Basic Principles of Stretching

by Lavon Watson, LMP

Life Changes Massage in Redmond, WA


With all the stretching information available, I can’t add anything groundbreaking, but I do believe that it is wise to understand some of the basic principles of stretching.


The basic purpose of stretching is to increase the resting muscle length of the specific muscle(s) you are stretching. Although there is a long list of benefits of stretching, some of which I will mention later, I need to be clear that I personally feel that the first objective of stretching is to do no harm. Although this sounds simple, you have to keep in mind that muscle is not the only soft tissue affected by stretching, and all tissue has specific ways of responding to stimulation.

Muscle tissue has tremendous capacity to stretch due to one of its components called elastin (think of elastic). However, muscle is connected to bone by tendon and tendon contains little, if any, elastin. A tendon’s primary job is to stabilize connective tissue between the muscle and the boney attachment point. Likewise, a ligament’s job is to connect and stabilize bone to bone.

Because both tendons and ligaments provide stability, they don’t really benefit from being stretched. In fact, contortionists can do some of the things they do, not because their muscles are so flexible, but because their tendons and ligaments are overly flexible (hyper-mobile). Therefore, flexibility has limits in terms of being beneficial. Generally speaking, clients I see who have fibromyalgia are very flexible, and one study I read suspects that this connective tissue laxity is part of the problem.

Likewise, nerve fiber that runs through tissue has limited capacity to stretch before it begins to resist this process. I have heard that nerve fiber only has the capacity to stretch by about 13% of its normal length, but I am uncertain about this specific tidbit of information. What is certain is that damaging nerve fiber in any way can have painful consequences and should be avoided.

The other significant aspect of nerve fibers that contributes to this discussion has to do with their relationship to muscle tissue. Muscle fibers contain stretch reflex receptors. These amazing nerve receptors measure how far and how fast a muscle is stretching at any given moment. If a muscle is stretching too far and too fast, these receptors send the appropriate signal and tell the muscle to contract.

Obviously muscle contraction is counter to what we are trying to accomplish through stretching and needs to be avoided during this process. This is part of the reason why bouncing during the stretch process is universally discouraged.

quad stretch

Principles of Stretching: When to Stretch

The American College of Sports Medicine (A.C.S.M.) has done a lot of research on stretching and is one of the better resources on the topic. Although we generally accept that stretching is good, it is also important to recognize that stretching may be most beneficial at a certain time and place.

In at least one study by the A.C.S.M., they concluded that athletes who stretch while cold prior to training may be more prone to injury than if they didn’t stretch at all! Some of their other studies didn’t go quite this far, but several have concluded that stretching cold before your workout is unlikely to prevent injury.

Therefore, the best time to stretch is when your muscles and connective tissue are warmed up. Warm-up doesn’t require a lot of time and effort, so a few minutes of walking or other physical activity may be plenty. This is not to say that stretching cold is to be avoided completely, but some research indicates that the benefit may be nominal.

Principles of Stretching: Benefits of Stretching

Clearly many benefits are associated with greater flexibility. First and foremost is the reduction of pain and stiffness, but just being able to get to your shoe so you can tie it can be a great accomplishment for some. Preventing soft tissue injuries thanks to greater joint mobility and increasing overall athletic ability can be very important, but the simple ability to comfortably look over your shoulder to check whether the traffic lane is clear before changing lanes can be critical.

We each are different in terms of our natural flexibility; while some of us need to strengthen and stabilize our joints because we are too mobile, others need to increase mobility and strengthening the surrounding muscles is less important.

Principles of Stretching: How To Stretch

I remember watching an episode of the Andy Griffith show when I was young that included a community discussion about the proper way to pray. Some insisted that you should have your hands clasped in front of you, while others were certain that you should first be kneeling. Finally the town preacher was called into the discussion and asked for his final decision on the matter. After some thought he acknowledged that although he felt that the discussion had value, he was also pretty certain that the most effective prayer he had experienced himself was when he was falling head first down a well.

I mention this episode because you will find a variety of views on stretching. Aaron Mattes and Bob Anderson may not agree on the specific methods in their well-written books, but the principle of stretching they do agree on is that it is best to do your stretching before falling down the well. Although stretching can help after you have an injury, being dedicated to the process in advance will serve you best.

Also, listening to your body when you are stretching is very important. Personally, I like to settle into the stretch position and once I have gone as far as I comfortably can initially, I take three or four relaxed full breaths. I also find that releasing the stretch for 30 seconds or so and then doing it a second time seems to work best for me.

Principles of Stretching: Just Get Started

In one study several years ago the A.C.S.M. determined that stretching five times a day over eight weeks let participants significantly alter resting muscle length. I like citing this study because most people respond by saying they could never be that dedicated to the process.

However, what the study didn’t acknowledge was that the process started with one stretch. Finding time during your day to fit in a few stretches can be difficult, so that’s why the stretches I have listed on my site use what you have handy. Any new habit takes a little time to develop, and you may be wise to make this process more about having a little quiet time than about stretching.