When most people talk about stretching, they are talking about trying to physically lengthen the muscle, as though the muscle is tight.
In Relax Into Stretch, a book by Pavel Tsatsouline, Pavel writes that this type of stretching is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. Stretching is not about physically lengthening muscles. Stretching is actually about teaching your nervous system to relax and grant you more flexibility.
Your muscles are long enough already. What is happening is your nervous system is triggering your stretch reflex to prevent you from getting into a position that you don’t have strength in. This is what is keeping you “tight.” Your nervous system is trying to protect you from injury, but it’s set conservatively and things like fear can cause tightness.
Pavel identifies different ways of teaching your nervous system to relax your muscles, from waiting out the tension to using a combination of isometric contractions and breathing.
In the video below, you can see me working into the split. You’ll notice that I am gradually getting more flexible. What you might not see is that I am flexing my muscles and then relaxing them to not only attain strength in a deeper position, but to also eek out more stretch. This is called isometric stretching.
Benefits to Isometric Stretching
I am a fan of isometric stretching because it teaches muscle control–in the process you get more flexible.
Flexibility is a useful trait. Take a look at people around you. Some people have a forward lean at the waist, usually due to tight hip flexors. These people might be runners or just sit a lot. In this case, being tight is causing postural issues. Tight hamstrings cause other postural issues, as do tight chest muscles.
Isometric stretching teaches your nervous system to grant more flexibility so these issues do not present themselves and you can attain improved posture.
Regular stretching can alleviate these issues, but not as well or as quickly. Plus, regular stretching does not give you the same number of benefits as the isometric stretching I am writing about.
The primary benefit after granting more flexibility and teaching muscle control is the development of strength in extreme ranges. This might sound abstract, but when you feel your body after routinely practicing isometric stretches, you feel far greater control and utility. You feel like when you want it, it’s there. And even though daily life isn’t a physical struggle for most, getting groceries in and out of cars, shoveling, digging, mowing the lawn, playing with kids, and more, are all better experienced with better strength and muscle control. Just because we have a mostly physically mundane life is no excuse to be a slouch.
How to Perform Isometric Stretches
The basic instruction is to get into a stretch and when you start feeling tight, voluntarily contract your muscles to about 2/3 full contraction. Hold this for a portion of time (it might be a few seconds for a forward bend, it might be 20 seconds for the splits) and then relax. How you relax is to passively exhale (ahhh) and release all the tension, even going as far as to visualize your muscles being wet noodles or some other highly flexible thing that evokes a feeling of relaxation for you. You’ll fall deeper into the stretch. After a few seconds, slowly turn on the tension again and repeat the process until you are not getting deeper into the stretch. At this point, you can turn on the tension (to build strength in this range) and then slowly get back to the original position after holding the tension for several seconds to a half a minute or so.
Forward bend stretches demand that you do this process more quickly as the ligaments in the back begin to take over the work of the muscles—you don’t want to come straight up but rather articulate your spine up to the standing position slowly and gently.
So, if you’re looking for both increased strength and increased flexibility, isometric stretching is a great way to achieve it. Check out Pavel’s Relax into Stretch : Instant Flexibility Through Mastering Muscle Tension.