What’s your go-to stretch? Pulling your leg up behind your back? Bending at the waist and grabbing your toes? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you’re using external force when you stretch, you may not be stretching the tissues you think you are.
I teach my patients what I call “active stretching”. Active stretching is a specific and proper way to stretch that builds muscle balance and control around the joint.
Active vs Passive Stretching
My guess is you know the difference between active and passive in general. It’s really important to learn the difference between active and passive stretching. Active stretching uses the muscles around that joint to stretch the tissues. In other words, the muscles that control the joint should do the stretching and strengthening around that joint. It’s all about muscle balance and control—we want the muscles around your spine, knee, shoulder, and each joint to do the stretching and build stability and control in the process.
Passive stretching, on the other hand, is stretching using external force. Think about pulling your knee towards your chest to stretch your hamstrings and gluteal muscles. What’s getting stronger, your leg? Or the arms pulling on your leg? When you release your arms, you might find that you can’t hold your leg in that position! Your strong arms have pulled on leg tissues and your stretched, weak leg is now insufficient to control the motion and position of your leg.
Passive Stretching Is All Around You
So, what does passive stretching look like? Look around you. Passive stretching is most common because people naturally use their strong muscles to do work that their weak muscles can’t do. When you passively stretch, you use one arm to pull on your neck, or leg, or the other arm.
Do you use that arm to move and control those joints? No, you have just stretched, loosened, or destabilized those areas with external force. You might think you are stretching your hamstrings (the back of your thigh) by sitting on the floor, leaning over, and touching your toes when, in reality you are probably stretching your lower back or sacroiliac tissues. The weight of your upper body will pull on the weakest area. Your hamstring muscles are larger and stronger than your spinal muscles so, without protecting your back, it is those smaller, weaker back tissues that will give and be stretched. Your hamstrings won’t be touched.
The strong get stronger and the weak get weaker. Active stretching protects the weak, vulnerable areas while specifically stretching desired tissues.
It’s not what you do, but more how you do it that counts.
The 5 Essentials of Active Stretching
So there are a few tips that can help us make sure we’re properly performing active stretches. Don’t worry, it’s easy to get the hang of!
First, we want to warm up. Stretching without warming up can cause muscle damage. Make sure you are nice and warm beforehand. Mayo Clinic recommends 5-10 minutes of low intensity activity before you stretch, to prevent injury. Go ahead and do some stairs, jogging in place or jumping rope, and get that blood pumping!
2. Avoid Using External Force
The second thing we want to remember is not to use external force. I know, that can be a tall order, especially when our muscles aren’t yet as strong as we want them to be but active stretching will build strength and stability. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t hold the position for very long. 5 seconds will turn into 30 seconds quickly. It’s terrific that you’re learning to stretch without external force!
3. Focus On Quality
Quality is more important than quantity. How you do an activity is most important.
This third principle is critical. Just as we are pointing out the differences between active stretching and passive stretching, exercising in poor posture or using the wrong muscles to accomplish the desired action will hurt, not help. Remember, the strong will get stronger and the weak will get weaker naturally. The weak and vulnerable areas will be stressed and weakened more if not protected. The strong will always overpower the weak unless you act to protect and specifically use the muscles that control the action to get the desired tissue balance and joint stability.
4. Hold It
Fourth, please try to hold your stretches in excellent position for 30 seconds. Do not bounce! Holding your best position for 30 seconds allows the tissues to stretch. Just like a rubber band, the tissues will contract back to their previous length if you bounce or don’t hold your active stretch in excellent position for 30-60 seconds. A 30 second hold, watching the quality of your movement, will allow the tissue fibers to stretch enough to maintain a longer position.
This is called “muscle plasticity” and is defined as the ability of a given muscle to alter its structural and functional properties in accordance with the environmental conditions imposed on it. Pay attention to your form, and be sure you’re getting it right.
5. Move It Or Lose It
Finally…MOVE IT OR LOSE IT! Make sure you lock in your stretch, strength, and stability gains by stretching regularly and correctly. So aim for consistency, and make active stretching a part of your lifestyle! If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
Active Stretching in Action
Stretching is a bit like swimming or painting or even gardening. You don’t know what you can accomplish until you give it a try. You can read about swimming all day long, but until you get in the water you’ll never know what it really feels like. Let’s look at some concrete examples so you can see exactly what active stretching looks like for you.
