Learning to Stretch-Practicing Sensitivity and Control

Relaxing a muscle and contracting it are both aspects of controlling our body. We can improve our ability to stretch our muscles, activate them and strengthen them by learning to feel our muscles and control them. We can focus feeling the belly of the a muscle since this is the part that does the work. We can also learn to feel our bones and the points of attachment between muscle and bones.

Focusing on the belly of a muscle we can feel when that muscle contracts and relaxes.

Focusing on the endpoints of a muscle, the points at which it attaches to bone, we can move these points away from each other or towards each other to help stretch a muscle or activate it.

This article focuses on learning to feel, control and relax the belly of a muscle so that we can stretch it.

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Contents


Muscle Layout

Some muscles cross and act on only one joint. Some muscles cross or act on two joints. Yet other muscles cross multiple joints. The better we understand the “Layout” of a muscle and the bones that it attaches to, the easier it will be for us to direct our awareness to the appropriate place so that we can feel our muscles activating or relaxing, and so that we can control them. If we have an understanding of where a muscle is located we can put our awareness in that place to feel it.

Looking at any anatomy book, we can see learn where the belly of a particular muscle is and then try to may that awareness to our own body. As an example, the biceps is located at the front of the upper arm. The belly of the biceps is located between the elbow and the shoulder. To feel our biceps, it helps if we focus our attention on the front of our upper arm. If we then bend our elbow and straighten so that the biceps contracts and relaxes we can then practice feeling our biceps.

If at the same time we are aware of how the biceps connects to the shoulder blade and lower arm, we can notice any pulling sensations at the shoulder and elbow and based on those sensations decide whether we are actually engaging the biceps or some other muscle as well.

We may find that we are engaging the brachioradialis or the coracobrachialis, the first of which attaches the upper arm bone to the radius, the second of which attaches from the upper arm to the coracoid process on the shoulder blade.


Muscle Actions

So that we can learn to activate and relax muscle tissue at will some basic understanding of how muscles work with and against each other can be useful.

Bones connect at joints so that they can move relative to each other. Muscles act on bones across joints to either change the relationship of the bones at that joint or maintain that relationship.

  • A muscle can contract and “close” the side of the joint it works on. The greater the force it works against the greater the muscle needs to contract
  • Muscles can work against each other with unequal force so that a joint closes in the direction of the stronger muscle
  • Muscles can work against each other with equal force so that a joint is stable
  • A muscle can gradually relax and allow the side of the joint it works on to “open.”
  • All muscles that act on a joint can be relaxed so that the joint is able to move freely.

In the first case, a muscle might be working against some outside force, or the weight of the body part it is acting on. Holding one arm straight out in front, we can bend the elbow and cause the biceps to engage. Since it is only the weight of the arm that is moving, the force required is minimal.

Holding a weight with our arm down by our side, the greater the weight the greater the force our biceps would have to exert in order to bend the elbow.

With the arm in front or by our side we could tense the triceps, at the back of the arm, and then engage the biceps. If the force of the triceps is only slightly less than that of the biceps then the elbow will slowly bend. We can thus use one muscle to help us engage another muscle.

If we slowly relax the biceps, reduce the force that it exerts, or we increase the force that the triceps exerts, then we gradually open the elbow.

Thus we can use body weight, the weight of some external object or an opposing muscle to help contract a muscle. To relax a muscle we simply relax or release the force that it is working on.

If our focus is on relaxing muscle tissue so that it can be stretched we need to be aware of any opposing forces that a muscle may be acting against, whether body weight, an opposing muscle, or some external weight or force, so that we can negate that force and allow the muscle to relax.

Note that if for some reason we feel unsafe, we may tense muscles in opposition to create stability and safety. This can work against us if our intent is to stretch. If we can figure out the reason why we feel unsafe or position ourselves in such a way that we feel safe it may then be easier for us to relax and stretch.


Relaxing and Contracting

When the fibers in the belly of a muscle contract, the muscle tries to shorten and pull the bones it attaches to towards each other. I say “Tries to Shorten” because if a muscle works against against a greater force then it will actually lengthen. However if it is working against a lesser force then it will shorten. If it is working against an equal force then it will stay the same length.

When a muscle is relaxed or inactive it tends to return to its resting length. If the bones that it is attached to are moved away from each other then the muscle will be lengthened. If moved gradually beyond it’s resting length the muscle will actually be stretched.


