This month’s article was inspired by clients who have tried to stretch their hamstrings, but after years of trying, eventually resigned themselves to the seemingly “inescapable fact” that their muscles are simply unable to be lengthened. These folks all believed that they were just naturally “inflexible”.
When reviewing what the clients were doing it seemed that the key to their inability to lengthen their hamstrings, came down to two key issues.
- The regularity of their stretching
- The way they attempted to stretch.
Many people say that they stretch regularly. Many also, likely don’t stretch quite as regularly as they’d like to do. But if people do stretch regularly, and have had no success, it’s highly likely that they have been spending their time using an ineffective technique.
Often when individuals stretch, they do so for only a few seconds, probably for less than 30 seconds for any muscle-stretch. They often also ‘push’ their stretches – to ‘feel the pain’, of a good stretch. For these folks, this stretching-associated-pain is often a key reason why they don’t like to stretch and don’t do it for long. Stretching done in the wrong way can hurt, and this can be a big disincentive. For these reasons, stretching aggressively for short periods is often unlikely to gain effective long term increases in flexibility.
When a person stretches a muscle, little sense organelles within the muscle called ‘muscle spindles’, send signals to the brain telling the brain how far the muscle has lengthened. The further the muscle stretches the stronger the signal. A signal that is perceived as strong-enough will elicit what exercise physiologists call a ‘myotatic reflex contraction’. In short, this contraction stops you from stretching muscle you are trying to stretch, any further. A strong enough signal can also be interpreted by the brain as pain. The key thing to recognise, is that a person’s flexibility likely has little to do with the actual length of their muscle and connective tissues, but rather with how strongly and at what length their myotatic reflex engages to generate a contraction that causes their stretched muscle to resist further stretching.
Done correctly over a period of weeks, regular stretching modifies the way the ‘spindle-brain’ system reacts to stretch:
- It dampens the strength of the signal sent to the brain by muscle spindles,
- It makes brain less sensitive to muscle spindle signals,
- It reduces the likely hood of a stretch being able to elicit pain, and
- reduces the likelihood of any stretch being able to elicit a myotatic reflex contraction.
Thus, after regular stretching it takes a lot more muscle length to generate a spindle-signal strong enough to stop you stretching. In short, your body ‘learns to stretch’ further. Hopefully, you can now understand that stretching is simply just a ‘learned skill’! And as with any other skill, correct repetition of the skill, makes you better at it. So, a person must practice stretching regularly, and continue to practice becoming flexible, and keep stretching to remain good at it. Next month we will review how to stretch your hamstrings effectively so that your practice doesn’t hurt and can be done just once or twice a week in order to reach and maintain an excellent range of motion.
Article Written + Submitted by:
Andreas Klein Nutritionist + Remedial Therapist from Beautiful Health + Wellness
P: 0418 166 269