The Stretch Reflex | Why less is sometimes more

Doing textbook stretches but the body rejects your efforts? Trying to hold a position but the body is shaking or bouncing you out of it? Not seeing any benefits from your stretching routine? Then read on, this one is for you...

You will sometimes hear me talk about a ‘Stretch Reflex’ in my mobility classes. I believe that you can sometimes get better results from stretching by easing back on the intensity of your stretch. Now, for many of us this is a bit of a strange concept. In fitness training we are usually conditioned to believe that ‘more reps’, ‘more speed’, ‘more range’ etc. is better. So when you hear someone say less is better, this can be a bit confusing and go against our natural thoughts.

As a coach and instructor, a challenge of mine is often trying to get participants to ‘dial it back’. I want quality over quantity. With weights, I see people lift waaay too heavy, resulting in poor form and the pressure loading into the wrong areas of the body. With yoga, I see the stubborn egos never taking that first option but jumping into the most difficult positions and never using the blocks despite the body shaking and protesting. It’s tough as an instructor to try and communicate that these individuals need to dial it back, as many people see it as a failure rather than an opportunity to improve and flourish in the future. I get it, we all struggle with this sometimes.

The same goes for stretching.

Despite stretching often being the calmer part of a workout program, people still want to intensely stretch out the muscle so they can really feel like some serious lengthening is happening in the targeted area. And kudos to this commitment. But now let us redirect this commitment by understanding and educating ourselves on how we are going to stretch in my mobility classes.

What is the stretch reflex?

I’ll try not to get super scientific here and keep it relevant, but in a nutshell the stretch reflex is the nervous system trying to protect you from tearing a part of your body. What a clever body we have!

Firstly, let’s learn a little bit of background on the nervous system…

To perform bodily movements, we have conscious and unconscious (automatic) responses in the nervous system.

If we want to chop an onion, our brain tells the body to chop the onion through nerve impulses out of brain, down the spinal cord and into the intended arms, hands and fingers.

However, there are many processes which do not require direct thoughts to complete. For example, our immune system will automatically get to work if we have to fight off something nasty, or when we exercise our breath and heart rate automatically increase. We don’t tell the body to do it, it just does it. The stretch reflex is another automatic response from the nervous system. The body will react automatically to the specific stimulus without us consciously interfering.

The stretch (or myotatic) reflex is a pre-programmed response by our body to a stretch stimulus in the intended muscle we are working on. When the muscle is stretched heavily, the muscle’s ‘spindles’ (which have the nerve endings) will then send an impulse shooting to the spinal cord and this results in the muscle automatically contracting. The impulse ONLY goes to the spinal cord, not the brain, so we don’t think about it or process it, it just happens and therefore it is a quick involuntary response.

In the spinal cord, the motor neuron carrying the impulse is actually split into a signal to contract the muscle needing help and also to relax the opposing (antagonist) muscle. So for example, if the quad muscle was being overstretched, the quad would have a stretch reflex and contract, whilst the hamstring would relax.

Why do we get the stretch reflex?

The stretch reflex is designed to protect us. It is a protective mechanism! This helps prevent strain and tear injuries to our muscles and tendons. This impulse to contract the muscle or muscle surrounding the tendon means that it is protecting itself from being pulled forcefully or stretched beyond a normal range of motion.

This can be triggered by a stretch of any length and as long as the muscle is being stretched beyond a normal range of motion, the response will occur. Therefore, whether you bounce into your stretch (not recommended) or go too deep into your Yin Yoga posture, if it’s too much for the muscle, it will let you know about it.

How can we manage the stretch reflex and stretch safely?

Simply put, we should learn how to stretch better. Often we spend a lot of time learning how to do our workouts with great form and clarity but then the stretching at the end happens and we switch off, flop around for a while and then get on with our day. Stretching has technique too!

So here are some tips from me to you:

No bouncy bodies

You’ve probably seen people do it, you’ve maybe even tried it. I have no idea where this bouncing stretch technique came from but I wish it would bounce away into oblivion. Using momentum to push/bounce very briefly to your excessive range of motion and then bounce back is not a safe technique and your poor body is probably trying to send you the stretch reflex impulses on loop whilst you are bouncing around in a hamstring stretch. If you are a bouncer, please stop! Your stretching movements should be smooth and gentle without momentum.

Immediately pushing beyond your maximum range

I get it, the workout is complete and you want to get on with your day. It is tempting to just go into the most extreme range where you feel a ‘good’ stretch, but stretching takes patience and you have to let your body relax into it.

Imagine your muscles as a big hunk of butter taken straight out of the fridge and plonked onto your toast. Chances are that if you try to spread the butter straight away on the toast, it is not going to work very well and you will probably tear the toast up and all the butter will be in one or two big blobs.

