Why don't any of these stretches work for me?
September 10, 2009 5:46 PM   Subscribe

StretchingFilter: what am I doing wrong? I don't feel any "pull" from these stretches, or they happen in the wrong places or feel like real pain.

I'm told a good stretch creates a diffuse pulling feeling, not quite painful but related. I have trouble getting that feeling when stretching some parts of my body, especially my lower body. Not being able to do this apparently normal thing has bothered me for a long time, and I'm reminded of it every time I go to gym or take some kind of fitness test. But the one measure of flexibility in high school is a toe touch, where I did well, so gym teachers tended to tell me not to worry, and just not to stretch if it bothered me.

That's the short version. Next comes a probably tl;dr list of specific stretches and how they feel. There are a lot of them because I've spent a few years looking for ones that work for me, not generally to any success. I usually describe them stretching my right, but rest assured I've tried both sides. I also stretch my upper body, but those stretches actually seem to work so I won't say more.

Standing toe-touch: I stand with my knees straight, bend at the waist, and put my palms flat on the ground. My face is several inches from my shins, but I lack the abdominal muscle to get it closer. I do get an interesting feeling in the backs of my shoulders if I try to press my hands against the floor and use the friction to force my face closer.

Sitting toe-touch: I sit with my legs straight out in front of me, bend over at the waist, and grab the lateral edges of my feet. I immediately have trouble breathing and a few seconds later a tingling/numbing feeling down the back of one or both my legs, like the sort of parathesias you get when a sleeping leg wakes up.

Standing quadriceps stretch: I stand on my left foot, bend my right leg back at the knee until my right foot touch my butt, and hold it there with one or both hands. If I tuck the instep of my right foot into the crook of my right elbow, I feel the beginning of a stretch along my shin, but nothing in my quadriceps. If I contract my hamstrings, as some people have recommended, I feel a matching contraction in my quadriceps. If I arch my back it just hurts my back.

Lying version 1: The standing stretch, except lying on my side. Same results.

Lying version 2: I lay on my back, except while my left leg is straight my right leg is bent at the knee so that my foot is under my butt. I don't feel anything while doing this stretch, but the one night I tried it I also had a very strange sensation in that knee whenever I flexed or extended it. I don't know how to describe it, except that it was disturbing enough I didn't try it with my left knee, or ever again.

Lying piriformis stretch: I cross my right ankle over my left thigh by the knee and roll backward onto my back, using my hands on the left shin by the knee to pull my right leg up to my chest. This doesn't seem to do anything.

Sitting piriformis stretch: I cross my right left over my left, and then lie down prone with my left leg straight behind me and my right leg bent in front and then left so my right foot is by my left hip. If I really bear down I can feel a little pull on the outside of my right hip, but mostly I feel like I'm fighting the tendency to twist to the left.

Sitting, one-legged toe touch: I cross my left ankle over my right thigh just above the knee, to hold my knee flat to the ground. Then I reach forward and grab the sides of my right foot with my hands, bringing my face to my left ankle. I do feel a pull along the back of my thigh, but also in two other places: if I flex my ankle, I feel a sharp, localized pain in the arch of my foot (but if I don't, my right heel presses uncomfortably into the floor); if I twist my body slightly to the left, toward my bent knee, I feel a stretch along the left side of my torso.

Side splits: I spread my legs apart to the sides until my groin is maybe a foot off the floor, at which point I feel pain on the medial sides of my knee. Ten years ago I could get down to the floor, but I guess ten years ago I was ten years younger.

Sitting V: I sit with my legs outstretched and spread apart, and reach alternately for each of my feet and for some point on the floor between them. This doesn't produce any negative effects, but I also can't push myself far enough into it to feel a stretch. Once when I asked someone else to push me down, he was able to put my chest against my leg. It didn't hurt, but against I had trouble breathing.

Butterfly stretch: I put the soles of my feet together and tuck my heels into my groin, and bend over them. If I keep my back straight, there comes a point around 30-45 degrees from the vertical when I just can't pull myself forward any more. It doesn't feel like a stretch, really. It just feels like I've reached some internal stop and my hips won't go any farther. I've also tried this with someone else standing on my knees to keep them flat to the floor, in case that was the problem. Same result.