Tendons-Connective Tissue that Transmits Force

The belly of a muscle is attached to bone via connective tissue called tendons.When a muscle contracts it pulls on tendons which in turn pull on the bones that they are attached to. When the bones that a muscle is attached to are pulled apart these same tendons then help to lengthen the belly of the muscle. When the belly of the muscle creates a pulling force, it is the tendons that transmit this force.

Tendons are made up of connective tissue and this connective tissue extends into the belly of the muscle itself. It defines bundles of muscle fibers and allows them to move relative to each other as well as giving them something to pull on when they contract.

The connective tissue within the belly of a muscle has some elasticity so that they help the belly of the muscle return to its resting length when relaxed. It is this connective tissue that is lengthened when a muscle is stretched.


Positioning The Body to Relax So That we can Stretch

Since muscle tissue can lengthen even when active (because it is trying to act against a greater force,) just because a muscle is lengthening when we pull on it doesn’t mean we are stretching it. If we want to stretch a muscle we need to relax it so that we stretch the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle. One possible way of doing this is to gradually relax a muscle as we lengthen it. We can practice gradually lengthening to the point of total relaxation, hold for a moment, and then gradually contract.

Part of relaxing muscles at will is positioning the body in such a way that the muscles we want to relax can relax. In general this can mean providing a stable foundation for the muscle(s) that we are trying to stretch. This means making one of the bones or body parts to which that muscle is attached stable. Then the other part can move relative to the stable part.

As an example, in a standing forward bend we are trying to move the pelvis relative to the legs to lengthen the hamstrings. Since the hamstrings attach from the lower leg to the pelvis, we can stabilize  the lower leg, including the shin, ankle and foot, to give the hamstrings a stable foundation.

Laying on our back and pulling one leg back and down, we are moving the leg relative to the pelvis. So that the pelvis is stable we can activate the abs to unify it with the ribcage and stabilize the lower back. We again give the hamstrings a stable foundation.

So that we can give the muscle(s) we are stretching a stable foundation we need to know which parts of the body a muscle attaches to, and which of those parts we are moving relative to the other. We can then stabilize the other part so that the muscle in question can be stretched.


Leading with a Clear Idea

Another part of stretching or allowing ourselves to stretch is having a clear idea of what we are trying to do. If we define a foundation as something that allows us to do what we are trying to do, whether it is erect a building or stretch a muscle, then we can say that a clear idea is a foundation of sorts because it allows us to get on with what we are trying to do. Without a clear idea we don’t know what we are trying to do, and so we may have an idea of getting more flexible but not knowing how we are trying to get flexible while in a particular pose.

For example, in a seated forward bend we can reach our legs forwards and push our pelvis back to create space in the hip joint so that it is easier to bend forwards.

There are four hip muscles that connect the thigh to the pelvis which can be used to create space between the pelvis and the thigh bone. When focusing on reaching the legs forwards and pushing the pelvis back we can help to activate these muscles.

Since these muscles also cause the thighs to rotate externally, we can counter this tendency by engaging the outer hip muscles. Since the outer hip muscles can also be used to tip the pelvis forwards, this is doubly advantageous if we are doing a forward bend.

If we also focus on the idea of reaching forwards in a forward bend (as opposed to downwards), the process of reaching forwards will gradually bring our chest towards our legs. For this to happen we have to tilt our pelvis forwards. For this to happen, our hamstrings have to lengthen and prior to that they have to relax.

The clear idea we can then focus on is reaching our torso and legs forwards (while pressing our pelvis back.) This clear idea holds all of the smaller ideas together. In the process we lengthen the hamstrings which is the big idea of what we are trying to do.

If we aren’t focused on that one clear idea, other ideas may be occupying our mind. “When will this be over…. I hate this stretch…. I can’t do this… this is so uncomfortable.” All of these are also clear ideas but they are also ideas that hinder what we are trying to do. If we want to lengthen a part of our body then that is what we can focus on doing. Our body is then more likely to follow.


Using Weight or Supporting It

When a muscle is “tense” it is more than likely working against some outside force. When we are stretching, a muscle may be tense because it is trying to prevent part of the body from falling or collapsing so as to not be overstretched. In fact, our body is working against what we are trying to do.

To help a “tense” muscle relax we can try to relax or negate any forces that it is acting against.

