In the previous part of “How not to stretch” I talked about setting realistic goals. Let’s assume you’ve done that and are ready to go. Here are the top three errors to avoid.
Error #1: Going too far, too fast.
We all like things to happen right away the moment we realize we want them. I guess it’s just human nature to want quick results. But increasing your flexibility doesn’t work that way. Barring those lucky few exceptions, most of us have to work hard for every inch we get closer to that magical full split. And it takes a long time to boot, with progress always too slow for our tastes.
If you lose your patience and just go at it with a vengeance, you’ll only hurt yourself. Stretching doesn’t work like cramming for a test in high school. Your muscles can’t be forced to become more flexible overnight. They can be coaxed into being more flexible though, if you take your time to listen to them. This means regular stretching sessions, also outside of class, during which you determine what is possible for the day. Here are a few guidelines:
- If you’re having a good day, stretch a bit harder than you normally do.
- If you feel stiff and sore from yesterday’s work out, stretch but don’t push it.
- Depending on how you train, you might have really sore arms one day and exhausted legs the day after. Stretch the parts that are sore with care. Stretch the others a bit harder.
- Some days nothing will work. Don’t push it then; you might be overdoing it. Get extra rest, take a hot bath, go get a massage, basically do something other than stretching but still aimed at relaxing your body. Then try again the day after.
- Measure progress by fractions of an inch. Don’t think you’ll suddenly make huge gains.
That’s how I approach stretching these days. I’m reasonably flexible now: less than when I competed, loads more than when I started training. As long as I can do all my training comfortably, it’s good enough for me.
Error #2: Not being consistent.
This is one of the most common errors I’ve seen with students and clients. They want to be flexible but they’re not in it for the long haul and give up too soon. Once again, this may just be human nature but here’s a saying I like: The sunrise, you get for free every day. Everything else you have to work for. Every single day.
Consistency is the key to pretty much every skill and flexibility is no different. To be consistent, you just have to want it bad enough:
- You want to be more flexible? Work at it, every day.
- You don’t want to stretch every day? Do so every other day, but accept that progress will be slower.
- You don’t want to do even that? Reconsider how much you really want to be flexible and read the first bullet again. Or give up because you don’t want it bad enough.
I can throw high kicks easily now and have done so for decades. But I was stiff as a board when I started training. Pretty much everybody in my class was more flexible than me. But boy did I want to do those flashy kicks… So I worked at it outside of class, pretty much every day. Every so slowly, my range of motion increased and I got better at launching my foot into the face of the guy standing in front of me. Until the day came that I could pull it off all the time. I didn’t have a clue as to how to stretch back then and did almost everything wrong. But I didn’t give up (mainly because I was too stubborn) and got there in the end.
The really cool thing about consistency is this: once you get to a certain level of flexibility, you don’t have to work as hard any more to maintain it than you did just to get there. So ask yourself how much you want it and then go work on it.
Error #3: Disorganized stretching routines
When you pick up a book on stretching, you’ll see loads of exercises to become more flexible in pretty much every joint and muscle you can think off. A lot of practitioners then just do these and hope for the best. Sure, you will become more flexible that way but is it optimal training? In my experience, that’s not the case.
I prefer a more organized approach, one that is tailored to my (or my client’s) body and preferences. Some of this will apply to you too, the rest might not. Here goes:
- Use the right protocol for the right time.
- When I train, I do a general warm up, loosen up everything and then do some dynamic stretching.
- After my work out, I prefer either static stretching or PNF stretching.
- If I feel stiff during the day, I do some relaxed, passive stretches.
- Stretch long enough. If you need to hold a stretch for 30-sec at least, make sure to count to 30 instead of 20 or even forgetting to count. Also, if you get the best results from a 15-min. stretching session, don’t expect the same results from a 5-min. one.
- Stretch in a constructive sequence. Instead of randomly stretching the calves, then triceps and finally your lats, try to follow a sequence that makes sense. Here are some of the ways you can improve your stretching routine:
- Divide exercises in series for the the upper and lower body but also the left and right side.
- Stretch agonist and then antagonist. E.g.: Biceps and then triceps, pec and then the back muscles.
- Stretch a movement chain. E.g.: I get the best results when I stretch in this order: Lower back, calves and then hamstrings. If I stretch the hamstrings first, the tension in the calves and my lower back muscles work against the stretch.
You’ll have to do some reading and experimenting to see what works for you but you might be surprised at the improvement when you start organizing your exercises a bit differently.
That’s it for this part of the “How not to stretch”-guide. Before I go on, I have to confess to having lied through my teeth: there is a short cut to increased flexibility. Certain exercises will make you heaps more flexible in only a matter of minutes. But you’ll have to wait for the next part to find out which ones. Ha! :-)
UPDATE: Here’s part five of this guide on “How not to stretch”.