Have you ever had you flexibility checked at a physical therapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor? If so then you have likely heard them ask you to relax. Once you relax, the therapist is able to move the joint freely. They do this either assess a muscle or perform the therapy needed for it’s healing. This same ability to relax is essential when doing any flexibility work at home. It is common knowledge that if you are tense your muscles will not stretch as far. They have good reason for needing to be coaxed into the stretch though.
Each of your muscles has a “stretch reflex.” This means that as you stretch a muscle that same muscle will immediately begin to contract. It actively tries to pull back against the passive stretch. The primary reason for this is self protection. If it didn’t resist the stretch when you try and touch your toes you could easily reach too far and tear the muscle. This protection becomes even more apparent if you have ever injured a muscle. The muscle becomes even more wary of stretching and tenses quicker in order to keep the injury from getting worse.
How to Relax
If your goal is to lengthen the muscle though, then you have to be able to turn down the intensity of your stretch reflex. This lets you go a little deeper into the stretch than normal. Overtime this improves the overall length of the muscle.
When you are stretching at home or doing other mobility work the easiest way to relax into a deeper range of motion is by controlling your breathing. We recommend a 1 to 2 cadence for inhales to exhales. Start with lengthening your inhale to 4 seconds, hold the tension for a split second, and then slowly exhale for 8 seconds. During the exhale focus on releasing the tension in the designated area. During this time you should be able to sink deeper into the stretch. Start the next inhale from your new position and repeat for about 2:00.
Adding this to your mobility routines will not only help you get more flexible, but will increase your overall mood afterwards too!