What’s the Best Way to Stretch? Hint: A Power Band Is Essential, Static Stretching Is Not
Hopefully you have some awareness of the power band.
It’s a game-changer.
Not to be confused with the controversial power band bracelets, the power band (or jump stretch band) is legitimately one of the most important recent additions to the mobility landscape.
Not only has this little beauty revolutionized the way I treat my patients as a Physiotherapist (Physical Therapist), but it has substantially improved my ability to get results.
And it has come at an interesting time. We are now questioning the effectiveness of traditional static stretching, more so now we have these at our disposal. The idea of holding a simple stretch to improve flexibility is fast becoming obsolete.
So join with me as I pass on some Physiotherapy-based intel. Enrich your stretching routine, reach new levels of flexibility and function and dispense with static stretching forever.
The Power Band
Power bands are essentially the cousin of therabands and theratubing – convenient open-ended elastic bands best used for strength work. Interestingly, the power band is a thicker, stronger version of the same thing, albeit closed rather than open-ended.
It’s greater resistance makes them less useful for strengthening but perfect for supercharging your stretching.
Power Band: Brief History
The popularization of the modern power band (and my career to some degree) owes a lot to one brilliant American Physio, Kelly Starrett. Author of must-read books on improving mobility and human function Becoming A Supple Leopard, Ready To Run and Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World, Kelly rose to prominence through his ground-breaking work on MobilityWOD in the early 2000s.
Although the power band has become synonymous with Kelly’s work, the man himself often credits Coach Dick Hartzell as the founder in the 80’s.
If you see a power band in any Gym or internet video, give thanks to these two for their hard work and ingenuity.
The Problem With Traditional Stretching
As mentioned before, the rise of the power band has coincided with us questioning the effectiveness of traditional stretching. Usually consisting of a 15-30 second hold, general stretching attempts to maintain or restore normal range of motion. We do so in the hope of better performance and reduced injury risk.
Yet despite this, stretching has become a chore for many. We know we should do it but it’s often a guilty afterthought. And we can’t blame anyone for two reasons.
- It’s boring and inconvenient to do consistently.
- It potentially doesn’t make us more flexible over time.
It’s hard to expect someone to persist with passive, static stretching if there’s no reward or inherent motivation beyond having to do it.It's hard to expect someone to persist with passive, static stretching if there's no reward or inherent motivation beyond having to do it.Click To Tweet
And this is part of the problem with how we’ve viewed stretching for so long.
We portray our lack of flexibility as just shortened muscles.
Yes they may be restricted (more on this later) but this neglects the role of other local tissue dysfunction – particularly the joint capsule.
Joint Capsule Stiffness
Almost every joint in the body is surrounded and supported by a joint capsule. When stiff, this deepest layer of soft tissue can act as a rusty handbrake to normal range of motion.
The challenge here is that joint stiffness is hard to notice unless you’re looking for it. A tight joint capsule won’t ‘pull’ in the same way a tight muscle will. It just stops moving.
And this is the important point to make. Because the capsule sits deeper than muscle, a stiff joint often trumps muscular tightness when limiting function. Often without us realizing.The deepness of a stiff joint often trumps muscular tightness when limiting function.Click To Tweet
So without addressing this stiffness I’m sure you can appreciate the effectiveness of passively holding a muscular stretch. It’s hard to expect tangible long-term results.
And this is where a power band can really help.
If you hate stretching, I bet you’ll hate it a little less once you see how quickly it can improve your flexibility.
Why Are Our Joints So Stiff In The First Place?
An article like this wouldn’t be complete without a quick dig at the modern world.
Consider a large majority of joint capsule stiffness a consequence of modern living. More specifically things that prevent us from using our bodies to their full capacity. We’re talking constant sitting, poor postures, heeled shoes etc.
For example, if you spend all day sitting with your hips bent, it’s highly likely the front of them will stiffen over time.
Similarly, wear shoes with any heel for long enough and watch the deeper ranges of your ankle mobility disappear.
We can also see a lot of capsular stiffness after injury and surgery. Trauma to the capsule can also leave it covertly stiff and tight if left unchecked.
In short, it’s something we all need to consider when stretching. We may not realize it’s there, but its presence can be one of the pillars of our immobility, injury and dysfunction.Joint stiffness is one of the pillars of our immobility, injury and dysfunction.Click To Tweet
Power Band Revolution
The power band should be your mobility tool of choice for joint capsule stiffness.
It has an ability to directly influence the capsule in ways passive stretching can’t.
This is particularly important for those of us who suffer from capsular tightness-related dysfunction like ankle, hip and shoulder impingements, frozen shoulder, joint replacements, back pain, Arthritis etc.
