When Stretching is Detrimental

A year ago I would not even imagine writing about such a topic, but life lessons have a way of changing even the most ingrained beliefs. I am writing this story down so hopefully I will not forget the lessons I’ve learned from it. When I wrote the key to flexibility is untimed stretching seven years ago I was firmly convinced that it wasn’t really possible to stretch too much.

However, in January of 2015 I learned of Gymnastic Bodies and was inspired to learn all I could from the creator of that program Coach Christopher Summer. I purchased the foundation courses and progressed quite rapidly through the first dozen or so levels in each area until I found a point where I was challenged and did my best to stay focused on that path.

In May of 2015 I ran the 2 mile ‘fun run’ portion of the Whiskey Row Marathon (in Prescott, AZ) in order to make sure my son who has seizures would be able to complete it successfully. Even though we stopped a few times and I made him slow down a bit, my hip flexors were very sore afterwards (I do not run normally) and I felt powerless to make them feel better. I tried stretching a bit, but mostly just tried to avoid doing things which caused pain.

The next month I attended a gymnastic bodies seminar in Denver at Awaken Adult Gymnastics, which is basically a 2 day workout for about 8 hours a day, interspersed with lectures from Coach Sommer about the program and how it works. I had not fully recovered from the run, and my hip flexors were sore again especially after doing leg lifts on the wall bars near the end of the second day.

I spoke to Cory Fair at the seminar about how to deal with the issues I was having and he suggested I try switching to bent leg lifts for awhile. So I did that and over the next few months the pain subsided and I felt I was getting stronger. In the fall I was back to doing straight leg lifts again with no discomfort.

Then in December I was inspired to make it my goal for 2016 to build up to a Manna, which I had never been able to do before. I decided I would try to follow the path that Coach Sommer laid out in his blog at Manna – An advanced static strength element, and my starting point would be step 4 in his list, the elevated middle split hold.

I quickly realized that doing the elevated middle split hold caused me pain in my hip flexors, so after a few weeks I decided to do it only once a week instead of daily. Then I decided to focus on some other ways to build up my hip flexors so I added leg lifts (on my pull up bar) and lunge stretches (with and without holding my foot up in the back) to my daily routine in place of the elevated split hold. Later I discovered that if I did an elevated split hold with my legs bent I could focus on pushing my hips forward without stressing my hip flexors so much.

This past week I listened to the interview between Coach Sommer and Tim Ferris and decided I need to stretch more (one of the topics discussed was how elite athletes stretch in order to get stronger), so I started doing side splits as well as lunges with and without holding my leg up in the back for 30 seconds each twice a day. I was only able to do this for a couple days before my left hip flexor (the weaker one) began to hurt so bad I had trouble sleeping at night.

One of the first things I learned from Coach Sommer last year was that connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, even cartilage) takes much longer to heal than muscle because it is avascular (ie no blood). That is why he structured his training program to go a full 12 weeks before advancing to a different exercise level (though within the 12 weeks there are changes in sets and reps). He talks about using an “adaptive load” over time to build up connective tissue, which to me means do conditioning which is less that what would hurt (ie no popping or cracking of joints and no pain) over a few months before increasing the load.

He talked a lot about the brachialis tendon in your arm since people can hurt that going from a bent arm cross to a straight arm cross too quickly. I actually experienced pain in my brachialis after going down in a cross while focusing on straight arms one day, but was able to recover within a couple days of not stressing it.

However for some reason I never thought doing the splits or lunges could cause any problems. I was wrong. The hip flexors (and other connective tissue in that area) are not muscles and should not be treated as such. When muscles are sore stretching them and massaging them helps increase blood flow and reduces recovery time, but connective tissue requires a different approach. When it stops hurting to walk up and down the stairs and get in and out of the car I will likely start some bent leg raises again (as long as it doesn’t hurt – striving for an adaptive load).

When the pain is not present for all everyday activities I will start doing the side split stretch series again once a week (not twice a day in my weakest areas like I did last week). My chiropractor just told me this morning to try laying on my back in bed and gently moving my leg off the side in order to allow gravity to create a gentle stretch (for a couple minutes at a time 2-3 times per day), so I may do that for awhile before any other more active stretching or strengthening.

In summary, there is a big difference between pain and muscle soreness, and when connective tissue feels sore it is really pain and should be treated with kid gloves. I will take this seriously now. 🙂

About Robert

I competed in gymnastics for 16 years through college at Arizona State University. After 10 years and 5 (now 6) children, I have returned to gymnastics as a competitor. I am a lifetime gymnast. :)
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