I don't know what this is for, but we used to do it in gym: I reach over my shoulder with my right hand like I'm scratching my back. If I bring my elbow in medially, I can get it all the way behind my head and touch the top of my lumbar vertebrae; if I push with my left hand, I can actually press my biceps against my trapezius and cause some pain in my shoulder. On the other hand, if I keep my elbow out laterally, maybe 45 degrees from vertical, I seem to catch something in the vicinity of my triceps. But pulling back hard enough to stretch that also causes shoulder pain.

Dynamic stretches: Someone who used to run track showed me a style of stretching where you gently swing through the stretch instead of reaching and holding. I don't particularly care about it because I'd never feel safe doing that anywhere near my limits.
posted by d. z. wang to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I am no expert. In fact, I am fat and out of shape. I just tried most of what you wrote about to see how I would react, and quite frankly, I am now drinking a beer and in mild pain. But, from reading what your results are, you sound pretty limber and stretched out to me. You don't feel the stretch because you are already stretched out.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:53 PM on September 10, 2009

I agree with JohnnyGunn. Some of what you're describing sounds like you're actually trying to push yourself too far in an attempt to feel something- if, while in a sitting toe touch, you are bent over so far that you can't breath/are pinched, you're pushing yourself too far. It may be that your body is limber to the point where you can't stretch any more. I have some of these same things- IME, some parts of my body are a lot more flexible than others. In a butterfly stretch, I can tuck my heels into my groin, put my knees almost flat against the ground without touching them (on the ground with very little pressure), lean until my face is on the ground, and feel nothing. I can't touch my toes standing or sitting on the first try, however.

Also, a lot of these sound like you don't quite know how to make a stretch deeper (no offense). You shouldn't pull your leg up into your elbow on a quad stretch, that's taking all the pressure off of your quads. Try pushing your pelvis forward instead.

(disclaimer: I have no formal knowledge of what I'm speaking of, just years and years of sports/stretching/yoga and personal experience)
posted by kro at 7:51 PM on September 10, 2009

It sounds like you are just a really limber person. Although, I don't necessarily agree with some of the stretches you are doing. Some people do have problems with some stretches due to certain physical limitations in accordance those stretches. I would say find stretches that do work for you. Try a Yoga class and see if any of those movements work.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:30 PM on September 10, 2009

Being "too flexible" might explain a few of these, but there are still things that bother me:

1. A good side split puts your groin to the floor, which I'm nowhere near. But I don't feel a stretch in my inner thigh, I feel a pain on the medial sides of my knees.

2. I can't, as you can, get into a butterfly stretch and then put my face on the ground.

3. In the sitting toe touch, there's enough space between my legs and my torso to insert a roll of paper towels. I've seen people get much flatter without feeling short of breath. Also, what about the tingling?

But your point about not knowing how to make a stretch deeper is well taken. I plan to sign up for a yoga section in gym next quarter. Until then, do you know of any good places to read up on the topic? I've been trying to find a physical therapist's textbook, or maybe something out of ballet or gymnastics.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:36 PM on September 10, 2009

No matter how limber you are, there is generally a way of getting a good stretch for any muscle. Proper form is so important - for example, if you're touching your toes, actually being able to touch your fingers to your toes does not matter at all in terms of the efficacy of the stretch. What you should be focusing on is keeping your back straight, spine aligned, and tailbone in, and if you're not doing this part correctly, the stretch is useless (and can definitely cause you to unintentionally pull something).

Going to a yoga class in person will help you so much - you'll be able to see the instructor demonstrate right in front of you, and they will be able to help you with your form. I did yoga for years on my own and thought I was doing great, but when I started going to classes, I realized that I'd unwittingly developed plenty of lazy habits. Someone who knows what they're doing and is in the same room with you will be able to tell you immediately what you should be doing, and I don't know of any website or book that will be anywhere near as useful.

(Or I may be entirely off base - maybe you know all this and have great form, just happen to be super-bendy!)
posted by Fifi Firefox at 9:56 PM on September 10, 2009

I notice that the places you're describing pain aren't muscles, they're joints. The tingling (depending on what you mean by that) could easily be a pinch applied to a nerve or otherwise over-compressing your hip joints. Basically, it sounds like you're doing the stretches slightly wrong - trying to deepen the stretch in the wrong direction, pushing yourself forward when you should be pushing down, over-extending your knees, that kind of thing.

