How Much Stretching is the Right Amount?
So how much stretch is the right amount? How much is too much? And how can we tell the difference?
Studies on stretching to improve flexibility have shown that when performed regularly (like 3-4 times a week ) over a long period of time, like 4-8 weeks, stretching improved flexibility in hamstrings, calves, ankles, and increased joint range of motion. The findings of the effects of infrequent or short-term stretching don’t last much longer than a day or so. So if you don’t stretch regularly, after a day or two, muscles return to pre-stretch length. But you can overcome this by static stretches, or holding the stretch/pose a few times a week.
Another benefit of stretching regularly is that even if the length of your muscle does not change much your perception of the intensity of the stretch sensation diminishes, meaning you won't feel so tight. Stretching regularly will make your asana and daily movements feel more comfortable. Without regular stretching as you age, your muscles will become stiffer, potentially interfering with your ability to go about the normal activities of daily life, including dressing yourself, driving, walking, getting in and out of a chair and balancing. For all these reasons, stretching is very beneficial for you whether or not your muscles actually become more flexible.
According to Baxter Bell and Nina Zolotow, “When a muscle is stretched, it's not just the muscle cells that do the elongating, but also the connective tissue or fascia that surrounds every muscle of the body. Where the muscle has pretty amazing ability to elongate and contract and change size dramatically, the ability of the fascia is more limited, even though it contains some elastic cells. And when the connective tissue is over-stretched, it can lose its supportive properties for the muscles and lead to increased chance of the muscle itself getting micro-tears that heal more slowly. In addition to the fascia, the other connective tissues, such as the tendons that attach the muscle to bone, are more vulnerable to injury as well.”
Common sense is to work up to a point of mild to moderate discomfort, but not pain. Have it be a stretch you can sustain, not just tolerate. Feeling the stretch in the center of a long muscle and avoiding sensation closer to the joint is safest. You might know you have overdone it by a sudden pain that accompanies the stretch, but often you won’t know until the next day, when inflammation and pain appear and become more persistently. Shoot for taking your stretches slowly and mindfully.
How long should I hold a stretch?
There are two main styles of stretching that yoga provides: dynamic and static. In dynamic poses, the stretches are very brief, as you move in and out of the stretch within a few seconds. In static poses, you hold the stretch for period of time ranging from quite short (like 10 seconds) to much longer ( like 2 or 3 minutes or longer for restorative poses).
How do you choose when to do static versus dynamic stretching?
Studies have shown that improved range of motion at the joints and increased muscle length occur as a result of both static stretching and dynamic stretching. They also note that for older adults over 65, longer holds may be needed, up to 60 seconds. Younger adults can get results with 15-30 seconds. In addition, one study suggests that static holds of 90 seconds or longer may actually lead to greater results.
“To a large degree, flexibility is genetic,” says Dr. Malachy McHugh, the director of research for the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an expert on flexibility. You’re born stretchy or not. “Some small portion” of each person’s flexibility “is adaptable,” McHugh adds, “but it takes a long time and a lot of work to get even that small adaptation…””
Here are some pose that are great for flexibility:
Reclined leg stretch with variations (Supta Padangusthasana)
Toe Stretch in kneeling
Low lunges with shoulder openers
Standing forward bend (Uttanasana)
Arm circles with strap
Side Angle pose (Parsvotanasana)
Wide-legged forward bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)
Head to Knee pose (Janu Sirsasana)
Eye of the Needle pose (Sucirandhrasana)
Reclined leg stretch with variations (Supta Padangusthasana)
From a recline position, take your strap around the ball of the right foot. It can be nice to loop your hands around your strap so you don't have to grasp the strap tightly. You can allow your arms to relax, elbows bent down towards the floor. We are pressing into the strap with the ball of the foot and also reaching out through the heel. Rest your sacrum on the earth. If your hips are tipping up then back off of the stretch on your legs. Some people might be fairly flexible and their left leg can straighten out onto the ground fairly quickly while other people may find the stretch already intense and they will want to wait until the hamstring and calf open up more before doing that. When you feel ready straighten out the bottom leg and ground it down into the floor. Reach out through the four corners of the left foot. Take both sides of the strap into the right hand and bring your left arm into a “T” position. While grounding through the left arm bring the left leg to the right; but not so much so that the hip comes off the floor. If there is any availability, check out bringing the foot towards the ear, as if it would come into a diagonal instead of straight out. Use your core, reach the leg back to center. Change hands and bring the thumb crease of your right hands to your hip crease. Give just a little push away with your hand, extending the right side body. You may already feel a stretch sensation in the outer hip now. Without lifting that hip off the ground, move the foot across to the left side. This is intended to be a hip opener, not a twist. If you want to feel more you can experiment with the angle of the leg and the hip.
