Why You Should Stretch

I usually end my first couple of sessions with a client by giving them one or two stretches to do. The idea is to help maintain the corrective nature of my work between sessions. The reality is, most of the time, the stretches will be done one or twice and then forgotten as life begins to get in the way.

So why should you stretch? How does it help “maintain the corrective nature of my work”?

First, some anatomy. Within each muscle belly are muscle fibres called Muscle Spindles. These specialised fibres are wrapped in nerves and detect changes to the length of the muscle. In tendons there are similar nerve cells called Golgi Tendon Organs that serve the same function. When a muscle or tendon are placed under what is perceived to be a potentially damaging amount of tension the brain will interpret these signals as pain to get us to reduce the tension and reduce the risk of injury.

So how does all this tie into stretching? There is a concept called Davis’s Law that, to summarise, states that muscles will accommodate the way they are mechanically stressed. What this boils down to is “You are what you repeatedly do”. It’s the principle of any good training and strengthening program. So if you consistently and repeatedly stretch a muscle (with good form) the body will adapt to the perceived requirement of an increased range of motion.

After a massage muscle tension is lessened, meaning the body will be more flexible. I see this as a prime time to stretch out the muscles that have been worked upon, as you will be better able to condition your muscle spindle fibres into a larger range of motion.

So how long should you stretch and for how often? I recommend holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute, 2 or 3 times a day. An excellent time to stretch is before bed as this can help clear ones mind and set up a routine to help your body get ready for sleep. It’s a good idea to stretch both the target muscle and it’s antagonist (e.g the bicep and the triceps are both agonist/antagonist to each other).

Stretching is a wonderful way to bring mobility back into your body. Just remember to start slowly!

Stress Feedback Loops

As I’m sure you all know, feedback is what happens when an output returns back on top of the original input. If this is allowed to repeat without interruption the output amplifies, and amplifies, and amplifies… and so on. This can happen with the body and stress.

As discussed in my previous post the body and mind are connected on an emotional level. Using the same stress response as before, the raising of shoulders to protect the vulnerable blood-vessels of the neck, I’ll be talking about how stress can lead to more stress in a feedback loop.

So your boss is breathing down your neck for the thing that’s due yesterday, your kid’s crying, and the ass-hole behind you just honked their horn for the fifth time because the traffic has stopped moving (no fault of yours mind). You, are stressed. Your heart rate is elevated, pressure has spiked, pupils dilated, and every muscle is tense and tight. And it’s been this way for a week.

But now you’ve got some times to yourself. You have a hot bath and sit down in-front of the T.V. You should be relaxed. But you’re not. Your shoulders are still up by your ears and you’re feeling uneasy in what you perceive to be a safe space. Why? You’re stuck in a stress feedback loop and heading towards chronic stress.

While you’re external senses are clearly showing that everything is safe, your internal senses are picking up that you are stressed. And your unconscious mind reads this as a good reason to be stressed. You can quickly see how this can spiral out of control which can lead to chronic stress, which is never a good thing.

The easiest way to break the cycle is to not start it. But in reality it’s not often easy and it is often only after the fact that many realise they’ve even started the spiral. Staying active is an excellent way to reduce stress and minimise tension patterns that can lead to a stress feedback loop. I’ll always recommend a massage to reduce stress, but that’s both bias and for some people not productive. Cutting coffee and tea from your diet is a good way to reduce your caffeine intake, a stimulant that has your body mimic a lot of the stress response effects. Most of all just taking some time for yourself, on a regular basis, can greatly reduce stress.

One thing I don’t want people to take away from this article is that stress is “bad”. It is a natural response. It is your body trying to protect you.

The Muscle-Mind Connection

When talking about “The muscle-mind connection” the first thing I tend to think about is weightlifting, as I’m sure those of you who recognise the term do to. Conventionally this term is used to describe the ability to really feel a muscle when it’s tensed (a good way to understand this practically is to point your feet and think about what’s happening in your calves). However over the last couple of years I have allowed myself to go down a different path with this concept.

When we become stressed many of us will begin to slowly raise our shoulders without thinking about it. This is a prime example of when the unconscious mind takes control of what are usually “voluntary muscles” (musculature that in normal circumstances you have control of). The subconscious does this to protect us from what it perceives to be a potential threat; with the shoulders raised the vulnerable blood-vessels that run through the neck are protected and the body becomes a smaller target.

This is when the muscle-mind connection breaks down.

So what can be done to restore the muscle-mind connection? The simple answer is touch. To go back to weightlifting for a moment, the first muscle most boys are able to tense is their bicep. The way they do it is by putting their hand on each others upper arms and focusing on trying to squeeze the muscle into the other person hand (as in the title image). Applying this idea back to the loss of the mind muscle connection that occurs when stressed, it’s amazing what the right pair of hands, be they a partners, a friends, or a therapists, just placed on your shoulders can do to get you to notice how much you’ve raised them. Something as simple as this can help interrupt the feedback loop that can occur when the body is stressed, which I will be going over in my next post.