In a forward bend where we are trying to stretch the hamstrings, the hamstrings may actually be engaging to help support the weight of the upper body, to prevent it from moving forwards. So that we can negate this tendency we can support the weight of our upper body by using our arms. We can then wait for our hamstrings to relax and then we can lower our upper body slightly by bending the elbows. Our hamstrings then may engage again but here again if we support the weight of our body in this new position then our hamstrings may release again at which point we can lower our upper body further.

Once we’ve trained our hamstrings to stay relaxed we can use the weight of the ribcage that we were previously supporting to actually help stretch the hamstrings. We can slowly and smoothly reach our hands off of the floor so that our ribcage is unsupported and we can even add weight by reaching our arms slowly forwards.

If we do this slowly and smoothly we are less likely to cause our hamstrings to tense up in fear. If at the same time we reach our arms and ribcage forwards, the weight of our body can be used to gradually lengthen our hamstrings.


Practicing Relaxation and Activation

One final technique bears mentioning is using slow, rhythmic repeated movements to both stretch muscle tissue and activate it. Such movements can be done in time with the breath if we can breath slowly enough but they can also simply be done slowly enough and smoothly enough that we can feel our muscles and bones as we move our body.

As an example, in the forward bend we can support our upper body with our hands so that our hamstrings can relax, we can then smoothly take our hands off of the floor and then reach our arms, ribs and head forwards while inhaling. We can put our hands back down on the floor and relax and then repeat.

We can add “clear idea” practice to this by focusing on reaching forwards when inhaling (and making the lower legs stable at the same time since we want the pelvis to move relative to the legs) and focusing on relaxing while exhaling.

While inhaling our upper body reaches forwards and our pelvis tilts forwards. While exhaling we support our upper body and gradually allow it to relax downwards while relaxing the hamstrings at the same time.

As we practice this movement we may then find that we can keep our hamstrings relaxed even as we lift our upper body and reach it forwards. We thus help to lengthen the connective tissue that is within them.

Getting More Flexible-An Engineering Approach

Problem Solving

Many people turn to yoga as a way of dealing with a problem or problems. For myself the problem was that I was inflexible. I turned to yoga erroneously thinking that I could do it for three months, get flexible, and then get on with what I really wanted to do (run, skate, martial arts.)

I spent five years in university to learn one simple thing. In order to fix a problem you gotta know what it is. Prior to that it helps if you understand what you are working with. If you don’t understand what you are working with or what you are trying to do then part of the problem solving process is acquiring that understanding… in other words learning.

Its ten years later… or maybe 12 (time flies) and now I’m finally getting on with what I want to do. Part of the reason it has taken me so long is that in the process of making my body more flexible I’ve also been learning to understand it. Its so much easier to fix something when you understand what you are working with. I also had to learn what flexibility was. I had to define it. Then I could work towards acquiring it.

Flexibility Defined

For this article I’ll define flexibility as the ability for a muscle or muscles to relax and to be lengthened. The part that relaxes is the belly of the muscle, which is also the same part that contracts.

When a muscle is relaxed and then lengthened (or lengthened and gradually relaxed) the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle is stretched.

Flexibility is a quality of the connective tissue with our muscles. The more pliable our connective tissue is, the more flexible we are. The better we are at controlling our muscles, being able to relax as well as contract them at will, the better we can access this flexibility.

So to stretch and improve our flexibility, part of what we need to develop is control and part of that control is the ability to relax at will.

So one part of flexibility training is learning to relax the muscles we are stretching.

Learning to Relax

Part of learning to relax is learning to feel when muscles are relaxed and when they are engaged.

We can learn to feel our muscles by using and experiencing them. As an example, if we want to learn to feel our quadriceps, the large muscle at the front of the thigh that straightens the knee and helps to flex the hip, we can practice straightening the knee and allowing it to bend.

If we do this slowly we can feel the various groups of fibers as they activate (and as they relax.) Of course to do this we have to put our awareness in our knee and thigh, we have to focus on feeling our quadriceps. (And of course to do that we need to know where our quadriceps is and where its endpoints attach to.)

If we do the movement repeatedly and slowly we can notice changes in sensation and then we can differentiate the sensations that indicate muscle activity and those that indicate that the muscle is relaxed.

Another way to see if a muscle is relaxed is to shake it. So for example, if you roll your thigh from side to side and the quadriceps are relaxed, the muscle will “roll” from side to side. First experiencing this feeling and then memorizing it we may then make it easier on ourselves to find the sensation again, i.e. relax our muscles.

