Stretching is one of the best ways to improve your flexibility and range of motion. It promotes circulation and keeps the joints and muscles flexible, allowing the body to remain supple and vibrant. When your fascia is feeling supple and hydrated, it gives you a sense of spaciousness and connectedness to your body as the nerves in the fascia can optimally communicate with our brain. The connective tissue in your body is also partly responsible for your proprioception, your body’s sense of where it is in space and how it relates to itself. Feeling a slight pull in the muscle in a way that’s not totally comfortable is a positive thing – it means you’re working to increase your flexibility. A productive strength should feel slightly uncomfortable but any stabbing or sharp pain is a no-go.
While stretching can alleviate compression and improve flexibility, over-stretching can be counter productive and actually lead to stiffness. Over-stretching happens when you stretch your muscles beyond their capacity in terms of flexibility and range of motion. It means the length of the tissue is greater than ones ability to control said length. It can also infer that a muscle is stretched past its point of natural elasticity and healthy tissue length. This can often happen in those with hyper-mobile joints as they have really loose ligaments which allow the joint to move further than it needs to.
Within the muscle belly lies ‘spindles’ which are sensory receptors that pick up the speed and intensity of a stretch. If a stretch is too fast or too intense, the spindles trigger a reflex arc to the spinal cord and back to the muscles to contract in order to avoid tearing muscle fibres. We want to stretch further but our spindles intercede to protect us, resulting in stretching with a feeling of stiffness and resistance, locked into a contraction and going nowhere. To keep the muscle spindles at bay, think of lengthening into softness and maintain that length over time. This will allow the spindles to habituate to the new length and fire less frequently.
Over-stretching can also cause ligament damage. Ligaments are designed to support each joint and can get more and more relaxed from excessive stretching. If over-stretching continues it can cause internal shifting of the joint surfaces against each other. By decreasing the integrity of the ligaments, it can also cause wear and tear on cartilage leading to joint pain and degeneration.
There’s a fine line between challenging our muscles in order to increase our flexibility and hurting ourselves. Not warming up prior to stretching is the primary reason strains and pulls occur. Warming up consists of the inclusion of dynamic movements that will encourage the circulation of blood around the body and increase the range of motion. Once the body is warm, we can progress into static stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) – stretching that contracts and holds a targeted muscle in a stretched position. To learn more about the importance of warming up, have a look at our other article here.