Bring the right arm out to the right and now let the hip lift and come into a twist. You might even have the hips stacked, one on top of the other. Whatever feels good. Whenever possible keep the right shoulder on the ground. If it pops up, back off of the twist a little bit. Depending on how your neck feels you can try turning the head to the right, so the whole spine is twisting. Then come back to center. Release that leg back to the ground and notice if that side feels any different then the other side.
Now, bend both knees, placing both feet on the ground and then bring the strap onto the left foot. Give this side as much time as it needs before straightening the other leg. Relax the shoulders and elbows. Head and neck are soft. When your right leg comes down imagine their is a 10 pound weight on your thigh helping it to ground down. Draw all the toes back towards your head.
Both straps come into the left hand. Right arm comes out to the right. Toes come towards your ear and out to the left. Even if that's just the idea of toes towards your ear. It can help to use your core to bring your leg back to center. Left hand hooks around the left hip crease, giving it a little nudge away from the shoulder. Without tipping the hip, the left leg comes to the right. Make any micro-adjustments that help you find the best sensation. Extend the left arm and deepen the twist to the degree that suits you. Use the energy of the inhale to draw you back to center. Release the leg. Notice the two legs again.
Those of you with knee sensitivity might want to have an extra blanket under your knees. We are going to work in table top. For people with wrist things going on, you can fold or roll up your mat and place the heel of your hands there. Or, you can place you forearms on your blocks.
Feel all the curves of the spine. Let's extend the spine, feeling the space between the vertebrae. And then inhale and lift your head and tailbone. Exhaling draw the head and tailbone down. Inhale open. Exhale contract your front body with your own pacing of breath. The action is in the spine. The pelvis is tucking and tilting as is the head.
Finding a neutral spine, turn your toes under, and to the extend that you can, try sitting back onto your heels. You might have fingers tips on the floor, hands on your thighs or stacking shoulders over hips. Bring hips up if needed. Take weight off your toes anytime you need to.
From kneeling with a blanket under your knees, place your blocks on the highest height close into you. Step your right foot pretty far forward so your knee is over your ankle as you lunge... Open the chest. Press the legs into the floor. This is an essential lower body pose for those of us who sit a lot. Opening the front of the thigh and hip are key. Breath. After you've finish on your left side step back.
When you are feeling ready bring the left foot forward. A trick to staying balanced is having the legs on separate tracks, not in one line. Have the legs firm and hips heavy and relaxed. Step the back foot forward or your front leg back to end.
Standing Forward Bend
If you have been on the floor, come to your knees. Place your blocks under your hands and step forward with the feet under the hips. Knees stay a little bent. Head hangs. Look to see if you your feet are symmetrical and parallel to each other. Begin to straighten and bend the knees together or alternatively. Now, bent both knees. Bring your hands to your hips. Straightening your back and lifting the head. Come up to standing. Relax.
I emphasize this way of going in and out of forward bend because its much easier on the spine. If we are going to lift something that is even more important. Often we go up and down with the back rounded, which puts a lot of pressure on the low back. When the back is flat and the muscles engaged that is much safer.
Side-Bends with strap
Bring the strap in between your hands with arms overhead. The arms can be any distance apart that feels right for you. Those with more flexible shoulders may not need the strap. Now, tip to the right, keeping both feet grounded. Inhale and come to center. Exhale and tip to the left. Breath in and come back. Continue side-bending with each exhale. If the shoulders are feeling tight, widen the distance between the hands or release the strap and just do one arm at a time. This is helpful for increasing our lung capacity, because it stretches the inter-costal muscles between the ribs and other muscles around the rib cage. Take deep, slow breaths.
