3 Popular Stretches That Suck

by Dr. John Rusin

And What to Replace Them With

These stretches are common, but they often lead to even more painful problems. Here's what to do instead.

When it comes to injuries, fitness is cursed by a "mobility fixes all" mentality. This approach works sometimes, but it can also leave you more injured than you were to begin with.

You can't fix an instability problem with mobility. And a tight feeling you associate with mobility restrictions is really your body trying to protect itself from further damage. Instabilities in key regions like the neck, shoulders, hips and spine often develop over time and cause chronic pain.

Here are the three stretches to avoid when the pain is nagging, plus smarter alternatives that'll actually yield results instead of pouring gasoline on the fire.

1. The Side-Bending Neck Stretch

Yeah, we get it by now. The phone and the computer have turned us into sedentary slugs. But it seems like all the postural focus is on the lumbar spine and shoulders, and understandably so since these two sites are the most commonly painful regions.

But the head and neck lead the body's positions. The head is important because it encapsulates something called the brain. The brain is responsible for controlling many sensory-rich organs like the eyes, ears, mouth and nose... and the rest of the body, for the record.

It's attached to the rest of the body through something called the cervical spine or neck. The neck is hugely mobile due to the shape and structure of the segments that comprise the region. It also has veins, arteries, and nerves that supply and distribute from the brain and CNS.

Here's the understatement of the year: you need to be highly cautious with this region. Unlike the shoulder or the hip, you're dependent on the neck and head to keep you alive.

This is why the last thing you want to be doing is aggressively and passively stretching the neck into dangerous positions when the tight feeling occurs. Here's how to stretch safely and effectively while actually seeing some long term improvement and carryover into daily life and training.

Do This Instead: Side-Bending Reciprocal Inhibition with Isometrics

  1. Simply use your hands to first contract isometrically towards the position you are looking to improve for a few seconds.
  2. From here, keep your head where it is and isometrically contract into the opposite direction for a few seconds.
  3. Repeat this a few times and gain more functional range of motion through improved stability and activation.

The best part about this? It's highly active, which bodes well for motor learning, rewiring movement patterns, and allowing more longevity in your movement skill.

The Details

The neck is one complex region that involves many contractile and non-contractile soft tissues, in addition to vital vascular structures that run and distribute into this region and downstream into the rest of the body. So trying to force yourself into painful stretching and side-bending usually doesn't work, and many times results in flaring up the entire region, creating stress cycles, and even headaches.

These are intricate joints and soft tissues, so forcing them to move this way is essentially playing Russian roulette with your long term health. You can get better results using a reciprocal inhibition technique.

This technique can be used to extend usable end ranges in any direction at the neck, and involves utilizing the power of isometrics to improve perceived stability at the head and neck to unlock neural tone and tightness, which is most likely the reason for poor movement quality and even pain.

2. The Long-Arm Banded Distraction Chest Stretch

Sorry if this bursts your prehab bubble, but the use of "banded distraction" techniques has got to be debunked. It's become popular to grab the thickest elastic band you can find, wrap it around a chosen joint (usually the shoulders, hips, or ankles) and stretch at extended end ranges under tension. While this technique may work for some, most of the time the aggressive banded distraction plus end-range stretch does more harm than good.

The idea that a piece of rubber is strong enough to mobilize and alter the position of joints is a bit insane. Joints are encapsulated by thick and rigid non-contractile tissue, stabilized by more wire-like ligaments, and surrounded by multiple articulating layers of muscles and tendons, in addition to a dense fascial sheath lying above all of these structures.

And then there's the three layers of dermal tissue and adipose tissue that exponentially decrease the transferability of a band to even reach, let alone alter, the joint's movement.

This is the reason it may work for a select few. Band contact on skin may actually be the reason for many positive responses. Nerve roots that distribute from the spine run to both areas of the skin (dermotomes) and specific musculature (myotomes). The cool thing about the nervous system is that we can see cross linking between sensory and motor pathways, and use one to manipulate the other.

By the band touching dermotomes that correlate with underlying myotomes, contractile musculature (and dare I say fascia) can actually reduce tone, improving movement capacity. But again, this will NOT work for everyone.

I'm not saying never to mobilize and stretch with a band, but be smart about it. Structures like the hip and ankle are more resilient due to the size and stabilizing structural components to these regions. But when it comes to the shoulder, the most mobile joint in the body, there are better ways to unlock neural tightness and improve positions.

Do This Instead: Reciprocal Eccentric/Concentric Pec Mobilization

  1. Place your hand and forearm in contact with a rack or immovable object.
  2. Elevate the shoulder to just above 90 degrees.
  3. From here, stagger your stance with your opposite foot from the elevated arm out in front. You'll keep your shoulder, forearm, and hand in the same position throughout this drill using your body to generate the movement.
  4. Start by contracting your pecs to drive your body into rotation towards that elevated arm. Move slowly under maximal internal tension and control.
  5. Once you've hit end range, reciprocate the movement and move back in the opposite direction. The key here is to keep tension in the pec, and grade it back slightly so you're stretching against your own tension, never getting into forced end ranges without control. Do this repeatedly for 45-75 seconds per side using a controlled breath.