In previous years, it might takes months of arduous, hands on Physio for your joint stiffness to resolve – if it did at all. Now you can improve your joint mobility with relative ease.In previous years, it might takes months of arduous, hands on Physio for your joint stiffness to resolve - if it did at all. Now you can improve your joint mobility with relative ease thanks to the Power Band.Click To Tweet
Power Band Benefits
Aside from hitting the joint capsule the power band is a perfect fit for mobilizing your body for a number of reasons:
- Its basic band design allows for quick and easy setup and fixation at both ends.
- Its rubbery surface creates a stable connection.
- It hooks around the joint and allows you to stay relaxed without needing to hold it in place.
- It’s elasticity suits the supple nature of our soft tissue unlike the more rigid belt-like bands.
- They’re far more durable than theraband or theratubing.
- You can literally do it anywhere with an attachment point.
The Role of the Brain in Muscle Tightness
This article wouldn’t be complete without addressing the muscular side of things.
Passive stretching may not work as advertised because it doesn’t cater to why your muscles have become tight in the first place.
When I ask my patients this very question, most answers focus on a lack of use. Which does makes sense. We don’t use our muscles enough so they become tight as a consequence.
The problem though is we tend to see muscle and muscle tightness as having lifeless, passive elastic qualities. Hence the need to passively hold a stretch over time.
The Cause of Muscle Tightness
Interestingly, muscle tightness actually exists at the request of your brain and nervous system. It’s a tool used to offer support and protection for areas of concern, compensation and misuse.Muscle tightness exists at the request of your brain and nervous system.Click To Tweet
Your musculature isn’t a lifeless piece of elastic meat. It’s a fancy little piece of adaptive machinery.
Leave a muscle in a shortened position for too long and your brain begins to see that as valuable. So it makes it a reality.
Move inefficiently for long enough and your brain will support that pattern.
Develop weakness or poor motor control somewhere and watch your body tighten somewhere else to keep the functional status quo.
In short, muscle tightness is almost always there for a reason. It has a primal, yet noble purpose.
So I’m sure you can you imagine what this means for static stretching. Passively tugging on something your nervous system has asked to be there may not produce sustainable long-term changes in flexibility.
Because it can’t.
It doesn’t respect the adaptive neuromuscular nature of muscle tissue. Nor the mechanical shift that may cause it.
So you can’t blame those who fall off the stretching bandwagon over time. Static, passive stretching has no finish line. It’s just a hamster wheel of endless effort.
Instead, we need to use tools like the power band to restore normal motion to the underlying joints while also respecting the brain’s role in muscle tightness.
We need to recognize and appreciate that something is tight, but we also need to go on the hunt for mechanical or structural cause of that tightness. We need to take away your body’s reason for creating tightness, otherwise it will just eventually re-tighten again.
PNF or Contract Relax Stretching
This is the second piece of the puzzle. Instead of passively holding a stretch engage in something called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitative (PNF).
Otherwise known as “Contract-Relax” stretching, this is the stretching we should be doing with a power band.
PNF stretching involves short sustained tensing of the tight muscle (and surrounding muscles) followed by a period of relative relaxation – all while maintaining the same stretch.
This technique works because it engages the nervous system.
A basic theory of muscle behaviour suggests that maximal activation is followed by maximum relaxation. So we can use PNF stretching to cue our nervous system into releasing tightened areas.
Excitingly, you should always expect instant gains in mobility from PNF stretching. Long-term, you should expect see actual progress, not just maintenance.You should always expect instant gains in mobility from PNF stretching.Click To Tweet
It works amazingly well.
The Importance of Breathing in Stretching
Breathing plays an underrated role in stretching. It’s ability to determine your body’s response to mobility work is often completely missed – often because we just aren’t paying attention.
When we get to the nasty end of a good stretch it’s very easy to hold your breath. This is your body trying to create stability to assist in holding a challenging end-range position. However it’s not necessarily an optimal environment for your tissue to give and release.
So in order to get the best results from stretching we can’t neglect our breathing patterns.
How You Should Breathe When Stretching
At its most basic level we want to make sure we breathe slowly and deeply – preferably through the nose, when stretching. This breathing pattern tells your brain that everything is ok despite any potentially challenging end-range positions.
Remember that muscular tightness often occurs at the request of your nervous system. So we want to make sure it continues to feel safe and secure as you comfortably push your boundaries.
A great way to think about your breathing during stretching is this:
If you can’t take a full breath in during a stretch you don’t own that position. To make genuine long-term change you need to own that position.If you can't take a full breath in during a stretch you don't own that position. To make genuine long-term change you need to own that position.Click To Tweet
How to Breathe With PNF Stretching
The idea of slow, comfortable deep breaths still resonates with PNF stretching, however you can play around with the timing to get better results.
As PNF stretching requires a period of muscular tensing, this is actually an appropriate time to hold your breath. Unlike before we do want to create an optimally tensed state to facilitate an optimally relaxed one afterwards. Letting go of the muscle and your breath at the same time is a great way to prompt your nervous system to allow change.
