What is the Difference Between Stretching and Lengthening Muscles?

Does your body often feel tight and stiff?

What’s is the difference between stretching muscles and lengthening muscles do you think?

One thing you may not realise is that when you feel a sensation of stretching, actually that’s just your nervous system sensing danger and shortening the muscle. It’s a total stress response so all that pain and discomfort for nothing! It’s also the reason why, if muscles tend to be tight, quick movements can cause spasm and injuries – seemingly from nowhere. This is called the Stretch Reflex.

Lengthening muscles though feels kind of juicy and delicious. It leaves us feeling relaxed and free. Aggressive over-stretching essentially just jars the nervous system. It can leave us feeling panicky and it hurts. It’s a horrible feeling and totally unnecessary. But if your physical activity has always been performance based, it’s hard to let go of that sense of grim determination! So lots of people who really need to lengthen muscles avoid doing it, even though short, tight muscles feel horrible and longer muscles are healthier and less likely to become injured.

It’s also a common misconception that yoga is about stretching. Go back to the original practitioners and it’s unlikely their bodies were as stiff as ours tend to be! The practise of physical yoga is more about massaging the internal organs and the movement of energy. Over-stretching and over stimulation of the nervous system just blocks this.

Lengthening muscles is a process. It’s what yoga sequences should ideally be designed around. Each thing should make the next thing feel more comfortable… There are many ways to prep and soften muscles before we go to work on lengthening them. A simple one is just walking for example or one-legged bicycles on the floor – essentially just gentle movements to warm up the blood and loosen things up.

To work on lengthening, move slowly into any position that requires longer muscles because this tricks the nervous system and inhibits the stretch reflex (again, that’s a stress response…). Focus your attention on the muscle. Ask nicely instead of being aggressive. With no sense of danger your muscles will yield more easily and you will end up getting more for less.

And isn’t that what we all want?