The ABCs of Effective Stretching

Combine Massage and Stretching to Increase Joint Flexibility and Relax Overused Muscles

By Anita Boser

Olympic athletes, sedentary office workers, and chronic-pain patients can all enhance the effects of massage by stretching between sessions. When done as part of a health-care regimen, massage and stretching increase joint flexibility and relax overused muscles. Get the most out of stretching, and your next massage, by following these stretching ABCs.

Awareness. Stay aware of sensations when you stretch. You are more likely to pull a muscle if your awareness is somewhere other than on your body.  
Breathe. Holding your breath is counterproductive. Emphasize your exhale to get a better stretch.
Connective tissue includes ligaments, tendons, and fascia. We think stretching is good for our muscles, but our connective tissues benefit just as much. The best stretches for connective tissue are fluid and elastic.
Dynamic stretching is a new way to warm up. It is based on research showing that using traditional, static stretches before exercise can actually impede athletic performance. Dynamic movements are more effective than static stretch holds in improving performance and muscle elasticity.   
Ease into and out of a stretch several times before holding it. This softens the connective tissue around the muscles and gets nerves prepared to reduce muscle tightness.  
Feel your sensations as you stretch. They will guide you toward the best results. Feel for the stretch point—where the amount of pull on the tissues is just enough for the muscle to let go. If the muscle tightens or is painful, you have gone beyond the stretch point. The stretch point is always less than your maximum.  
Genetics. How flexible you are has more to do with genetics than how much you stretch. Some people can stretch every day and never be able to do the splits. (Take it from me!) On the other end of the spectrum, hypermobile people have to be careful not to overstretch already loose ligaments.  
Hold. You only need to hold a stretch until you feel the tissues release. If you don’t feel a release within 30 seconds, back off, as you’ve probably caused sensors in the tendons to tighten the muscles.  
Interoception is awareness of what is going on inside your body. While most of us ignore our innards unless there’s something terribly wrong with them, it turns out that developing this awareness helps us self-regulate and increase pain tolerance. Stretching with awareness is one way to develop interoception.
Jaw. Tension in your jaw while you stretch is a sign that something is not right. Envision your lower jaw being heavy and your upper jaw being light.
Keep your joints in line when stretching to make sure you are getting to all parts of the muscle and connective tissue. For example, when stretching your hamstrings, if your knee turns to the side, you avoid lengthening the muscles on the side of your leg.  
Lift. It’s easy—and counterproductive—to sink into a
stretch. Instead, lift throughout the movement and hold phases. This engagement is particularly important to prevent injury to ligaments, especially for people who are hypermobile.  
Myofascial chains are groups of muscles and connective tissue (fascia) that are linked together. When you bend forward to touch your toes, you are stretching a myofascial chain that extends from the soles of your feet to the back of your legs, through the back of your pelvis, and up your spine. You can feel the stretch in different places on different days, depending on what part of the myofascial chain is most restricted.
Nerves. Stretches are for nerves as much as for muscles and fascia. The sciatic nerve needs to lengthen more than 4 inches when moving from standing to bending forward to touch the ground. The ulnar nerve needs to lengthen nearly 2 inches for your hand to touch the back of your head. If you feel tingly sensations when stretching, you could be overstretching your nerves.  
Opposing muscles. A muscle cannot stretch any farther than its opposing muscle can contract. To have flexible hamstrings, the quadriceps must be strong. To stretch the pectoralis major (a great idea for anyone who works at a computer), it’s important to strengthen the opposing back muscles.
Postexercise. Stretching before athletic events can be counterproductive. Stretch postexercise when your tissues
are warm.
Quit when you are ahead. A little stretch with a release is more productive than a big stretch that causes your nerves to tighten up.
Release. An effective stretch will create a release that feels like a softening, lengthening, or letting go in the tissues. A release will tell you that you’ve accomplished something with the stretch. Burning sensations don’t indicate a release.
Slide and glide. The goal of stretching is to not only make muscles longer, but also to get the muscles and connective tissue to glide against each other.  
Tone. Another purpose of stretching is to reduce unnecessary tightness, which requires that stretching be at least partly relaxing.
Unusual stretches can help improve flexibility. Repeating the same stretches over and over makes for uneven tone.
Variation. Static stretching has been shown to be ineffective in several studies. Add variations to stretches,
like shifting your hips slightly or gently shaking your head
when bending forward, to reach a multitude of fibers within the myofascial chain.
Warm. Stretching cold muscles can cause micro-tears in the surrounding connective tissues. Prepare to stretch by warming up with a minimum of 5 minutes (more is better) of walking or other whole-body exercise.  
X-ray vision. Try to “look” inside your body with X-ray vision as you stretch. Imagine what is going on inside. That level of attention will help you achieve a good release.
Yielding is a concept of relaxation, meaning letting your body weight relax. It’s a good way to begin. Yield, then breathe, lift, and release.
Zip up your core. Stretching isn’t about letting it all hang out. Zip up your core muscles so they will protect your joints as you stretch.
Regular stretching, when done properly, will help keep your muscles and connective tissue in optimal condition, increasing the effectiveness of all other exercise. Follow the ABCs to gain the most benefit and help your massage therapist release even more of your tight tissues.

Anita Boser, BCSI, is the author of Undulation: Relieve Stiffness and Feel Young, a book with 48 exercises for a more flexible body. For additional ways to become more flexible and feel more comfortable in your body, visit her website at