Chest Expander with optional strap
Some people may be able to keep there arms straight while bringing them behind them without the strap, but if the elbows bend use a strap instead. Stretch the arms behind you and lift the chest up. Gently tuck the chin and bring the crown of the head back. Ground through the feet and make a small tuck in the tailbone to protect the low back. Lengthen through the side bodies. Rolls the shoulder blades down and in towards each other. Inhale and come up. You may notice a little rush after that. Back bends are often energizing.
Shoulder openers with strap
Bring the strap in front of you and have your hands wider then your shoulders. Circle the strap around going counter clockwise. Inhale up, exhale forward. Find the range of motion in your shoulders. Move the left hand down each time it comes through the center. If the elbows want to bend, widen the distance between your hands so you can continue to find extension through the arms the whole time. Relax after the next circle. This time start by going clockwise. Rest and release the strap. Take a moment to notice the sensations from the movement. There could be warmth, or tingling or greater sensitivity.
Step the feet a wide distance apart, so you can feel some stretch in the inner thighs and hips. Turn your right toes straight out to the right and your left toes in. Lift your arms to shoulders height and bend the front knee over the ankle. Tipping at the hips, place the forearm on the thigh. Press down through the legs and bottom arm. Extend the other arm overhead or alongside the ear. Find your breath and follow it. Relax into the hips. Ground the back heel. Taking a deep breath in, pull yourself up with the top arm. Turn the feet forward and then the left toes go out and the right toes go in. Make sure the front toes are not turning in or out but facing straight ahead. Inhale the arms up and bend the front knee, moving it towards the little toe side of the foot. Exhale the forearm to the thigh. Find a comfortable place for the top arm to be. If you need to be more gentle with yourself the hand can go to the hip. Spend a few breaths here. Feel the energy that comes with the in breaths and the ease that comes with the out breaths. Pressing feet to floor, inhale up to standing. Step the feet together.
Wide-legged Forward bend
Take your blocks to the long side of your mat at their highest height, shoulders widths distance apart. We are doing a wide-legged forward bend. Step you feet a good distance apart, maybe 4 to 5 feet. You want to get a satisfying stretch in the legs without feeling de-stablized. The outside lines of the feet are parallel to one another. Hands go to the hip creases where the thigh meets the torso. Try and bend from here, not the spine. Move down halfway to the floor. As you hinge forward keep the weight even in the front and back of the feet. Inhale back up to standing. Keep the back muscles engaged, staying long in the spine as you exhale down. If you feel a lot of tension in the back of the legs you can have more bend in the knees. After a few of these movements come all the way down with hands on blocks or a chair if needed. Having the legs wider will help you come down. Check in with your legs and make sure you have a micro- bend in the knees. Back off the stretch if it feels hard behind the knees. Once you come to your full range of motion in the pelvis, then you can relax your head and let the upper back fold. If your palms can come to the floor try walking them back, in between the feet. Engage the back body to come up. Step together.
Head to Knee pose
Start sitting. I recommend doubling up your blanket and sitting the hips on that unless you have very open hips and thighs. Left leg goes straight out from the body and right foot comes to inner thigh. You may want a block under your knee if it feels uncomfortable. Bring your fingertips behind both hips, using the arms as props to help you lift the spine up. If you feel plenty of stretch sensations stay here. If you want to deepen the stretch tip forward, try creasing at the hips not the back. Hands can come forward if that's more supportive. Find some activation in the extended leg. Muscles that are engaged protect the joints around them and bring strength and stability. Inhale and come out of the pose. Switch sides. Hands behind the back again. Flex the right foot. Lengthen the spine out and up as you tip forward. Inhale as you come up. Exhale and relax.
Thread the Needle pose
Lay on your back. Now bent your knees and take your feet to the floor. Bring your right ankle to your left thigh. Flex the right foot. Stay here if its plenty of stretch already or hug behind the left leg with both hands. If your hands don't reach around you can use a strap to assist you. If your head come off the ground when you do this, back off the stretch or put something under your head. As you breath, open your right knee away form your torso; sensing into the feeling of opening in the outer hip. When you are ready, come back to center and bring both feet to the floor. Now, bring the left ankle to the right thigh. Flex the ankle. Stay there or hold onto the right thigh. Soften the back into the floor as you relax your hip open and your knee moves away from the torso. Come back to center.