The Details

Many lifters are correct: their chests are tight and need some attention. Where they miss the mark is the unlocking of the neural tone that's prevalent in the front side of the shoulders after they've already addressed other postural regions like the thoracic spine and cage that respond extremely well when mobilized into extension and rotation.

Once the thoracic spine, cage, and shoulder blade show some semblance of function, the next region to address to combat chronic forward shoulders, dumped over scapulae, and even forward head posture is to address the pectoralis group.

A majority of injuries occur in ranges of motion that an athlete has access to, yet cannot actively stabilize. This is called the "motor control gap" and is a powerful way to objectify otherwise subjective practices like foam rolling, stretching, and corrective exercises.

For the pecs, that range of motion tends to be elevation above 90 degrees plus external rotation. This instable extended range of motion is the one most closely associated with front-sided shoulder pain. So instead of placing your shoulders into an inherently unstable position to stretch the pecs, you can create active tension around the shoulder and use a reciprocal tension technique. This will improve positions of external rotation and horizontal abduction while keeping the shoulders in a safe and stabilized position.

3. The Knees-To-Chest Lower Back Stretch

Check out the warm-up section of the gym where all the mats are located. I'd bet that at any point in time, there's at least one jacked up dude lazily lying on his back hugging his knees to his chest in attempt to stretch his painful lower back.

Why do so many people get in this controversial lumbar spine flexed position when they're in pain? Because of the "feel good effect" that it creates. Stretching is one of the simplest ways to elicit an analgesic (pain relieving) effect and perceived benefit. But sadly, that improvement in pain is almost always short lived, and sometimes causes a more severe counter reaction, usually within 5-15 minutes after the stretch, that leaves that person less mobile and in more pain than even before they started stretching.

Let's get into the role of the lumbar spine. That role is to create stability and act as a force transduction mechanism in, out, and through the extremities. A resilient lower back is a strong and stable lower back. Quality movement patterns matter a lot. And building solidified foundational movement patterns starts at owning your spinal position.

Knowing that the lumbar spine functions in a stability role, it'll make more sense as to why many people are irritating their lower backs when stretching with their knees to the chest. Both the ligaments and musculature support each spinal segment more superficially, as well as deeper musculature between pieces of the vertebrae called multifidus and rotatories muscles.

These tiny intricate muscles don't act as dynamic movers that alter positions at the spinal segments themselves, but rather sensory organs that in a split second turn on or turn off widespread tone throughout a region according to perceived threat. That threat is usually deep spinal flexion combined with contact into the lumbar region, whether it's from driving your lower back down into the ground hugging the knees to the chest, or sticking a damn lacrosse ball into your lower back and rolling it around. Once these bad boys turn on, it takes hard work to get them to turn back off, resulting in normalized tone through key musculature in the hip, spine and pelvis.

Instead of continuing to attempt to treat the symptoms, you need to address the key origins of why you have that pain or dysfunction in the first place.

Do This Instead: Recovery Breathing with Manual Hip Flexor Mobilization

  1. Lay down on your back with your feet and lower legs fully supported on an elevated surface like a bench or box.
  2. Allow your hips to move to around 90 degrees flexion, and your knees to bend at 90 degrees as well.
  3. From this position, place a foam roller (or ball) between your knees and keep contact with the roller between your knees at all times. This contact doesn't need to be maximal, but minimal effective dose of adductor control to keep position.
  4. Now tap into parasympathetic (restful) breathing, using an extended inhale, pause for a few seconds at the top, and lengthening out your exhale as long as possible. You want this breath to be coming primarily from your belly expanding at 360 degrees to allow some carryover on its effects more locally at the iliopsoas group, which is very close to the diaphragm and secondary respiratory muscles surrounding the abdominal cavity. Spend a few minutes here (without texting or talking) and just focus on your breath.
  5. Now use your hands on either side of your pelvis and to contact the inside of your hips (where a portion of the deep hip flexors are located) lightly with your fingertips. Your index and middle fingers should sink down behind the front side or your hip bone (ASIS) and maintain constant 5/10 subjective pressures. Continue to breathe here as you keep contact, and stay here for another few minutes.

Mobilizing the hip flexors, activating the glutes, and grooving the foundational movement pattern for the day is a good follow-up. My recommendation to use directly after supported breathing is the half-kneeling hip flexor stretch with overhand reach to bias the deep hip flexors. Do this sequence properly, and you'll be amazed at how quickly your pain will dissipate... without it rearing its ugly head 15 minutes later.

The Details

The deep hip flexors are comprised of the iliacus and psoas. You've likely heard of that second one. But instead of going straight at the hip flexors with aggressive manipulation, take a step back and use what you have at your advantage to regulate the sympathetic threat response that's exacerbating most active bouts of lower back pain.

How? By deloading and stabilizing the spine in a neutral position and using deep diaphragmatic breaths to down-regulate the entire system.