What Happens When We Stretch

A stretch is when two points on our body move away from each other creating a lengthening of muscle, tendon and fascia in our bodies. Our bodies are constantly repairing themselves from the use in daily life. As these repairs happen, our tissue tightens. Think of a blanket that has a hole in it. To repair it, you would pull the edges together and then stitch the pieces. This will shorten the length of the blanket. The same process take place in our bodies everyday we are alive.

First off, we need to stretch more. We likely already know this, but don’t necessarily know how to get the most out of stretching. When we stretch we feel things in our muscles. These feelings are important bits of feedback that we need to be aware of.

First, stretching shouldn’t hurt. If it hurts then why do it? For years this was my feeling on flossing my teeth. If it hurts why would I do it every day? Turns out I was doing it wrong… When you stretch you should be mostly comfortable. Yes you want to feel something, but if you’re the feeling in your muscle ever gets more intense when you hold the stretch you have gone too far. There are little protective sense organs woven into our muscle fibers called Muscle Spindles.  These Spindles sense tension and protect us from ourselves.  When you go too far and put too much tension on the muscle fibers, these spindles cause a reflex to fire that pulls back.  If you didn’t have these spindles, you could go too deep into a stretch and tear your muscles in half!

If you feel a cramp-spasm-or twinge when you stretch this is a feedback system of spindles reminding you to not get ahead of yourself. Enter in slowly, take your time, and enjoy it while you are there J


This leads into holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more. We are looking for 3-5 minutes for big changes! If you want to see significant changes in your Range of Motion you need to either hold your stretches longer, or do them lots to add up to 3-5 minutes per stretch. Be patient.  Practice stretching for just a minute or two everyday and in a few months or years you will see big changes. Patience can be the hard one.

We need to enter into our stretch, let the Muscle Spindles do their thing to protect us, then after about 12-15 seconds the Spindles will relax because they trust we aren’t going to go to far. Now we are actually stretching our tissue.  Anything less than 15 seconds is only activating the Spindles and not opening tissue.  That being said, we sometimes move quicker as part of warm-up to increase blood flow and that has a significant benefit too, but it’s not the same intention as true stretching.

When we do stretch be very mindful of our alignment. As the muscle fibers lengthen and we hold for 30 seconds or more, we are also changing our connective tissue.  The collagen in our tendons and fascia all over our body starts to realign itself with the direction of the pull of the stretch. If our alignment is off then we are creating mal-alignment in our connective tissue too, that will rear its head creating joint pain in the future…

Take your time, breathe, and hold. Make sure you know the alignment details.  Your body will love its daily stretch. Just like any important relationship in our lives, your body will love whatever quality time you can give it.


Reg Nugent BSc, MA

Acupuncturist, American College of Medicine Certified, Yoga Teacher


 Meridian Health Centre  |   780 428 8897   |  10990 - 124 St.  Edmonton, Alberta T5M 0H8