Everything I knew about stretching was wrong

In the past 12 months my body’s mobility and flexibility went from abysmal, a source of persistent pain impacting my quality of life, to pretty darn good. I’m not about to become a stretching influencer, but after a year of researching, trial and error, and hard work I feel back on track and like I have tools that will really serve me and my body for decades. I’m honestly grateful for the big wake up call and I thought I would I share the most important things I learned.

A year ago my 37 year old body was completely wrecked. It snuck up on me. In the pandemic I started seriously strength training for the first time. I spent two years lifting heavy 3-4 days per week and it worked. I gained 20 pounds of muscle. For the first time in my life I got really strong, bench pressing my bodyweight and deadlifting/squatting around 2x that.

But throughout this process, I completely utterly neglected my flexibility and mobility. Rock climbing and yoga have been main exercise for most of my adult life, but climbing gyms and yoga studios were closed or inaccessible for most of those 2 years. So I packed on layers and layers of new muscle fibers with virtually no mobility work.

On top of that, I had the most stressful two years of my life on both personal and professional fronts. I always thought the idea that “we hold stress in our {body part}” was woo woo nonsense. It isn’t. Persistent stress and tension has a real affect on our bodies.

The problem is the typical weight lifting session doesn’t require a ton of full body mobility. The barbell that stabilizes the weight, allowing you to exert the most force possible, also limits the range of motion you actually utilize at the gym.

Without my noticing it my mobility fell off a cliff. My shoulders were frozen stiff. I couldn’t raise my arms over my head, hold a basic down dog, or touch my hand to my back or shoulder blades at all. I couldn’t touch my toes or even sit on the floor comfortably. Every major muscle group was hard as a rock all the time, as if I was flexing it as hard as I could. My range of motion was laughable and everything was gobbed up with layers of fascia.

Then I started trying to use my body to do things again—rock climb, ski, bike, yoga, or just carry things up a 4th floor walk up—and my whole body imploded. First, everything felt unbelievably challenging because every single body movement felt like it was pulling against heavy resistance bands. Next, everything hurt all the time. I had persistent muscle soreness, tightness, and pain all the time. Then the last straw was the nerve pain. I started getting numbness in my fingers and periodic electric shocks of pain going up both my arms doing simple day to day things like opening a door or picking up a cooking pan.

It sucked. I felt like I was 90 years old, decrepit and in constant pain. It was seriously degrading my quality of life and I was willing to try anything and everything. So here’s what I did:

  • I went for a massage 2x/week
  • I bought a fancy Theragun massage tool
  • I went to two different local physical therapists
  • I started going to yoga 2x/week
  • I start stretching and warming up before climbing workouts

3 months of all of that did exactly nothing for my mobility issues.

Massages and percussive massage tools can provide some temporary relief but have no lasting effect.

Sorry, but it seems that most PTs have absolutely no idea how to systematically treat these kind of issues. Like a massage therapist, they would use a kind of scraping tool or some other treatment that would provide some relief, and tell me to do nerve glides, charge me $250, and tell me they’d see me next week. But the process didn’t seem to have much of a real methodology and each week felt like zero progress. My experience seems to be similar to that of many others dealing with similar issues.

Yoga and pre-workout stretching are fine for maintaining flexibility, but not barely effective at creating flexibility, especially when you are severely limited.

The turning point

As I have often done in my life when the conventional solutions to a problem are failing me, I turned to the Twitter community for help and also went deep down YouTube and other internet rabbit holes. And that’s how I learned that everything I thought I knew about stretching was wrong.

The turning point was when I got connected to and did a virtual consult with Sam Martin from Move Better Project (huge thanks to Sam Segar for making that intro). Sam explained to me that the numbess and nerve pain was likely Thoracic Outlet Syndrome or something similar where my stiff gunked up inflexible muscles were compressing and trapping the median nerve that runs from the shoulder through the arm and down to the fingers.

Sam gave me a bunch of simple exercises to target each muscle group (including some hard to find ones). But he also gave me a radically better overall understanding of how stretching and mobility actually works. These fundamental ideas explained why none of the stuff I’d tried before had any real effect and laid the groundwork for me to effectively build an approach to my own mobility.

I realized that I was a bit of an extreme case. Interventions that worked for most people, felt like they barely made a dent in my issues. That’s when I discovered a number of great YouTube channels dedicated to mobility for power lifters and other beefcakes. These guys were preaching similar methods as Sam, but devising more intense variations that I needed to unlock by extremely laminated muscle fibers.

I’ll share some specific examples below, but here are the main ideas I learned that completely changed my approach to mobility.

