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The thing is, I don’t stretch.

I know. I know. I, of all people, should stretch. I know all about the benefits of stretching. Trust me, I work with fascia all day. I see the evidence of stretching, or not, every day I go to work. And it’s not just anecdotal evidence that stretching is really, really good for you. There have been approximately 1,453,622* studies done on the benefits of stretching and they all prove, without a doubt, that stretching is good for you.

But truth be told, the only time I’ve done yoga in the last five years was at a bachelorette party last month. And the only reason I did yoga then was because everyone else was doing yoga and playing another round of Truth or Dare by myself while everyone else did yoga would have been super weird. It’s not that I don’t like yoga. I really enjoy yoga every time I do it. I just enjoy lots of other things more. Like eating cheese. And hiking. And telling my dog, Bumblebee, how cute he is. And there are only so many hours in the day, you know?

So, when it comes to stretching, I only do it when something hurts. Which means, no, I don’t stretch before or after I run, even if it’s a 30-mile run. No, I don’t stretch before or after playing volleyball. No, I didn’t stretch even once during the five weeks I was backpacking the Colorado Trail. And no, I don’t stretch before or after my completely awesome solo (unless Bumblebee joins me) dance parties in my living room.

However. I am getting older and maybe, (hopefully?) wiser. And now, I’m trying to change that. See, the problem with only stretching when things hurt, is that things are more likely to hurt. Like, every time I decide, This Is It! I am going to finally (finally!) do one pull-up, ever! So, I spend lots of time hanging from and jumping up to my pull-up bar for a few days or maybe even a couple weeks. But inevitably, I pull a rib out of place. Because I, like almost all of us, work with my arms out in front of me. And I, like almost all of us, spend more time than I should on my computer and my phone. And I, like almost all of us, don’t spend enough time climbing trees or swinging from the monkey bars (though I’m getting better!). And I, like almost all of us, have shoulders that round forward as a result, with shortened pec muscles (minor and major) as well as a whole host of other shortened muscles, like the coracobrachaialis, and the subclavius, and the platysma, and the sternocleidomastoid, if you really want to sound like a nerd. And as those muscles are already shorter than they would be ideally, and putting strain on those first few ribs as a result, when I go and give them a heavier load than they’re used to carrying, they can only take so much. Or, more accurately, the muscles in the back, trying to counteract all this new strain can only take so much. And eventually, just like an incredibly painful teeter-totter, the rib caught in the middle of this mess tilts down in the front and up in the back, aggravating the corresponding nerve ganglia, and then I can’t turn my head to check my blind spot for the next week. It is at this point of agony, and only at this point of agony, will I stretch (but only the side that hurts and only the muscles that might help my rib get back in place) in an effort towards being able to sleep at night. And my pull-up training stops for the next three months. I’m not saying I’m proud of this. I’m saying it’s the truth.

As you can imagine, I’m not getting great results with this system of training. I’ve still never done a pull-up. Hence, my new attempt at stretching before things get painful. My theory is that if I can stretch my way to a more balanced body prior to increasing the load, I will get better a better outcome. Kinda like getting an alignment before taking your car on a 3,000-mile road trip. Can’t hurt, right?

All this is just one, very long lead-in to why I’m writing you today. So many people ask me so many times a week about stretching. Which stretches they can do to help their particular issues. How to stretch this or that muscle. And while I am more than happy to give specific stretch recommendations (I do know a fair amount about stretching even if I don’t practice what I preach very often), it seems like there are three big things I want to tell everyone, regardless of their particular issue, or which stretch they’re attempting. They’re the three things that I always try to keep in mind when I’m stretching. And since I stretch so rarely (until now!) I’ve had to make sure it really counted. So. No matter if you’re stretching your hip flexors or your quads or the bottoms of your feet, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Hold each stretch longer than you think you need to. If you’re trying to change the structure of your body (and not just get a muscle to relax temporarily), you need a Rolfer. Or, aim to hold each stretch for at least 45 seconds. Or both. But we’re talking about stretching here. If you want to change your fascia, hold your stretches for a long time. Remember, you’re trying to counteract years of sitting at a computer or driving or looking at your phone. 10-20 seconds isn’t going to cut it. Yin yoga, where poses are held for several minutes, is excellent for this reason.

2. ‘Rainbow’ your stretches. We tend to think of our muscles as individuals. The Deltoid. The Psoas. The Trapezius. The Gastrocnemius for the aforementioned nerds. But the thing is, each of those muscles is made up of so many muscle fibers. And they don’t all act as one. The anterior (front) fibers of the deltoid help lift your arm out in front of you, but the posterior (back) fibers have to relax in order to allow that motion to happen. Which means, if you’re trying to stretch your deltoid, you need to stretch it in more than one direction to stretch all the fibers in that muscle. Anytime you’re stretching, try to stretch all the fibers of that muscle, little by little. For instance, take your basic calf stretch. Your toes are elevated on something like a curb or a bolster or a folded blanket, while your heel is on the ground. Then you lean your body forward to get that nice calf stretch you know and love so well. To rainbow this stretch, turn your toes in towards your midline, as if you were pigeon-toed, and do the stretch again. By degrees, bring your toes up to neutral, stretching as you go, then turn your toes out to the side as far as you can, still stretching as you go. In this particular example, you’re conveniently drawing a rainbow with your toes while you stretch. You’ll be getting a much more complete calf stretch this way, addressing so many more of the issues that come from having tight/short calf muscles.

3. Don’t just stretch what hurts. It’s the victim who complains, not the perpetrator. If your IT (iliotibial) bands, running down the outsides of your thighs, are chronically aching, I understand the urge to stretch them. Just don’t forget to also stretch your adductors, on the insides of your thighs, too. When the back of your neck is throbbing, it’s usually a result of shortened muscles in the front of the neck. Wherever you feel pain or discomfort, try to think about what’s on the other side of that; what’s the counter-muscle? Try stretching that as well as what’s ailing you. You’ll probably be surprised at how tight something that wasn’t hurting can be.

That’s it. Three things I’m keeping in mind as I work towards that first pull-up. It’s gonna happen. I can feel it.

Happy stretching!

*I made that number up. I have no idea how many studies have been done on the benefits of stretching, but it’s a lot.

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