Breathing with PNF stretching often looks something like this:
- Find a good stretch
- Breathe in fully and hold your breath as you tense the tight area (5-10 seconds)
- Relax and fully breathe out while going further into the stretch
- Once you’ve found your new comfortable limit, maintain slow, deep nasal breaths until ready to tense again (5-10 seconds)
- Repeat until you stop making change
Stretching Do’s and Don’ts
With any form of exercise there are number of important things to remember. Some will enhance the effectiveness of what you’re doing, some will detract from it. Many have been mentioned already!
Here is a quick summary of some things to do and things to avoid when stretching:
- Use a power band
- Use PNF to engage you nervous system
- Expect to make genuine change immediately and over time
- Use that new range immediately after obtaining it
- Stretch with purpose
- Understand joint stiffness and muscle tightness is not normal in any way
- Hold your breath (unless part of the PNF model)
- Go beyond what feels comfortable
- Think of your muscles as elastic or lifeless
- Passively hold a stretch and hope for the best
- Stretch with Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
- Feel like you have to do it “just because”
- Assume you’re naturally stiff or tight
Frequently Asked Stretching Questions
Why is stretching important?
This may sound strange, but technically stretching shouldn’t be important. But thanks to the impact of the modern world it currently is. At its core, the biggest reason we have to stretch is to counteract the effects of modern footwear, sedentary lifestyles and poor shapes and postures. If we happened to be perfect in these areas the need to stretch would dramatically reduce. We would retain our inherent mobility and flexibility more than we currently do. If we remember that stretching is an attempt to restore normal motion to our tissue, a perfect world would relegate it’s need to things out of our control – accidental injury/trauma, disease, illness etc.
What are the benefits of stretching?
The benefits of stretching go far beyond just becoming more flexible. Working on your mobility will also help the following:
- Improve the mechanics of the area and those associated with it
- Improve your access to the area’s power and strength
- Lower the risk of immediate and future injury
- Help down-regulate your nervous system
- Lower stress
- Improve function and quality of life
- Improve athletic performance
- Decrease the risk of joint Arthritis
- Give you chance to try and understand why you’re tight in the first place
- Give you back control of your body and it’s function
When is the best time to stretch?
The best time to stretch depends on why you are stretching in the first place. If it’s to decrease the risk of injury during sport and activity, then clearly before and most likely afterwards will help. Interestingly, stretching the night before activity will also help best prepare your body for action. Stretching before going to sleep prompts your body to make lasting change overnight. If done correctly, you should expect to wake up more mobile than days you didn’t stretch beforehand.
On the other hand, if you just want to improve your mobility for a better quality of life, the best time to do it will be determined by your lifestyle. If you’re busy, don’t feel like you have to make time to do it. Just fit it in when you can. Better yet, stretch while you’re doing something else. Do it in front of the TV or at your work desk. Spend two minutes on it before you run out the door in the morning. At the end of the day all you need to do is see change. So do more when you can but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.
How often should I stretch?
Similar to the above question, stretching needs to fit into your life, not define it. Sure, if you’re dealing with an ache or pain you may need to find the time. Otherwise do it when you can. Remember, daily change is the goal, not just daily stretching. You shouldn’t feel you need to stretch just for the sake of it. If you stretch every day and aren’t seeing genuine progress then something is missing in your program or approach. With this in mind, the amount of time you stretch should really just relate to how much progress you’re looking for. If you only have 2 minutes to commit each day then clearly results will take a little longer. Do more if you want more change or faster results.
9 Of The Best Power Band Stretches
For a window into what the power band can do for you give these stretches a go.
Consider doing each for 2 minutes a side and pair them with PNF.
If you can’t take comfortable deep breaths at any time during these stretches then you’re in too deep. We want your brain and nervous system to feel comfortable enough to release their hold on your tissues, so keep it comfortable.
I highly recommend testing out your flexibility before and after so you can genuinely see what they can do for you.
Give them a go and let me know your results in the comments. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!
1. Couch Stretch
This is a must do with or without a power band. Effectively the anti-sitting stretch, the Couch stretch opens up the front of the hips better than anything I’ve ever seen as a Physio. It can be challenging to do early on so ease into it. Consider doing it with your back knee up in the corner of a chair to make it easier. Make sure you can breathe during this one!
2. Mid-Low Back Stretch
There are a number of ways to free up a stiff mid-low back, but there aren’t too many as specific and powerful as using a power band. Stabilize your pelvis by keeping your glutes squeezed. Extend through your spine, and move the band up or down depending on where you find the most restriction. As always be respectful of how things feel and only use as much tension as is comfortable. Avoid doing this if you currently have low back pain unless your health professional gives you the all clear.