What I learned

Hold stretches for 2 minutes (or more!). The kind of brief stretching you might do in a vinyasa yoga class poses or while warming up for a workout will have almost no effect on increasing your flexibility. To move the needle on your flexibility you need to be holding each position for at least two minutes, and sometimes more like 5+ minutes. Yes, this takes a long time. For several months while I was rebuilding my mobility I was spending 30-45 minutes almost every day on mobility.

These long holds, initially needing up to 5 minutes each, were the key to getting my shoulder mobility back into a good range.

The good news is that, at least in my experience, this only necessary when you’re trying to increase your mobility. Once you get things in a pretty good place, shorter regular stretching will do a good job of maintaining.

Smash it, don’t rub it. Rubbing your muscles mainly just increases bloodflow, which is nice, but isn’t going to break up the years of fascia and adhesions or release chronically stiff muscles. You need to smash them instead.

  1. Create pressure in the meaty part of the muscle with something like a lacrosse ball. For me I usually have to move it around until I find a particularly stiff (and painful) spot to place it.
  2. Once you find the spot, DON’T MOVE THE BALL AROUND. Keep it in that same spot and hold that pressure for ~2 minutes or until you feel like the muscle release. For me this can feel like a long time where nothing is happening except this ball is painfully jabbing into my muscles, and then out of nowhere the muscles just melt all at once. Stay in the same place until you feel that change happen.
  3. To increase the intensity and get even more relief, keep the pressure point in the same place, but start moving the muscle or limbs around it through their normal range of motion while still holding the pressure point in the same place. To understand what i mean, watch Sam in this tricep smash video and how he moves his whole arm while keeping the ball in place.

This smashing technique was the essential ingredient in finally releasing extreme tightness I developed in my pecs, from bench press-type exercises, and in my shoulder blades, from a severe muscle imbalance. More on that below.

Train your nervous system, don’t just stretch. It’s easy to think of your muscles as just some kind of rubber band and flexibility is just a matter of mechanically stretching them out so they get looser. But that’s not how it works. Most of the time your body is already physically capable of achieving the position, but you need to train your nervous system that it’s safe for it to relax into that position. So it’s not very productive to just contort your body, grit your teeth and sweat for two minutes while trying to watch TV. You will definitely get some benefit from this, but the far better approach is to consciously focus on steady breathing and mindfully relaxing the muscles one by one.

This kind of mindful breath-focused stretching has been essential for my lower body hip and hamstring mobility in particular.

Persistent tightness is as much a strength issue as a flexibility one. If you’ve figured out how to smash a muscle and stretch it and it still keeps getting tight, it’s probably a strength imbalance issue. Other muscles around it may be overdeveloped and are essentially pulling it out of balance all the time. This will feel a little counter-productive, because strength training a muscle will often make it feel tighter in the short term. But over the long-term a combination of smashing, stretching, and strengthening is often the right balance.

Mobility tools that actually work

I was in so much pain that I bought every mobility gizmo I could find. My home workout area looked like a medieval torture chamber. Most of those things are gathering dust now. Here is the short list of, mostly very cheap, mobility tools that actually work:

  • Lacrosse ball: this is your go to smashing tool.
  • Psoas tool: This is the nuclear option for smashing. It’s designed to target deep muscles like the psoas but I also found it incredibly helpful for releasing muscles in my shoulders and back.
  • Resistance bands: I used these both for building strength to correct imbalances and as a way to stretch my shoulders. I’d get a pack like this one with a door anchor unless you have something at home to anchor them to.
  • Yoga blocks: Great for support getting into positions where your flexibility is very limited like a split. Can also be used to increase the intensity of a stretch.
  • Giant yoga mat: I found it really helpful to have a large surface area to move through the positions I needed and this over-sized yoga mat was perfect.

Recommended Internet Rabbit Holes

Here are some of my favorite resources for learning more in general and finding specific suggestions for how to diagnose and target individual mobility issues.

Sam Martin, Move Better Project (YouTube): Sam’s YouTube page is filled with tons of great short videos for specific exercises. I also booked Sam for a virtual consultation which was one of the highest value things I did all year.

Smashwerx (YouTube): This was my favorite of the channels targeting more hardcore power lifters. In particular this video, involving dangling a kettlebell while you smash your pec into a bar, was the only thing I found that finally unglued my pec muscles.

Strength Side (YouTube): This is a fantastic all around strength and fitness channel and they have a bunch of good mobility routines, like this lower body one, to easily incorporate into your day to day.

Instagram: My two favorite follows right now are @kruseelite and @twstraining.

Lastly, despite all these resources, I never found a video of anything that could release the tightness in my shoulder blade that I just could not get rid of. I discovered this nuclear option muscle release using the psoas tool. Watch the video here.