Do you enjoy the feeling of stretching pain? Some people do (think yoga).
But most do not.
Please no hate mail, I actually enjoy yoga (a bit), but I believe the majority of people do not enjoy the pain of stretching…
So why do we stretch? Generally, people stretch because they want to achieve something. They want something to be different in their life: more flexible hamstrings so they can bend over and tie shoes easier, more flexible shoulders so they can reach back or overhead better, or martial artists want to kick higher so they work on the splits.
The vast majority of people stretch for a specific reason. And there is emerging science around flexibility versus range-of-motion training that is quite profound and could change how you approach stretching. By making a very small change in your approach, you could see HUGE changes in your range of motion (quickly), and make your life a lot easier…
Think About the Muscle to Increase Tension
First, to understand this concept we need to talk about EMG (electromyography). In EMG, electrodes are placed on a muscle while a person contracts it or does something with their body. This allows scientists to measure the activity in that muscle while it works and actually see how hard it’s working—a very simplified explanation, but that’s basically how it works.
If we take two different types of athletes, a bodybuilder athlete and a field sport athlete, and we measure activity in their muscles we’re going to see two very different phenomena. Let’s say we put the EMG electrodes on the bicep and ask the bodybuilder to do a biceps curl. And we tell them, “Think hard about the muscle. Think about making it contract hard. Focus on what you’re feeling.” We find in the EMG data that the muscle activity went up. Way up!
You might already be aware of this. It’s an old school bodybuilding technique. For many years really big, strong people have said, “Hey, if you want to get stronger and bigger think about the muscle while you work it. Think about how it feels and try to make it contract harder.”
Think About the Movement to Decrease Tension
Conversely, if a field sport athlete’s bicep is measured doing something like throwing, or a Jui-Jitsu fighter grappling, no matter how “hard” they move we find a very different activation pattern in the muscle. It’s significantly less.
The athlete is not focused on the muscle itself. Instead, they’re focused on something external: hitting a target, performing a maneuver, etc. EMG on that bicep shows that activity in the muscle is much lower when thinking externally. Which makes sense, right? An athlete’s primary goal is efficiency, not maximum tension, which burns up energy.
What researchers are finding is that there’s a big difference between an internal focus and an external focus with regards to what happens inside a muscle. Going “inward” with your attention actually makes a muscle develop more tension, contract harder, and/or be stiffer.
What researchers are finding is that there’s a really big difference between an internal focus and an external focus with regards to what happens inside a muscle. Going “inward” with your attention actually makes a muscle develop more tension, contract harder, and/or be stiffer.
So let’s go back to, “why are you stretching?” If you’re stretching in order to achieve better range of motion you should be applying your focus externally, not internally. Focusing internally on the muscle will actually decrease how far you can stretch. Let’s say a man wants to train to touch his toes because he believes that will improve his ability to do tasks below his knees without hurting his back. So, he starts working on hamstring flexibility. He bends over reaching for his toes and starts “feeling” the stretch. “Oh, I can feel that just below my hip!” “Wow, that’s so tight!” “Oh, and now I can feel it behind my knee, that’s really sore!…”
You get the picture? He’s placed his focus internally on what the muscle is doing and that will limit how far he will stretch.
Test this on yourself right now. Step back, put your foot up on a chair, and do a hamstring stretch, reaching for your toes and focusing on how it feels when you get to the “end” of your stretch. Stop at your “pain tolerance” and mark how far you reached using a point on your leg. Try this now, then come back to read the next paragraph.
Now let’s try it with an external focus. Do the same thing but now set a target with your eyes outside of your body and try to make your shirt or wristwatch touch that target, e.g., think of making your watch reach down and touch your shoe, (two completely external targets). Went a lot further, didn’t you?!
The brain loves goals; it loves to hit targets outside the body… It’s actually wired to operate on the external world, e.g., chase and catch your prey, climb and pick that fruit…
When most people try to improve their flexibility they focus on what they feel… “oh, that hurts so good!” “That shoulder is so tight!…” That’s an internal focus. And the brain will stop you from going as far into the range of motion.
The limit of “flexibility” is not a “short muscle.” It’s the brain’s preset limit for how far it will let you go based on feeling. There are no tight cadavers… When you die you’ll be very flexible!
So, whatever your goal—improve shoulder range of motion for a better tennis serve, or bend over and tie your shoes more effectively—having an external focus as you do your range of motion training is going to make you achieve your goal A LOT faster!
Below are a few more photos of typical stretches and ways to make them an externally focused movement rather than internally focusing on feeling the stretch. Notice how much further I’m able to “stretch.” That’s the goal, right?!
As always, don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions or would like to talk about specific ranges of motion you struggle with. We’re here for you!
Until next time,
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