The secrets of stretching
Lately I have had quite a few inquiries that go something like this: I need to get flexible for gymnastic strength training; I don’t have time to read all the stuff on the forums. I have been doing program X, and making no progress, and my GST has stalled too, because I do not have enough ROM to do the movements. Please just tell me what to do!
Well: if I could do that, I would have done it (and saved myself a lot of time, too). If it were simple, everyone would be flexible. And in our work, we distinguish between mobility (we call it limbering) and stretching. Limbering is re-attaining yesterday’s flexibility. Stretching (using many techniques) takes you into new ranges of movement. So, with no more ado, the secrets to becoming more flexible are these:
You need to find out where your body is blocked—you will have loose parts, too. You do not need to work hard on these. You need to work on your tightest bits once a week, but you need that workout to be serious—by this I mean that if (for example) your gracilis and inner hamstring is preventing you from getting your legs apart, then you need to do those specific exercises (bent-leg Cossack squat, for example, or standing wide-leg elephant walk), and a few times in a single session, but only do one session a week. If you are super keen, once every four or five days is possible, too. Experiment to find this frequency yourself; no instruction can find this for you.
This frequency of practise recommendation is because you will be sore after doing a serious session on any one particular part. You will be using contractions, and a number of other neural techniques to momentarily increase your ROM, and then you need to recover. Forgetting to do this, or being impatient and wanting to get more flexible faster, will stop the process. “Recovery” is the least understood aspect of adaptation, but let me spell it out here: “stretching” as an action is simply the stressor, or the trigger, for adaptations that happen over the next 72 (or more) hours. The improvement you may experience in a session is not significant; only changes over time are. Your cold, no warm-up, flexibility is the only one you own, and is the one you should use to calibrate your progress, and only test this occasionally. Otherwise it will become your next obsession.
The ‘not doing’ is the most important secret, assuming you have done the right exercises, and this is because the body absolutely needs time to recover from any serious stretching. The DOMS you will feel will be very similar to what you feel after doing a new heavy weightlifting or bodybuilding exercise. Adaptation is invisible and intangible. Forcing yourself to get a ROM (range of movement) you had last week leads to injury city. In fact, intermediate and advanced students hurt themselves more often than beginners, perhaps surprisingly, because they ‘know’ (actually “think” is the key point here) they are flexible; they want a particular ROM, and that desire overwhelms the messages (sensations) coming from the body.
You need to do mobility exercises daily, but not to the point of trying to improve ROM. This is subtle. Mobility work is to recapture yesterday’s flexibility and is done to keep things loose. As before, only by trying many different mobility exercises can you know which ones your body needs. For example, I squat every day, and do the bent-legged Cossack squats every day, because that’s what my body needs. You might need something different, and only you can find this out, by trying many different exercises. The ones you suck at are far and away the most important. It can be discouraging in the beginning!
You need to do the specific exercises and the mobility work without regards to the outcome. Instead of being outcome oriented (one of the diseases of western civilisation), practise feeling your body as it’s stretching or limbering. Ask yourself, ‘how does that feel?’ ‘What change of angle can I make to strengthen (or reduce) the sensation?’ ‘Can I relax more?’ ‘Do I add movement here, or is being still required?’ If you ask, an answer will come.
Everything will change, but the daily experience may be that nothing is changing. It is, but you cannot perceive it. One day you’ll be doing something, and you will realise that you are (say) touching your toes with straight legs while sitting on the floor, something you could not do a few months ago, but everything feels the same.
There are sex-specific differences, speaking generally. More women than men can increase ROM by relaxing into the sensation. More men than women need to get stronger at the end of any ROM for the brain to let go of the protective tension that stops you going further. These are intersecting sets, however, and many people find that these guidelines apply to different parts of their own body. In saying this, I mean any particular man or woman may find that they can relax some parts of the body into a deeper stretch, but need to strengthen other parts to let go of the tension. Again, only experimenting can reveal this to you.
Often people ask, ‘how hard should I stretch‘, or ‘what is the correct intensity to stretch?’ This is simple, but counter-intuitive. First the ST protocol: slowly get into a stretch position > relax into that > contract (apply force with the muscles that are being stretched—this will always be the opposite of the direction you used to move into the stretch) for a period of time > stop contracting > take a breath in > as you breathe out, let the whole body, especially the tummy, go soft > take in another breath and in the period of breathing out > go a little deeper, with full awareness of the sensations. If you tense up, or your tummy tightens, you have gone a little bit too far; back off > stay in the end position; small movements or tiny contractions can be done, as long as you do not begin to resist again. So—how hard? Only as intense as you can actually relax into. As you practise, your capacity to relax into intense sensations increases, not decreases. When you are re-stretching, you must let your tummy relax—not as a concept (so common with beginners: “Whadd’ya mean—I am relaxed!”), but as a conscious action: ‘Now I let my tummy go completely soft’. Actually feel it go soft. Ask someone to feel your tummy: this is the litmus test. Most likely, you will think you are relaxed, but will be holding protective tension still. This is a habit; it can be changed.
Unlike strength and aerobic training, flexibility work experiences the most resistance to change in the beginning. In contrast, when doing strength or aerobic work, your progress is always fastest at the beginning. This is why beginners in these fields can make progress using literally any routine. This difference is why most people give up flexibility and mobility work: they stop before the ‘critical mass’ point is reached. That point is found somewhere between six months and two years from starting stretching. Once you become flexible, your speed of progress increases actually. Most people never experience this, either, for the same reason: they stop too soon.
Doing relaxation practises supercharges your progress. Modern humans will tell you that “they are too busy to relax” or that they “do not have time to do those practises as well [as all the other practises they are doing]”. If that’s you, you need to do more relaxation!
This is the ‘Zen of stretching’.