Stretching is to flexibility training, what doing a workout is to strength training. Which is to say, any one session may feel good, you can lift a weight and do a stretch and it will feel satisfying, but any single training session in isolation is kind of meaningless. I don’t mean to be a hard-ass about it or overly pessimistic. When you’re calorie-obsessed, yeah a workout that burns a lot of calories will feel useful, but if you want to progress in some way, if you want to change the condition of your muscles or body, of course it’s the accumulated benefit of your training that has meaning.
But we’ve all been told before that a workout here or there means nothing, we’ve all been told consistency is key, and then we’re usually shamed in an attempt to inspire our sense of commitment. What’s the endgame to that, really?
The only way to commit to something without burning your soul in the process is if it’s something that’s meaningful to you. If you both care about the endgame, and you enjoy the process, then you’re on a winner. You may work hard, but it won’t be hard work turning up. And often the progress that is meaningful to us is meaningless to others. They will ask why do you dedicate your efforts to this thing? Why do you stretch if it won’t make you thin?
On the upside, nobody shames anyone when it comes to flexibility. Look at that dude, man he’s so ripped but he can’t even touch his toes. SHAME! Let’s laugh at him now, publicly, and tell him he’s not allowed to leave the gym until he can do the splits or some such!
And anyway, shame aside, my job isn’t to convince you that flexibility training is worthwhile. You may be interested or not. As you please.
I want to start by pointing out that stretching has to be progressive, you can’t just take a passive approach to your development and also progress over time. If you do care about improving your flexibility, then we can talk.
There’s a lot online now about progressive strength training. People get that you need to do work over time in order to grow strong, “progressive overload” is the staple; continuing to challenge yourself with increasingly heavier weights or harder exercises over time.
But in gyms people will still just stretch a bit and feel like the range of motion they have, the flexibility they possess, is all they’re ever going to have. It’s not often progressive.
So how do you make it so, I imagine you asking? It’s based on the same principles. If you’re trying to squat or deadlift or increase your strength in some way, if you can identify your weak point and work on it successfully, then you will be able to break through your plateau. The cliché is to strengthen your glutes, because apparently they’re always weak, so you’ll deadlift or whatever, do your assistance work, target the butt muscles and hamstrings, deadlift some more, then when you’ve got a new weak point, you target that, make it strong, hit a new personal best.
The same approach can be used when trying to progress your flexibility. Rather than just try real hard to touch your toes, what part of that chain is holding you back the most? Calves? Hamstrings, hips, lower back, upper back? Back off, is the first step. Don’t stretch too hard. If you can’t feel where the weak (or tight as it may be) link in the chain is, then you need to ease off. When you push through too hard, you cannot feel a damn thing.
You must be able to feel it. So don’t behave as if you need to be tough when it comes to flexibility training. If you’re an adult, you can’t improve your flexibility by pushing it through and toughing it out. You need to take a different approach.
When you have identified the tight area, target it. Specific stretches, massage, mental relaxation techniques. Too often we believe everything must be done hard. Contract-relax stretching, PNF stretching, is popular. But if you haven’t learned how to relax yet, it’s useless. Then you’re just contracting against something that is barely even a stretch and you have no sensitivity. There’s no elongation. Everything becomes resistance.
If you cannot relax, you cannot contract.
And also, if you cannot relax, you cannot lengthen, and then what will happen when you try to contract? A muscle that has not been turned off cannot be turned on, and even if you squeeze the hell out of it, when you contract a muscle that is not at length, there is no stimulus for it to lengthen. You cannot grow more flexible by squeezing the hell out of an already contracted muscle.
There is no scale if everything is always turned on. Nuance is important. Don’t expect advanced training methods to work for you if you’re a beginner. Leave them for the future, when they become useful, because you know - make it progressive. Go somewhere.
You’ll notice I’m not getting into specifics as yet. It’s a deep ocean, and this is only a short post. But if you can get the mindset right, if you can apply your own investigative mind to the task and pay attention to your own body, you’ll start to work out what you need to focus on, and hopefully if I can blog more frequently I’ll be able to look at some more specifics.
The one thing that I think is the trickiest, is telling the difference between flexibility and joint laxity. You don’t want to just collapse the joints into a deep range of motion. Always work for sensitivity. A stretch, like a workout, should feel good, not bad. It should feel safe, not like you’re about to tear something.
So one more thought before we close:
Seek to feel the stretch in the belly of a muscle, not in a joint. This can be tricky if you’re stretching, say, the shoulders. Better examples for this are hamstrings and calves, because the leg bones are long. If you feel the hamstring stretch in the back of the thigh, in the middle of the upper leg, you know you’re stretching the hamstring. If you feel the stretch behind the knee, are you just collapsing into the joint? Bend the knee a little, you should feel the stretch move up the leg behind the thigh where it should be. If you’re stretching the calves, but you only feel the ankle pinch, then you’re not stretching the calf. You should feel the stretch higher up, in the middle or upper half of the lower leg. If you just feel the ankle pinch, back off, play around with the direction your feet are facing (are they turned out too far, or in?), bend or straighten the knee, see if you can move that stretching sensation into the desired area.
And think progressively. That doesn’t mean just do it harder next time, that means use your mind and think about it. What’s holding you back? What feels safe, and what feels risky?