Yoga's not a bad place to start, and advanced yoga knowledge would probably help, but I wouldn't count on one class to be any better than your gym classes were. It wouldn't surprise me at all if your yoga teacher also said "You seem plenty limber to me" . It depends on teacher quality of course - but she could be able to teach most people perfectly well and still not know how to teach the details of stretches if most of the muscles are so loose, or she could have a lot of people who can barely touch their knees and want to focus on them. So have a backup plan - I like the idea of a physical therapist's textbook, or even one appointment with a good physical therapist to work out the details of stretching your lower body. Written material can only really cover so much, and my physical therapist has taught me so much about the little details that were never covered in {gym, martial arts, dancing, tennis} classes.
posted by Lady Li at 10:01 PM on September 10, 2009

I'm not a PT or a yoga teacher or anything like that. Merely someone who is more limber/flexible than most average people (some experience in yoga now and classical ballet growing up).

I'd highly recommend you either see a personal trainer at the gym or join a yoga or ballet class where they'll teach you the proper ways to stretch. My teachers used to give me alternatives to the basic stretches, and they taught me how to properly deepen the stretches. It's really the tiny details (e.g., what kro mentions above regarding quads) that make a huge difference in stretches. You probably see it for yourself with the sitting one-legged toe touch.

Always be sure to breathe through your stretches as well. I'm not sure how you feel short of breath, but that happens to me when I'm over-exerting a little bit. That's not always necessarily a bad thing (in my experience at least), but it definitely helps if you breathe through the stretches. Sometimes those "internal stops" are exactly where the stretching begins. But again, I'd hesitate to tell you to force yourself into the stretch w/o someone guiding you through the proper form, etc.
posted by mittenedsex at 10:22 PM on September 10, 2009

Lots of people have slightly different alignments of various joints, etc, that completely change the effect of a particular stretch. Personally, for instance, my hips are at a slightly odd angle. When I did athletics, this meant that the usual hamstring stretch wouldn't work for me - I would feel it in my left hip. To get any stretch in my hamstring I had to go for the 'advanced' hurdlers version (the bits warned against here).

So my advice is that if you feel like stretching properly, find someone who knows what they are doing to help you figure out your idiosyncracies. A physiotherapist, personal trainer or similar could be a good start.
posted by jacalata at 12:41 AM on September 11, 2009

I agree that you are very limber and that this is probably affecting your ability to feel certain stretches. I also agree that you should get some help, at the gym, yoga studio or from a pilates instructor. Professionals will be able to guide you and give you options/assistance in getting a good stretch safely.
posted by Gor-ella at 6:15 AM on September 11, 2009

I also came in to suggest yoga, because there are lots of little ways to improve a stretch and yoga teachers tend to know them well. If you talk to the teacher before class and explain your issues, they'll (usually) look out for you and help you.

Depending on your health insurance, you may also be able to go to physiotherapist. I don't know how it would work for you, but I would go to my doctor, tell them about the joint pain and tingly paralysis, and ask for a referral to a physio, which would then make it covered by my plan. Going to a physio will get you one on one attention with a specialist who will both assess what you are doing to make sure you're not hurting yourself and teach you what to do to stretch more.

Oh, I guess it might also be worth considering that stretching can be used to *maintain* flexibility as well as to achieve it. If you reached your maximum stretch in a position, it may still provide benefits by helping your muscles retain the ability to reach that maximum.
posted by carmen at 7:03 AM on September 11, 2009

Being "too flexible" might explain a few of these, but there are still things that bother me:

Are you male, by chance? Guy's pelvises are shaped different than girl's. It's not impossible for you to do those stretches, but it sounds like hip openers are the ones you'll have to work the hardest at.

Nthing having someone who knows what they're doing check out your form in person. Though you should always be mindful of breathing, you should never feel short of breath.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 2:35 PM on September 11, 2009

« Older Another Breakup Conundrum   |   Moving without travelling Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.