How To Stretch Without Hurting Yourself


So you’ve probably already heard the obvious tips—don’t stretch too hard, don’t stretch cold, no ballistic stretching, and don’t hold your stretches too long. We’ll go a little bit beyond that today, but first let’s take a look at why everybody wants to stretch and whether it’s really necessary for you.

Some of the most common reasons people want to stretch are improved, athletic performance, greater ease of functional movement, pain reduction and injury prevention. Whether stretching actually prevents fitness-related injury is a complex topic and currently a hot one for debate. But I think we can all agree that optimal variability in movement is a sign of healthy functioning. Hopefully, we can also agree that it doesn’t help at all if you get hurt. So depending on who you are, what you do, how old you are and how your general health is, you probably do need some kind of mobility training.

But how much and in what way? Here’s where the details matter.

I’ve talked to many people who have this lofty goal of “getting more flexible.” If this is you, I’d encourage you to maybe get a little S.M.A.R.T. about that goal. What does it mean to get more flexible? And why do you feel it’s important? Functional movement is one thing, but the need to be flexible is very sport specific and your actual flexibility as an individual is largely dependent on genetics. What this means, is that the shape of your skeleton plays an enormous role in your ability to attain certain postures. So while some people can bend/twist/slide under closed doors (lol) you might struggle to reach down and touch the floor, and no amount of dynamic, static or (especially) ballistic stretching is going to change that for you.

Skeletability is a major component of general flexibility.

Consider the depth and orientation of your hip sockets, for example. This is a spot where anatomical variance is actually pretty mind blowing. If you’re watching this channel, you might already know how it affects the way you squat. It will inevitably also affect the way you stretch. If your hip sockets are more front facing, you will have a very different experience with something like a seated forward bend compared to someone whose hip sockets are more externally oriented (turned out to the side). That’s not to say that one of you will be able to reach farther than the other, because there are lots of other factors that affect how far you can stretch. And that’s not a good way to measure anything, anyway.

The difference lies in what each of you will feel upon reaching the end of your range of motion.

If you have front facing hip sockets, the end of your range of motion might be signaled by muscular tension in the hamstrings. Your muscles have gotten as long as they can currently get and you’ve reached your limit. If you have more externally oriented hip sockets, the end of your range of motion be signaled by compression in the hip joints. Compression occurs when tissue is pressing against tissue. So in this case, your femoral head is hitting your acetabulum (that’s bone against bone) and no amount of stretching is ever going to change that limit for you. Trying to push past that limit is a surefire way to get yourself injured.

So how do you know when you’re dealing with tension versus compression? It’s not always easy to tell, but it is important to discern between the two because this will inform you whether to just keep stretching or maybe accept your body for the way it was built and perhaps seek a modification that won’t cause pain and frustration. Generally, if you feel discomfort in the direction you are stretching such as in your hip joints during a forward bend, that’s compression. Don’t push it. If you feel discomfort in the opposite direction that you are stretching, such as on the back of your legs during a forward bend, that’s muscular tension. That can change over time when you undergo flexibility training.

So you might not be able to see exactly what your skeleton looks like, but with a little bit of awareness on where you feel the stretch, you can get a basic idea of where you’re feeling tension versus where you’re feeling compression. Knowing this, should you still stretch your muscles? Yes! Muscles that have undergone flexibility training are able to maintain their strength at greater lengths, thus allowing the body to better utilize its full range of motion. However, overly-stretched muscles put you at risk of joint injuries such as sprains, strains and hyperextension.

So what to do about the joints? Your connective tissues are responsible for up to 47% of the body’s flexibility, so they’re equally deserving of your attention as the muscles. I may have just painted compression in a very negative light, but there is actually a healthy amount from which your body can benefit. Inside your bones are these differentiated cells called osteoblasts. A healthy amount of joint compression will stimulate the osteoblasts to create more bone material. Of course, too much compression will weaken your bones, and it can wear out your cartilage, so you want to make sure that you’re not trying to push past your body’s limits, but rather meeting them as they are. A healthy amount of compression can help develop joint stability and strength.

This is what makes the practice of Yin yoga so beautiful. In a Yin Yoga practice, you are stretching and elongating your muscles but also bringing a healthy amount of compression into your joints. Yin helps maintain elasticity in the dense connective tissues of your joints, and it also gets your fascia moving around. I love Yin yoga.

In a Yin practice, postures are held for 2 to 5 minutes.


Didn’t we say not to hold the stretches for too long? Let me explain the difference. Yin yoga postures are designed so that gravity does most of the work. So, here’s a counter-example. If you ever had to do those presidential fitness exams in gym class, you might remember the sit-and-reach—a truly torturous exercise in which you sit on the floor with your leg straight out in front, your feet are flat up against a block that has a yardstick coming off of it and you gotta reach as far as you can and, and hold it, and you get a numerical score based on where your fingertips land on the yardstick. What a horrible way to evaluate a child’s fitness, based on what we just talked about. Every kid’s body is different. Every one has bones of various lengths, their hip sockets face different directions, the torsion of your femur bones also makes a difference in how far you can stretch. (Torsion is the amount of twistedness or contortion in the bones.)

So this is the opposite… In a Yin yoga practice, all you have to do is breathe. There is a target area in which you are meant to feel the stretch, and as long as you position your unique body in a way that lands the stretch in that area, you’re good. All you do is breathe. In Yin yoga, most of the postures also rely heavily on total disengagement of the surrounding musculature. (It’s important to note that in other forms of yoga such as traditional Hatha Vinyasa or Ashtanga disengaged musculature can actually be the source of injury.)

In conclusion for today, the best way to maintain functional mobility and develop healthy ranges of motion is to develop awareness of your skeleton, your muscles, and your joints. Know the difference between muscular tension and joint compression.

Developing this awareness of what your body might just not be meant to do can really set you free, in any sort of practice. If you want a goal around your stretching, stretch to be able to breathe easier. Stretch to be able to sit more comfortably. A great way to develop both of these is to start yoga practice.

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