The Science Of Stretching

The Science Of Stretching

Yoga makes us stronger – fact. Yoga increases flexibility – also fact. But how?

Going From Strength To Strength

Yoga poses, or āsana, are a wonderfully effective form of strength training.  It is easy to strengthen muscles, you just need to work them harder than they are used to and they will get stronger. “Which poses build strength?” I hear you ask. Answer: all those that make your muscles work hard, be it sun salutes, balances, standing poses, vinyasa… the list goes on.

We can make them even more effective by holding them for longer or by making them harder to hold. Think of Three-Legged Dog Pose, lifting one leg makes our arms and core work so much harder, doesn’t it? If you want, try holding it longer than usual, and you can feel exactly which muscles will be getting stronger as they start to burn.

The really good news is that you only have to work muscles every 48 hours to get the best return on your effort. So, you only need to do strengthening work three times a week to build strength. So, anyone doing a daily āsana practice would do well to concentrate on strength work every other day and maybe focus on flexibility the other days.

The Long And The Short Of It

Image Credit: Shelley Rodrigo on Flickr.
Image Credit: Shelley Rodrigo on Flickr.

How do we focus on flexibility? Simply working though our āsanas with attention to good alignment will gradually lengthen soft tissues. Whenever we can feel stretch, we are lengthening those tissues that are under tension. It is worth remembering that a gentle stretch sensation that stays the same or eases as you hold a stretch is the best way to stretch muscles.

If you push a muscle too hard into a stretch you will stimulate nerve endings that are there to protect the muscle from damage. If these sensors are triggered, the muscle will react by contracting, or getting shorter, to protect itself. Ultimately, overstretching triggers these sensors and leads to shorter muscles — not longer ones! 

For most people it is muscles and fascia, a type of connective tissue, that lengthen to give the first few months or years of gains in flexibility. Sometimes the deep connective tissue round joints, called capsules, will be tight and these can be stretched out too. Why do these things get tight in the first place? It’s basically a case of, if you don’t use it, you lose it. 

If you don’t stretch you arms above your head for a few weeks or months, the tissues that need to be stretchy in order to do that start to shorten. Then, the next time you try to stretch up it feels more uncomfortable and you probably can’t reach quite as far. Sound familiar ? That is your body gradually getting fixed into the positions that it spends most time in which is not good. Yoga gradually lengthens out those shortened tissues and helps regain movement that had been lost.

Stretching Top Tips

There are some really easy techniques that you can use to make your muscle stretching even more effective. If you work a muscle before you stretch it, it will lengthen further. Let’s think about your quadriceps, on the front of the thigh and imagine you are balancing in Dancer Pose. Simply fighting to bend your back leg more won’t get you very far. Instead, if you use your quads to try and straighten the knee of your non-standing leg (by pushing your toes into your hand for a few seconds), your knee will bend a bit further when you relax and draw your toes towards you again.

You can also deepen your stretch by working the muscle that does the opposite action. This time, imagine you are in a Forward Fold. If you tighten your quads, your hamstrings will automatically relax and stretch further. This is called reciprocal inhibition and is used in lots of yoga poses to increase hamstring flexibility in particular.

Image Credit: Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr.
Image Credit: Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr.

A Word Of Caution

Everybody is different. We won’t all be able to achieve the same flexibility no matter hard we work. Not everyone is destined to be able to put their feet behind their head, but we can all stretch effectively and safely if we follow the simple rule of being kind to our bodies. Do not force stretches, and work with your muscles, not against them. 

Yoga will lengthen and strengthen your muscles with the added bonus of toning, sculpting and improving your posture. I can’t think of a better way to get that bikini body can you? I’m off now to do one of this week’s strength sessions – fancy joining me? I’d love to hear how great you feel once you start working with your body to gain length and strength. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Subscribe here for more great articles