Hamstrings Active Stretch
Let’s try an active stretch for your hamstrings. Lie on your back on the floor with a rolled bath towel (about 1.5-2.0 inches thick) under your back at the waist. With your legs straight, pull one bent knee toward your chest, until your hip is bent 90 degrees.
Use only your leg strength—no hands! —to hold your thigh vertical, at 90 degrees. Keep your other leg straight, flat on the floor and your back against the rolled towel. Hold the 90-degree hip flexion position as you slowly straighten your knee as far as you can without moving your thigh. You probably cannot straighten your knee completely—in fact, your knee may be bent quite a bit. But if you have kept your hip bent at 90 degrees, you are effectively stretching your hamstrings—you are actively stretching!
Your quadriceps muscles (on the front of your thigh) are stretching the opposing hamstrings muscles, and these two muscle groups control your knee motion. For best results, do this exercise at least 3 times per day until you are able to straighten your knee while holding your leg at 90 degrees of hip flexion.
Building balanced tissue length and strength in our legs help us walk, climb, and descend stairs properly, and maintain balance to prevent falls. When we’re stretching actively, we see the agonist muscles stretching the opposing or antagonist muscles. It’s all about balance and control being developed between the agonist (the muscle doing the work), and the antagonist (the muscle being stretched).
Remember–active stretching protects the weak and vulnerable and specifically targets tight, stronger muscles.
Quadriceps Active Stretch
A popular passive stretch that many folks think is good for them is the stretch where you reach behind and pull your leg up behind you to stretch your quadriceps. Your arms are getting the workout with that one.
Instead lie on your back on your bed again with the rolled towel protecting your lower back. Drop your legs over the edge of the bed at the knees so your lower legs are hanging down. Gently pull your heels back toward the bed. Feel the stretch along the top of your thighs–stretching your quadriceps. If your hamstrings (muscle on the back of your thigh) begin to cramp relax and straighten your knee. Cramping with this activity means that the hamstrings are weak. Now try again slowly. Eventually the cramps will cease as your hamstrings become stronger through the range of motion. To get up roll to the side and then push yourself up.
Scriptures and Prayer
You have done great today! Learning how to stretch actively helps us grow, balance tissues around our joints, increase joint stability, prevent joint degeneration and damage, improve strength and function. It gives us muscle control, and that is very important for good balance, posture (our structural foundation), and longevity!
Proper stretching is foundational. Active stretching cares for your body and increases joint stability and control so you can live in joy and vibrant health. Improper stretching and poor posture begins to add up over time. We need to test and examine our ways. I think of Lamentations 3:40, which says: “Instead, let us test and examine our ways. Let us turn back to the Lord.”
And Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the holy spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. There is no law against those things that the holy spirit builds in it.” Staying connected to God and rooted in His truth during difficult and happy times helps us produce fruit to serve others and glorify our compassionate God.
So this is my prayer for you.
Father in heaven, Creator and King, thank You that You are with my friend, with me. You want us to be as healthy as possible. And all of the trials, the pains, the challenges that we encounter in life, You allow those. You don’t cause those, but You allow those things to turn us to You for strength. For guidance. For the best that we can be in this life and then certainly in Your presence for eternity, for joy.
I thank You, Father, that You have a plan and a purpose. If we live under the umbrella of Your care, we know that our pains have eternal purpose. We know that You will work things out for good if we trust in You, follow You, live under Your umbrella of care and protection. So I thank You for being there. Thank You for Your wisdom because we want to apply it to our lives.
I thank You for being with my friend, with me. Help us to warm up in Your presence and in Your word, and then to apply Your wisdom to our lives so that we can live in the best way for our good and for Your glory. I thank You for being again with my friend, for this time we’ve had together, and for the fact that You are with us wherever we go. In Jesus’s almighty name, I thank You and I pray. Amen.
I hope you stay safe and strong as you learn to strengthen and stretch actively!
Bonnie Yost, Physical Therapist