Imagine if you took the butter out a little earlier, let it come to room temperature and then spread it on the toast… It melts into the toast evenly and is delicious. This takes more time and a little bit of forward planning, but the results are so much better (and tastier!). Your stretching technique is like your buttery bread. Melt slowly into the stretch rather than tearing up the body in a hurry.

Yin yoga is probably one of the best examples of this. In yin yoga you often have props to help support your body and you come into a posture for a long time, like 4 minutes or longer! If you go into your most extreme end range, that 4 minute hold is not going to happen and the struggle will be real, the body will resist and you will become frustrated. However, get the props supporting areas that need help, get comfortable so you feel slight stretching and then feel the tension dissipate whilst you find a little bit more range.

Now we can’t all have a yin yoga class booked in as the cool down of our training, so instead maybe use a timer and try to be disciplined to hold a stretch for at least 20 seconds each (preferably longer but hey, I know life can get in the way) and just to relax by breathing into the body. If the breath is ragged, body is shaking and the muscles are contracting, then you should reset, pull it back and try again. Mild tension is what we want here, give your body some love!

Yanking your body into the ‘perfect’ position

This is the most common case I see!

Okay, so you want to be bendy like your youtube yoga teacher, as they put their nose down onto their knees on that forward fold and basically folds themselves in two. Whereas you feel a bit useless with your hamstrings protesting whilst you are sitting upright. So what do you do? You grab your leg with your hands and start pulling yourself down further only to feel that body protest and bounce you back upright. Cue frustration, cue an overstretched hamstring, cue ‘this stretching / yoga thing isn’t for me’.  

Often we want results and we want results quickly, so whilst the overly bendy people in the world make stretching look impressive and easy, for many of us, if we do it correctly, it is a bit tricky and it takes time and patience. Remember the butter analogy above? Pulling and yanking our protesting bodies deeper into poses that it is already struggling with will achieve nothing except frustration. It will hinder your progress.

Instead, maybe for that forward fold, get up onto a block if you have tight hips, hinge from those hips rather than pull into the lower back and just let the arms rest down on your legs and let yourself breathe and relax as much as possible over your lower limbs. If you feel a nice stretch in the desired area, you are doing great! Who cares if your youtube-r can touch their nose to their knees?! We don’t need hamstrings that are ‘nose to knees’ flexible for really any purpose in our lives, so you do you! Enjoy the stretch for the reasons why you are doing the stretch. I personally focus it around complimenting the primary movements/sport/hobbies that I enjoy.

If this resonates with you, then in our next mobility class, I challenge you to take this advice on board. To avoid the stretch reflex and a whole heap of frustration, use as many props as you require. Pause the video if you need more set up time and if your body protests, take a step back, adjust, adapt and melt into your muscles rather than pull yourself around.

Less. Is. More.

Function and form

The stretch reflex can also occur when the function and form of the stretch is compromised.

First off, the function of when to stretch. Stretching deeply with a cold body is a big nono for me. Your warm up before training is not a deep pigeon pose, but should rather be dynamic mobility based movements with (if relevant) some heart rate raising exercises. If you stretch deeply on a cold body, chances are your body will let you know about it with heaps of stretch reflexes. Let’s keep these stretches for when the body is warm.  

In my mobility classes, you may notice the pattern that the deepest stretches often come last. Finishing with these more intense stretches will give our body time to warm up and be ready, rather than in shock and resisting with the reflex.

Secondly, figure out your form and alignment. We get tired at the end of a class and so often I see some very floppy and nasty looking positions as people go through their tick box routine of stretches. If the form and alignment is incorrect, the body may let you know about it with a stretch reflex because something just isn’t right. Consider the targeted area and the range of motion that you want it to go through and really ensure that this is happening!

So, less is more?

For me and stretching, I do believe less is more in terms of intensity. The less you push, pull, force and yank your body into a stretch, the more you will enjoy the experience and the body will reap the benefits. Use props if you need props. Try to keep really attentive during your stretches and listen to the signals your body gives you. Use your breath, which can help calm down your nervous system and thus result in us melting further into the pose. Remember you are looking for a mild tension or discomfort, not pushing as far as you can physically hold onto.

Closing thoughts

Remember WHY you stretch. For the vast majority of us, we don’t want to get super tight in the body after working out and want to help prevent injuries.

Unless you need a large amount of flexibility for your chosen sport (such as gymnastics, some martial arts or dance), extreme complex stretches or stretching routines aren’t actually required and we do more potential damage to our bodies with decreased stability around our joints. Therefore, let yourself relax into your stretches. Enjoy your down time! Don’t compare yourself to others and get what your body and hobbies specifically need from stretching.

Remember that our mobility classes always have a little bit of a stretching and lengthening, so now you can put this theory into practice! Let’s Move Better by stretching better.

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