The importance of stretching in earnest

Courtesy of Alain Delmas (France)If you’re like the teeming masses of everyday people who’ve tried their hands at stretching, you know how tough it can be to make progress toward touching your toes or doing the splits.  It’s hard work stay motivated with your stretching regimen when nothing seems to be happening.  Well, here’s a tip for that next time you decide to stretch.  Take it SLOW.

According to Dr. Moshe Solomonow, Ph.D., M.D. at the Occupational Medicine Research Center at Louisiana State University, the faster you stretch, the more likely you are to injure your ligaments. Here’s how it works.

Your ligaments are not just like cables that pull on things.  The way a ligament lengthens and contracts depends on a variety of factors, particularly how quickly a stretch is happening and how close the ligament is to its max length.

In laboratory testing, Solomonow found that the faster a ligament gets stretched, the more the ligament tenses against the stretch while at the same time preventing reaching the ligament’s true max length.  So let’s say you’re standing up and you bend over to REALLY reach for your toes.  The more you reach and bounce and struggle and grunt and reach, the more tension you put into the ligaments, and the less likely you’ll ever get anymore length out of them (and the more likely you’ll end up damaging them).

Solomonow found, however, that if you apply a slow, constant stretch, a ligament will react with much less tension, thus allowing far more length.  So if you stretch slowly, you’ll get a little more length out of your stretch with a lot less effort and strain.  Ligaments don’t lengthen linearly and simply, though.  When you stretch, a ligament will only go to a certain point naturally.  You have to continue waiting with a slow, constant stretch before the ligaments lengthen more and allow you to get closer and closer to your toes!

After all that lengthening is done, you’ll reach the max length.  Solomonow found that the closer a ligament is to its max length, the more its going to tense against a stretch.  When more stretch is put in, the ligament will tense up very quickly, so you have to be careful near the max length unless you want the ligament to tense up and rupture.

That’s the second reason you want to go slow.  Slow, constant stretch will allow your ligaments to get as far as they naturally can without doing damage.  Once you hit the end, you’ll know because you won’t be getting any farther no matter how long you hang and wait.

Finally, when you’re done stretching, it’s important to return to your normal activities slowly.  According to Solomonow, once you’ve stretched a ligament for a given period, it can take 20-40 times longer for the ligament to fully recover back to its pre-stretch state, so you don’t want to go do a strong man competition ten minutes after you’ve been doing yoga stretches.


Solomonow, Moshe. Ligaments: A Source of Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders.
Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. February 2004 (Vol. 14, Issue 1, Pages 49-60).


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.