If you have tight muscles, you probably think you should stretch more.
It makes sense. Stretching helps your muscles to relax, increases flexibility and eases pain.
Err, maybe not.
Recently I had a question about why I’m not very pro-stretching. And it’s true. I talk a lot about the fact that stretching alone won’t necessarily improve mobility or relieve musculoskeletal aches and pains.
And that’s true even if you’re in a happy mindset, filled to the brim with self-love and compassion.
So if mechanically stretching your muscles isn’t helpful, why do we see expert advice everywhere to “stretch more” when we’re tight and achy?
The sad truth is…
Merely stretching won’t help much, and here’s why.
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Why Stretching Doesn’t Actually Work
The reason I talk a lot about stretching not being as beneficial as we tend to think is that on the whole, we’re pretty hyper-focused on what we’re doing.
Not so much on how we’re doing it.
Obviously what you’re doing is important. But it only accounts for about 20% of your results. Eighty percent of it is where your attention is at.
We’re kind of stuck in this model of Cartesian duality where the mind is separate from the body and, though they’re connected, on some level we think of them as being able to function independently.
Your muscles are unintelligent lumps of meat that just need to be pulled longer. (#sonottrue)
In reality, tension is a function of consciousness. If we put you under anesthesia, you’d be a floppy yogi and we could tuck your foot behind your head.
But wake up, and all that tension comes right back.
Tension is in your brain — not in a too-short rubber band of a muscle.
If your operating system is malfunctioning on your computer, you don’t take the hard drive out. You reboot the operating system.
Same for your muscles.
Mental focus and attention are fundamentally important to movement and mobility practices — whether stretching or otherwise.
In fact, long term neuromotor maps in your brain (your movement patterns) don’t shift without some level of awareness.
Experiencing Movement Is As Important As Doing It
Doing the stretch is not the same as experiencing it.
I’m sorry, what?
I know, heady stuff…
Listen, most of us have been taught to largely ignore signs and signals from our bodies. Even when pressure — from a foam roller, say, or a vigorous massage — is aggressive and painful, many people when asked will say it’s “fine.”
If pressed, a few may admit their muscles feel sore. But they didn’t think that was relevant.
Because we’re taught that pain is productive. That without it we’re not getting anything done.
(Don’t even get me started on the larger cultural constructs related to this line of thinking…AHEM toxic work culture.)
We are taught to ignore what our bodies tell us. Therefore, we live up in our heads, narrating our experiences rather than feeling them.
And when I say feeling, I don’t mean emotionally. I mean sensorily. As in, the sensation of an experience.
What your muscles feel. Not what your brain thinks about what your muscles feel.
Most of us skip right over the former and go directly to the latter.
When you pay attention to what your body feels during a stretch or movement, you’re giving your brain a surge of new information that it can use to re-map movement patterns in new and more efficient ways.
But that physical experience has to be there. You can’t just intellectualize it.
You gotta feel it.
Sensory Experience And Self-Locating: Why It’s Important
It’s twelve p.m. — do you know where your body is?
Umm, hopefully with you. If you are reading this without a body, you are officially a ghost and you should email me because I have questions. So many questions.
Okay, but in all seriousness, most of us are sort of “missing” from our bodies. Like, there’s a buffer between the you that you identify with and your physical self.
Many fitness practices focus on overriding your body through willpower and aggressive approaches that basically subjugate your body. The mentality seems to be: “You will behave.”
This aggressive approach to stretching creates a neural tug-o-war where you’re fighting against your own muscle guarding. When you stretch aggressively, you’re trying to override your body’s defense systems.
And your body is no dummy. It doesn’t want to give up so easily.
But if you give your nervous system new input by focusing your attention and awareness on what you’re doing, it allows your brain to get a better idea of where you are in space and adjust tension patterns accordingly.
This is called self-locating, and it’s like hitting the master reset button.
Providing what we call “novel proprioceptive input” (don’t memorize that, it’s not worth it) — or basically new sensations — gives your brain the opportunity to recalibrate its movement maps to better suit your environment.
It gives you the space to start changing mobility, flexibility, and pain without having to override your own self-protection.
So, Is Stretching Totally Useless?
Stretching alone might not be all it’s cracked up to be, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Again, how you’re doing what you’re doing is equally as important (or more!) as what you’re doing.
I have found personally and with clients that intention is essential, and so I tend to focus on movements designed to stimulate your brain with novel sensations which bolster neuromotor coordination.
This is what we do inside my Posture Rehab course, and while enrollment is currently closed, you can still get on the waitlist to be first in line when it’s re-released.
The practices I’ve cultivated aren’t so much movement or exercise as they are an entirely new take on life.1