I used to stretch all the time growing up. I would stretch before I worked out. I would stretch after I worked out. I would stretch in the mornings. I would stretch in the evenings. I would stretch all the time because I wanted to improve my joint mobility and make sure that my body was prepared for my workouts. For over a decade, stretching was a staple in my workout routine.
Despite all of that stretching, I never got to the point where I felt really flexible. I would always feel stiff and achy. My muscles felt chronically tight. This persisted until I made one change to how I was doing my “stretching”.
As a personal trainer and Muscle Activation Techniques™ specialist in Schaumburg, the topic of stretching comes up a lot with new clients. Stretching seems like an easy way for most people to improve their health and fitness. The media consistently reminds us that we should be stretching, recommending the practice as if it is always good, all the time, for all people. And we often believe these statements. Besides, for as long as we can remember, we have been told that stretching would be good for us, so that has to make it true, too. Right?
Fortunately, there is one simple change you can make to how you are currently stretching that will not only improve your flexibility results, but it will help make stretching safer for you as well as decrease the amount of time you need to spend stretching. What is this one simple change?
Focus on gently squeezing the muscles that are shortening instead of trying to relax the muscles that are lengthening.
Yup. That’s it. Everything you have ever wanted from stretching but haven’t gotten, all in one simple change in focus.
What does this look like in practice? Let’s take a hamstring stretch, for example. If you are seated on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, you may feel your hamstrings (back of your legs) and lower back muscles “stretch” if you reach your hands forward towards your feet and lean forward as far as you can. Now, the simple change goes like this:
- Instead of focusing on your hamstrings and lower back lengthening, focus on gently squeezing or tensing your quads (thigh muscles) and abs as if you were posing in the mirror.
- You don’t have to tense these muscles very hard or for very long (five to ten seconds).
- After five to ten seconds, relax, sit back up, and then repeat for a total of three to five sets.
The simple change that is being made is that you are trying to get your muscles on the front side of your body (your quads, hip flexors, and abs) to contract a little better. This will, in turn, allow the muscles on the backside of your body (your hamstrings, glutes, and low back muscles) to relax a little more. As the muscles on the front side start to contract better, they will be able to move your joints better, allowing you more range of motion and flexibility while, at the same time, keeping your muscles strong.
This concept can be applied to and followed with any of the stretches that you do. The basic rule of thumb will be to focus on squeezing the muscles that are directly opposite of the ones you are trying to stretch.
Here are some basic backside/frontside muscle pairings to consider:
- Calves and anterior tibialis (shin muscle)
- Hamstrings and quads
- Glutes and hip flexors
- Low back muscles and abs
- Posterior deltoids and pecs
- Lats and anterior deltoids
- Triceps and biceps
With each of the pairs on this list, if you are trying to stretch one, make the simple change by squeezing the other instead.
If you are looking to supercharge your stretching routine, making this one simple change can improve your flexibility and motion while strengthening your muscles and making sure your joints stay protected. All of this can result in more flexibility that lasts longer with fewer feelings of tightness and achiness. Try it out and leave a comment below letting us know how it went!
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