Stretching Sucks And I’ve Been Doing It Wrong

Admit it, it does. If you disagree, you’re a) not an adult dance beginner, b) very lucky or c) both. For the record, I’m talking about stretching for the splits here. The light stretching you do to ease up DOMS or limber up is perfectly lovely. Training your body to bend in ways it doesn’t want to is not.

I’m hypermobile (Gboard corrects this to «horrible», and it’s probably right about that), so stretching comes fairly easy to me. Still, it’s not exactly a walk in the park. It’s difficult, painful (in a reasonably healthy way) and gives me DOMS (which I understand is not unusual). In the past, I’ve tried to reduce these negative side effects to make it more enjoyable.

Apparently, that was the wrong thing to do.

It all started with the damned downward dog. I’m very good at the dog itself, but all my modern teachers favour the three-legged version. Ideally, the lifted leg would continue the line of your arms and torso. Mine completely refuses to do that and stays at an ugly oblique angle instead. I’m not certain if it’s strength of flexibility I’m missing. I’m guessing it’s both.

So I decided to up my stretching game. Or get a stretching game in the first place. I hit up r/flexibility for resources and learned several interesting things.

Thing number one: The science on stretching is patchy at best, so take everything with a grain of salt and listen to your body.

Thing number two: There exists an interesting theory that flexibility = strength. It states that we’re much more flexible when unconscious. I have not tested this particular statement for obvious reasons, but there is a test you can do by putting one of your legs up on the back of a chair or some other hip-high surface while trying to keep the pelvis parallel to the floor. This is half a side split. If you can do this (and I can), but not the side split itself, the issue is obviously not with the stretchiness of your muscles, tendons and ligaments.

The issue, this theory goes on, is with your nervous system. Most of your body is under the control of subconscious systems. When it comes to stretching, those systems don’t trust you. At all. So when you decide you need to do the splits, alarms labeled «STUPID THINGS ARE BEING DONE» go off in your subconscious and your nervous system overrides your feeble attempts to get your muscles to relax and tenses them up instead. The reason for this mistrust is supposedly a lack of strength: if you cannot get out of the position on your own (and clambering up laboriously does not count), you shouldn’t be in it, your subconscious reasons.

Therefore, many stretching regimens recomment strength training rather than stretching. This blew my mind, but I retrospectively realised it shouldn’t have. Many stretching regimens I have tried contained PNF. The amazing splits videos Asher sent me not only include PNF, but also standing in a lunge for half the video.

Unfortunately, I’m lazy and apparently quite obtuse and I never understood that strength played into it at all. I dismissed the lunge as being for people with more strength than me and propped myself up with yoga blocks so that I could «relax better». Turns out relaxing was never the point of the exercise. This is proooooobably why I haven’t been as successful training for the splits as I could’ve been.

Thus enlightened, I decided to try the videos again. And it was more difficult and more painful. Even back in my glorious karate days, I thought of stretching as painful. Maybe it’s just me. Anyway, the emphasis on strength makes it even less pleasant.

I was only able to do the videos a couple of times once or twice a week before my  maelstrom of menial tasks overtook me. But when I next tried the splits after my workout, I had improved very noticeably!

The Reddit wizards have whispered to me that intensive stretching like that doesn’t need to be done every day – shouldn’t be done every day, in fact – and once or twice a week will suffice. I’ll try to do another session today, unpleasant or not. After all, barbell squats are unpleasant, and yet I can’t seem to get enough of those.

9 thoughts on “Stretching Sucks And I’ve Been Doing It Wrong

  1. “When it comes to stretching, those systems don’t trust you. At all.”

    For the record, you’ve for the best job explaining, in layperson terms, the role of the nervous system in stretching! I am totally going to point people to this post when they need some ‘explaining!

    And you’re right– effective stretching is, well, uncomfortable.

    Those of us in Camp Hypermobility (I’m proposing a camp cheer for us, like: 2, 4, 6, 8, we have joints that dislocate! 😅) don’t feel any sense of stretch in most activities, since they’re designed around normal people who can’t even clasp their hands behind their own backs.

    My hypothesis is that this makes us wildly unfamiliar with what stretching actually feels like, so initially when we do feel it, it’s difficult for us to distinguish between “feel the burrrrrrnnnnn” and “oh holy hell my arm is actually, physically being ripped offffffff!!! 🤤🤤🤤🤤🤤🤤🤤” (Thanks to our wise nervous systems, see above :D)

    Eventually we figure out which thing is which and it gets less awful — but until that point, we suffer.

    And I’m with you on the DOMS. One of the reasons that I hate taking breaks from class is that I know that appropriately 24 hours after my return, I will feel like my body is full of ground glass 😐

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  2. Thank you! ♥️ If you like anthropomorphizing bodily functions, you should check out The Awkward Yeti’s Heart and Brain comics, as well as the rest of his organ stuff – it certainly inspired me. 😁

    I’m very relieved to hear I’m not the only one! I keep reading everywhere how stretching shouldn’t hurt and how people enjoy it so much, that I start wondering if we’re even talking about the same thing! When I tell people stretching gives me DOMS, they look shocked and suggest I’m overdoing it. But, the results of this new and imroved approach speak for themselves: improved flexibility and no injuries. So I guess I’m okay for now.

    Love your chant! 😂😂 I’ve been very fortunate to never actually dislocate a joint so far. My ligaments are not strictly speaking observable, but they definitely exist and must be doing *something*.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think part of the thing with stretching is that typically-mobile people can do it using only the natural resistance of their muscles, tendons, and ligaments to hold themselves up and so forth. We have to work a million times harder! But, on the other hand, we get better results in the long run 😁

    I’ve dislocated my fingers, toes, shoulders, and iliosacral joints. The digits and shoulders just pop right back in, but the IS joint is a pain in the butt (or, well, the butt-proximal region 😁).

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  4. I’m “hyper-mobile” too! (Love the chant Asher!) I agree stretching is hard work and can be uber painful work for me too. Sometimes a tight IT band can restrict the nerve in the hamstring so it feels like a tight hamstring, but it’s the nerve!! (The nerve!)
    Yes! And the nervous system! Yoga helped me with strength and flexibility and nervous system! (By the way Runners lunge = relaxing???)
    I always thought that flexibility (which lengthens muscles) and strength (which shortens muscles) are opposites. But that we need muscles to have something to stretch so we’re not just stretching our tendons and ligaments. Great post! What are DOMs?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow, it’s really good to hear that other people know these struggles, as well! You’re right, the runner’s stretch is definitely not relaxing! Thanks!
    DOMS is short for delayed onset muscle soreness – most people think you can inly get it from intense training, but I also get it from intense stretching.

    Liked by 2 people

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