Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

A kinder, gentler Unstretchables

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Recently I decided to completely overhaul to the introduction to a classic article, The Unstretchables. The goal was to get to the main point way faster, relegating a bunch of other controversies about stretching to a footnote, specifically so they don’t freak readers out. Many people were getting so butthurt so fast that they never got to the main point. Besides, I have an entire other major stretching article that makes heads explode. One seems like enough.

So, what is the main point of “The Unstretchables”? Here’s the new intro, which gets right down to it immediately:

Anatomy has limits. An owl can rotate its head as much as 270° and you can’t, because of differences between owl spines and people spines. Although anatomy is amazingly variable (for some examples, see You Might Just Be Weird) it still works about the same for most people, and there are anatomical limits on all stretches … some more than others.

Much less tensile force can be applied to some muscles than others. Most of us will hit the end of the natural range of motion of the joint long before we’ve stretched anywhere near as hard as you can stretch other muscles. In other words, some muscles are just biomechanically awkward to stretch. I call them “the unstretchables” — a bit of hyperbole, but true in spirit: although these muscles can be elongated (of course), they can’t be elongated enough to generate a satisfying subjective sensation of firm stretch.

This is the most under-appreciated of many problems with the therapeutic value of stretching. If more people understood it, more people would realize that they are wasting their time with a variety of popular stretches.

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