Effective Stretching

Why stretch at all? Don’t do it just because someone told you to; understand the goal and purpose of each and every stretch you do, and ensure that you are not inadvertently preventing the achievement of that goal.

A pupil once showed me a stretch that he performed religiously after every running outing. It was a hamstring stretch, one that is very commonly performed. The man had the correct position, but was actually tensing the very areas he wanted to stretch. Partly, he had fallen into the trap of having a particular expectation of what the successful stretch should feel like. The result, apart from pain, was that inevitably his hamstrings were getting tighter and shorter. This was hardly surprising, since this was what he was actively, albeit unconsciously, practising.

I might add that this was a veteran age athlete, therefore experienced and one of considerable intelligence!

Understand why!

Why stretch at all? Don’t do it just because someone told you to; understand the goal and purpose of each and every stretch you do, and ensure that you are not inadvertently preventing the achievement of that goal.


Two points are absolutely basic to the adequate and safe performance of a stretch. The first is that our weight should be allowed to fall freely through our skeleton, unhindered by undue tension on the way to the floor. This does not mean becoming floppy: a toned, energised, yet relaxed state should be the goal of any athlete, both when actively engaged in sport, as well as the rest of the time. And it applies particularly when stretching.

The second point is that we should in no way hinder the freedom of our breathing.

Another pupil showed me a series of neck and shoulder stretches that she was in the habit of performing religiously. It quickly emerged that while “stretching” one side she was tensing the other, resulting of course, in a zero nett improvement. She was also restricting her breathing throughout.

As soon as she was shown how to ease off the breathing, as well as leave out the habitual neck tension, she was delighted to find the stretch much more effective and far less effort. Of course, the whole sensation of the stretch was now different to the sensation she had associated with her previous concept of stretching.

Your muscular matrtix

Our basic level of organisation, the “how” or quality of our action underlies our performance of any activity. Is it co-ordinated and integrated as described below, or does it fall short in some aspect, resulting in one-sidedness or exaggerated asymmetry, recurrent tensions, stiffness or even stress and anxiety? Our basic, personal “how” is present in stretching just as much as in whatever activity precedes stretching, or comes after it. (This explains why some people are loose-limbed and may remain so without ever stretching, while others stretch diligently or have regular massages yet are always a bit stiff – it reflects their basic personal “how” or way of being-in-action.)

When our postural processes are working freely and efficiently, then a number of corollaries can be noted:

We are at our full height and easy with it; we are relaxed, yet ready for action;our posture is good; we can move freely; our muscles are enjoying a gentle passive stretch.
We are breathing freely and are able to orient our major sense organs, i.e. our eyes, where and how we want; that is, we enjoy an absence of neck tension.

Take your time

We can be working towards developing these qualities at any time: at rest just as much as during activity. During stretching, no less than at any other time, we should be ensuring the strain-free working of our postural processes.

So, take your time when stretching! Think about specifically what you want to achieve with each stretch. No stretch should ever come at the expense of tightening somewhere else!

Allow your weight to rest freely through your bones (legs and feet when standing, bottom bones when sitting). And always ensure that you are breathing freely!

Developing greater body-awareness, bridging the inevitable gap between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing, is an invaluable aid to better performance in any area. It also brings greater poise and grace generally. A teacher of the Alexander Technique can help you achieve these goals.

Michael Stenning and Léonie John have taught the Alexander Technique in Canberra since 1985. The Alexander Technique is a method of securing a high standard of poise, muscular co-ordination, breathing and general functioning. It has application in many areas including health and sport.

A Gift For Sports People

What have British Olympic marathon runners, hammer thrower Howard Paine, many elite equestrians including Australian Olympian Mary Hannah and the entire British team, multi-disciplinarian Daley Thomson and many others in common? They have all used the Alexander Technique to improve some aspect of the way that they function – breathing, freedom or efficiency of movement, balance, dealing with stress, aches and pains or injuries.

Alexander is a “must” for all competing athletes.

In the early l950s, Percy Cerutty, the celebrated and sometimes controversial athletics coach, wrote in a letter to his Alexander teacher, “Alexander is a “must” for all competing athletes. You have taught me a lot of interesting material about the correct use of the body which I have passed on in my training with marked results eliminating bad use.” Until recently there have been few Alexander Technique teachers in Australia.

The Alexander Technique is being increasingly adopted by recreational and competitive Sports people. Athletes involved in sports as diverse as long-distance running, dressage, swimming, X-C skiing and hammer-throwing recognise the benefits that come with a training in the Alexander Technique. For Sports people these can be divided in to three categories:

General fitness (how to avoid wasting energy);
Technique (ensuring that you’re actually doing what you think you’re doing); and
Avoidance of or recovery from injury (not using yourself in a way which imposes unnecessary stresses on joints or other tissue).

Economy of effort

The Technique is particularly relevant because it is directly concerned with the working of the “postural reflexes”, i.e. the mechanisms that enable us to support and balance our bodies against the ever present pull of gravity while we go about our daily activities. It addresses how to move with an economy of effort and maximise poise and balance.

How hard are you making it?

The tensions and distortions that most of us, over the years, build into our habitual way of being and which have thus slipped below the level of our conscious awareness, provide an on-going restriction to the working of these natural postural mechanisms. This restriction renders movement more effortful and less efficient than necessary and can predispose us to injury. In our sporting activities, we are coping not only with these on-going interferences, which give us our “base line” of tension, but also often with further interferences engendered by the situation, e.g. the challenges involved in learning a new skill or the pressure of competition.

In other words, we’re making hard work out of simply standing upright, before complicating things with moving.

“My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”

In training or competition this is often more so, at exactly the time when economy of action and an absence of tension would be most desirable. This interferes not only with our poise and coordination, but also with our perception both of our inner environment, for example failing to notice that we are tensing our shoulders or holding our breath, and of our outer circumstances, so that for example, distances seem greater, or it feels as if we have insufficient time.

Enhancing kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of one’s inner environment), and learning greater control of one’s mechanisms of balance and coordination are an enormous help in any activity.

It is not just the elite who can learn to optimise their way of working with themselves to gain that competitive edge. Sports people who have trouble improving beyond a certain level can also gain. Technical imperfections can easily be unwittingly established as part of one’s basic modus operandi, limiting further improvement. Who at some time has not said to themselves, “My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”?

Discovering that not trying so hard can mean moving further, faster and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.

The Alexander Technique gives us some simple ground rules through which we can observe ourselves, in order to achieve a gradual general improvement in poise and coordination, as well as simultaneously supplying ourselves with conditions most conducive to the development of a skill and reducing the risk of injury.

“The Alexander Technique gives us all the things we have been looking for
in a system of physical education; relief from strain due to maladjustment, and
constant improvement in physical and mental health.”
Aldous Huxley

© M Stenning Canberra 1997

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