To learn to feel when a muscle is being stretched we can slowly move in and out of a stretching position and notice the changes in sensation.

By moving slowly we maximize our ability to keep the muscle we are stretching relaxed. By moving in and out of a stretch repeatedly we can learn the sensations that indication stretching and we can also enjoy the sensations that accompany the release of that stretch.

(As an aside, some of us enjoy these sensations more than others.)

A Stable Foundation for Relaxation

So that we can relax and then stretch another requirement is a stable foundation.

If we are standing on firm ground it is usually more easy to relax than if we are on ground that is moving or otherwise unstable.

In our relationship with the earth, if the earth is stable then we can relax. If the earth is unstable then we probably tense up in one way or the other.

Looking at the relationships of bone to bone and bone to muscle within our body:

  • If the two bones two which a muscle is attached are aligned with gravity or otherwise positioned so that they are stable then the muscle can relax.
  • If one bone is moving but the other bone is stable then depending on the type or intent of the movement that muscle can relax or slowly lengthen and then relax.
  • If both bones are unstable then chances are that any muscles that connect those bones will tense up.

To relax muscle (so that we can lengthen or strengthen) we can position our bones so that they are aligned with gravity or otherwise supported. So that we can relax and stretch we can make sure that one of the bones to which a muscle we want to stretch is stable and then we can focus on moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone so that the target muscle is lengthened and stretched.

Weight Control

Something to be aware of and this is further understanding, is that the parts of our body have weight. If one part of the body is stable and the other part is allowed to move, then chances are that the movement of the moving part is being assisted by gravity.

Because of this weight, any muscle that is potentially being stretched may tighten up to resist being stretched too fast or being stretched beyond breaking point. If a muscle is active or engaged, it can’t be stretched. So we need to overcome, prevent or counteract this mechanism.

If we control the rate at which the moving part moves, it may be  easier to avoid this automatic contraction. We can do this by moving slowly and gradually and even repeatedly.

As an example, in a standing forward bend lets assume we want to stretch the back of the thighs-the hamstrings. If we are standing then our legs will be the stationary element and we move our pelvis by tilting it forwards relative to the legs to stretch the hamstrings.

Since the hamstrings attach to the lower leg bones we can focus on making the feet, ankles and shins stable. Our hamstrings then have a fixed point so that they can lengthen. However they also are dealing with the whole weight of the upper body (pelvis, ribcage, head and arms) hinging at the hip joint. Our hamstrings may tighten to prevent being overstretched. However, if we use our hands to support the weight of our upper body, we can give our hamstrings time to relax. We can use blocks if we can’t reach the floor and push our hands down so that we push our ribcage up.

Since our goal is to lengthen the hamstrings we can slowly lower the ribcage under control by slowly bending the elbows. Better yet, we can bend the elbows slightly, notice the hamstrings and feel when they relax, and then bend the elbows some more.

Once we are practiced with this we may find that we can relax our hamstrings and keep them relaxed without using our arms. Instead we slowly relax our hamstrings to the point of complete relaxation.

Once they are relaxed we can then use the weight of the upper body to help lengthen the connective tissue and stretch it.

Using Weight to Stretch

In a standing forward bend if we want to use the weight of our upper body to help lengthen our hamstrings, we can grab our elbows and let our arms, head and ribcage hang down from our waist.

In a seated forward bend, if we want to add weight to stretch our hamstrings we can engage our back muscles to straighten our spine. We can even think of bending it backwards slightly. If we engage our spinal erectors to keep the spine straight (or bend it backwards) then we have the weight of our ribcage and head helping to tilt out pelvis forwards and lengthen our hamstrings.

Better yet, doing the opposite of before, if we lift our hands off of the floor and reach them forwards we can add even more weight to our upper body (instead of taking it off.) But so that our muscles don’t tighten up in defense, we can do this slowly and smoothly so as to keep our hamstrings relaxed. Then the weight of our upper body can be used to help lengthen the connective tissue within them.

If we understand our body and what flexibility is we can go about stretching in an effective manner.

We can position our body and provide the muscles we are stretching with a stable foundation, we can control the parts that move so that the muscle we are stretching can relax and stay relaxed, and prior to that or during that, we can practice activating and relaxing muscle tissue so that we can feel the sensations that are associated with both.