates residual tension and pain by reducing compression in the various joints of the body and decreasing myofascial density, 3) it gives us access to a greater range of motion, and 4) it increases our neuromuscular connections. All of these things are accomplished by remaining active throughout the stretch.

Active vs. Passive Stretching

Passive stretching, also called static stretching, involves pulling a given muscle and its attached tissues as far as current limitations will allow. This is accomplished by using another part of your body to apply force, asking a friend or trainer to apply force, or using an object such as the floor, a railing, or a door frame for resistance. The problem with this strategy is that it strips your somatic or cellular intelligence from the stretching process. It develops flexibility without strength. Your tissues are blindly and forcefully being stretched to their limits. The impetus for this is the fact that as you work out, you create many individual micro-tears in your muscles. These tears will heal themselves, but in the process also cause shortening to the muscle tissue as the miniature wounds are pulled together to be healed. Stretching after a workout, the theory goes, prevents these tissues from from healing at a shorter length.

As logical as this may sound, it simply has not been proven. In addition to lacking proven efficacy, the passive stretch requires you to give up control of the stretch reflex, which responds to increasing stress with increasing intensity. Therefore, the further you go without consciously mitigating the gain on your stretch reflex, the more likely you are to get some wicked (and possibly injurious) feedback.

One can avoid this trouble by maintaining an active stretch. Active stretching develops flexibility across an increasing range of motion with strength and agility, as opposed to simply pulling at your tissues in an attempt to make them longer. So, how does active stretching work? Below you’ll find a few specifics.

Develop Muscular Traction

Pavel Tsatsoline and Scott Sonnon refer to the use of muscular tension. Godfrey Devereux talks of awakening somatic intelligence and contracting a muscle at its origin and insertion, effectively suctioning the muscle body to the bone. My first yoga teacher, Matt Krepps, talks about the dynamics of lengthening and broadening. These are all essentially the same thing. To me it feels like I’m developing muscular traction. I don’t use different terminology here to be difficult or to claim ownership of something that many before me have already observed, I simply use the term muscular traction because it is easier for me to visualize in practice. I encourage you to think of it however you like.

The concept itself is very simple. Let’s think of your brain as the CPU of your body’s computer. It runs innumerable programs or scripts that allow you to exist in homeostasis and engage in daily activity. Your neuromuscular software is a specific set of programs designed to perform efficient movement. As you go about your daily life – getting out of bed, going to work, resting on the couch, whatever – your brain prioritizes the programs needed to do the things you do. It keeps up with optimal muscle lengths, optimal muscle tension, coordination needed for movements you often make, and in the process it stores some scripts in Random Access Memory (RAM) for easy access, while it files others away on the ol’ hard drive and perhaps even sends a few others to the recycle bin for deletion. Effectively, you’re losing connections – losing traction – in many of the more uncommonly used areas of your neuromuscular network. When the CPU in your skull is then asked to step outside its comfort zone and access an unfamiliar movement script, say if you were to trip on your way to your bathroom in the middle of the night, there is likely to be a system failure.

Asking a muscle to stretch beyond its “comfy length,” or calling upon a wider range of motion around a given joint than you are used to utilizing, causes your built-in safety mechanisms like the stretch reflex go to work in an attempt to avoid system failure. What we want to do is use our stretching to reprogram our neuromuscular operating system. We want to deliberately access more traction throughout more muscle tissue over a greater range of motion. The result of this is that we have a more diverse set of movement scripts in Random Access Memory that can be utilized more quickly when the need arises.

Muscular traction feels like isometric tension. Think of it as using your own muscle strength to lengthen the muscle fibers. This is in contrast to static stretching, which uses some external resistance to bully the tissue into lengthening.

If you take a moment to extend your arms straight out to your sides, you can feel what I am talking about. There will immediately be tight spots. You will feel areas of greater pull, places where tissue is bunched up, places where you have essentially no active connection to your musculature at all. Actively extend out from your shoulder joints all the way down your arms and through your fingertips.

Give it some time. Sense what’s happening.

As those pockets of tension begin to release, press your awareness into those areas – make conscious contact with those muscle cells. This is the development of muscular traction. It is not difficult, but it does take patience. In this regard, the development of muscular tension is really quite unpalatable to us in the irreparably multi-tasked Western World. Just give it time, and you will begin to feel a difference.

Breathe Into Stretch

The importance of deep breathing during stretching cannot be overemphasized. Deep breathing relaxes and energizes all parts of the nervous system, both voluntary and involuntary. Deep chest breathing also enhances the structural integrity of your spinal column and begins the development of muscular traction in the deep musculature of your core. If you diligently employ deep breathing in your stretching routines, you can develop muscular traction from the inside out, giving you a stronger base from which to initiate all movements.

My personal practice has benefited greatly from exploring the subtle muscular contractions that comprise the yogic bandhas. I will not go into any detail here, but if you’re interested in more on this, visit Godfrey Devereux’s website or pick up a copy of his book, Dynamic Yoga, for an unbelievably demystified set of instructions on employing the bandhas in your own practice.

Move Slowly Through Stretch

Stretching is more effective when performed deliberately through a specific range of motion. My practice includes several cycles of moving in and out of a given stretch position before holding it. In this manner you can take advantage of what is known as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), which allows you to convince your stretch reflex to take a little break by actually contracting the muscle you’re trying to stretch. Additionally, since it’s gain rises automatically with force and velocity, moving slowly through stretch gives you more control over the stretch reflex’s volume knob.

Take Advantage of Reciprocal Innervation

Reciprocal innervation refers to the way your spinal cord is wired. As you send a signal to one muscle to contract as an agonist or prime mover muscle, another signal is automatically sent to the opposing antagonist muscle to relax. Therefore, when in a standing forward bend for example, you will always get a greater degree of relaxation in your hamstrings when you contract your quads. This equates to a deeper stretch thanks to the activity and muscular traction employed in the quadriceps muscles.

Now lie down on your back and bring one leg up, attempting to hold it perpendicular to the floor without bending your knee. This is a difficult thing for most of us, and on the face of it, one might think the difficulty is in a lack of flexibility in the hamstrings. However, it’s just as likely that your limiting factor here is inadequate strength to contract the quadriceps hard enough in this position to more deeply relax the hamstrings.

This is an example of how strength can be just as important to stretching as length.

In Summation

The true advantage of flexibility comes in having easily accessible, active control over a greater range of motion. No one will deny the aesthetic value of a person taking the Russian Splits, but the fact is, forcing your body into that position only puts you at risk for injury. Safe, intelligent, effective stretching develops muscular traction by remaining active, which ultimately gives you access to a more diverse set of movement patterns and makes you more prepared for life in general.

Practical Applications

The principles outlined in this article can be applied to any stretch. The idea is to identify areas of tension and decreased range of motion, then to judiciously move to and eventually through those areas. I realize all this talk means little without specific examples of how these principles look in the context of an actual fitness regimen. I have decided not to crowd an article on this site with ump-teen pictures and descriptions of an intelligent stretching routine. Instead I am going to take the next couple of weeks to develop two new Brickhouse Bodymind blueprints. They will be pdf documents, one outlining a pre-workout dynamic stretching warm-up I use in my own daily practice, and the other outlining a post-workout cool-down.

Thanks as always for taking the time to read.

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