How to Improve Stretching

Any intervention that promotes relaxation can improve stretching and compliment any stretching program. Methods of superficial or deep heat, massage, gentle joint distraction, or relaxation training are useful ways to improve stretching. You can improve your results of stretching also by increasing the frequency of stretching.

There are several hypotheses that exist to explain the increase in mobility that results from stretching. Depending on which factor you are trying to influence will determine which method you use to improve a stretch.

How does flexibility increase with stretching
Relaxation Training
Gentle Joint Distraction
Frequency of Stretching 

How does flexibility increase with stretching?

  1. Neural inhibition.  A slow sustained stretch results in a reduction in the stretch reflex allowing the muscle to lengthen further.
  2. Biomechanical changes.  The musculotendinous unit behaves according to its viscoelastic properties.
  3. Increased stretch tolerance.  An individual can stretch further as  their perception of the stretch changes and they become more tolerant of the discomfort.

 We can influence all three of the above using techniques that alter the stretch reflex, alter viscoelasticity, and allow us to tolerate discomfort.

Improve Stretching with Relaxation Training

Total body relaxation training has been used for years through yoga, tai chi, meditation, and qigong. This helps to relieve pain, relax muscles, and reduce anxiety or stress. Relaxation training is also good for  conditions such as hypertension, headaches, and respiratory distress.

Relaxation training reduces muscle tension throughout the body or in the region that is restricted through conscious effort. Examples of relaxation training are as follows:

Autogenic training - Autogenic training was developed by German psychiatrist Heinrich Schultz in 1932. Visualization, autosuggestion , meditation, and a series of exercises are used to induce a tate of relaxation and influence the autonomic nervous system.
Progressive relaxation - Progressive relaxation  was developed in the 1920's by Edmund Jacobson, an American physician, and involves  a distal to proximal progression of  muscle contraction and relaxation to  reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. With eyes closed the individual becomes aware of tension in each muscle group as each is tensed and relaxed
Awareness through movement - This system was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais  to improve muscle imbalances, , relieve muscle tension and pain, and improve postural alignment. This system combines sensory awareness, deep breathing, and movement, and self massage.

Indicators of total body relaxation

  • lowered pulse and respiratory rate
  • vasodilation in the extremities causing increased skin temperature
  • decreased muscle tension
  • little or no body movement
  • eyes closed, flattened facial expression
  • lowered distractibility
  • jaw and hands relaxed, palms open

Improve Stretching with Heat

 Using heat to increase extensibility of muscles is a common practice in the rehabilitative and fitness settings. Studies show that extensibility of muscles, tendons, and ligaments increases as temperature increases. As the temperature increases, the force and time necessary to stretch a muscle also decreases. Sensitivity of muscle spindles decrease, and there is some evidence that post exercise muscle soreness is reduced with a warm up prior to exercising.

Using heat alone without stretching has no effect on improving muscle flexibility. Most studies show that heat combined with stretching produces better long term gains than stretching without heat, although there are studies that show no effect.(1,2,3)

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Improve Stretching with Cold

 Clinically, cold is used during stretching to reduce spasticity or rigidity secondary to upper motor neuron lesions, but is occasionally used to decrease muscle tone and reduce sensitivity in healthy individuals.  

The effectiveness of cold in increasing the effectiveness of a stretch may rely on its ability to dampen the stretch reflex or because it blocks the pain of the stretch. Use of cold may allow an individual to endure more discomfort and therefore apply a greater stretch. Caution should of course be taken so as not to stretch too far and damage tissues.

Cooling tissues after stretching in a lengthened position has been shown to prolong the lengthening effects of the stretch and lessen post exercise soreness.

Improve Stretching with Massage

 Muscle relaxation can be enhance through the application of massage techniques. Massage helps to increase circulation to the muscles and reduces muscle spasms. Massage will also mobilize adherent or shortened fascia, tendons, or ligaments and thereby allow lengthening to occur.


Improve Stretching with Gentle Joint Distraction or Oscillation

 Gentle distraction or oscillation of a joint can help muscles relax to facilitate a stretch.

Frequency of Stretching

 Studies done by Bandy et al. between 1987 and 1991 consistently show increases in hamstring length with regular stretching. (4,5) Stretching was of most benefit when performed 5 days per week over a 6 week period and held for 30 seconds or 60 seconds. Increases in hamstring length varied between 21.7 and 27.3%. These studies involved young active adults and show that if you increase the frequency of stretching to five days a week one will derive the most benefit in terms of muscle lengthening.

1. ME Laban  Collagen tissue: implications of its response to stress in vitro. Arch Phys Med Rehabtl. 1966; 43.461-466.
2. JF Lehmann , AJ Masock, CG Warren, N Koblanski.   Effect of therapeutic temperatures on tendon extensibility. Arch PhysMedRehabil. 1970;51:481- 487.
3. AA Sapega, TC Quendenfeld, RA Moyer, RA Butler. Biophysical factors in range of motion exercise. Phys Sportsmed. 1981; 9(12):57-65, 106.
4. WD Bandy, JM Irion, M Briggler. The effect of static stretch and dynamic range of motion training on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. J.Orthop Sports Phys Ther 27(4)295-300.
5.WD Bandy, JM Irion, M Briggler. The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Phys Ther 77(10)1090-1096.   

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