3. Ankle Stretch
Like the Couch stretch, the banded ankle stretch should be considered a staple of any mobility regime. Thanks to modern heeled footwear, the majority of us are likely missing full ankle range of motion. This can set us up for any number of foot, ankle, shin and knee complaints. A power band can specifically mobilize a rusty ankle like little else. Make sure to keep that back heel down and don’t let the back knee cave inwards. It’ll want to if it’s trying to find a way around a restriction.
4. Hip Capsule Stretch
This hip stretch also deserves a seat along side the Couch stretch and banded ankle stretch as must-do items.
Hip mobility is essential for normal lower back, hip and knee function. So having a simple stretch to target this is vital.
The key here is that you want the band pulling laterally. In the picture above I’ve got the majority of my weight going through the right hip. I’ve shifted my body so it feels as though my right thigh bone is pressing out through the back of my right buttock. You can shift your body further back into more hip flexion, or up into less hip flexion to find where your stiffness is. An absolute must.
Furthermore, externally rotate the same leg into the position shown above. This will bias some of the rotational capsule stiffness. As before, shift your weight over to the same side and also up/down to find where you need to be.
Lastly, internally rotate your hip (foot will end up out) to capture any remaining stiffness. A lack of hip internal rotation is linked with many hip-related dysfunctions including impingement. Go hunting around for your specific restrictions as there’s likely to be a fair bit.
5. Hip Flexion Stretch
A power band pulling laterally can also help to improve hip flexion. This is a great one to test/re-test with a deep squat. You should expect to see genuine change and further improve your hip, low back and lower leg function with this one.
6. Shoulder Flexion Stretch
We often underrate the need to reach over head. Full overhead range of motion is an essential component of overall shoulder function. Whether it be a stiff first rib, toughened shoulder capsule or associated shoulder muscles, things can get tight.
Similar to the hip flexion stretch above, you can get a brilliant before and after visual with this. Raise both arms up as straight as you can and take note of how it looks (and feels) in the mirror. Work through this shoulder stretch – making sure to keep your arm externally rotated (palm up), and then note the difference afterwards.
7. Scapula Stretch
The upper back can become stiff and tight if we spend too much time reaching and slouching. If you use a computer, spend long hours in the car or even just sink into the couch on a nightly basis, this stretch is for you. As with the overhead stretch above, we want to prioritize an externally rotated shoulder (palm up) as you bring the arm across the front of your body. If performed correctly you should feel a really nice stretch in your upper back.
8. Internal Rotation Shoulder Stretch
As with the hip, a lack of internal rotation can set the shoulder up for a number of complaints (frozen shoulder, impingement, rotator cuff dysfunction etc). This stretch may look and feel awkward, but it’s an important one to master. With your shoulder blade back, we want to internally rotate the shoulder with the band pulling it backwards. If you have enough mobility you’ll be able to reach around and pull your elbow forward to exacerbate the stretch.
At no stage should this feel uncomfortable at the front of the shoulder, it should always be felt at the back. Maneuver yourself around until you can make it work!
9. Shoulder Capsule Stretch
Another shoulder stretch that mimics the hip. As with the hip capsule stretch we want to feel like our arm is almost pressing out the back of the shoulder. This may require you to shift your body weight across and up/down depending on what you feel. The band pulling laterally will again help open up the shoulder and bias that stiff capsule.
Also consider dropping down on to your elbow. This will help drive more force through the capsule and generate a more powerful stretch. As with the hip you can externally and internally rotate your arm (forearm will end up pointing either more to the right or left) to bias any specific areas of concern.
Where To Get A Power Band
If you don’t have a power band and are thinking of purchasing one, please consider starting here (affiliate link). Either way, have a look around and see what might work for you. Note the different resistances. I find something in the middle works really well for most people.
I’d genuinely recommend having one or two lying around the house. I personally take one to the gym with me and keep one strapped to the foot of my bed as a daily reminder.
If you’re not keen to buy one there are plenty of other options out there for you.
An old bike inner tube like this is a good substitute.
Similarly, you can use theraband or theratubing if you have them lying around. They don’t provide as much resistance but still get results. You can always double them up or spend more time using them if need be.
So if you’re looking to supercharge your stretching routine consider equipping a power band. As a Physio and long-term power band user, I can’t speak highly enough of their ability to get results. They’ve literally raised my expectations and changed the way I look at stretching.
Additionally, couple this with PNF stretching to really add some depth to your routine.
By addressing any underlying capsular stiffness and respecting the nervous system’s role in muscular tightness you should see far better results from stretching.
We can stop seeing stretching as a way to maintain or consistently reclaim lost flexibility, and instead use it to consistently graduate to new levels of mobility and function.
And with this we can begin to move away from passively holding our stretches and hoping for change.
Do you use a Power Band when stretching? What are your thoughts on them?
What are your go-to Power Band stretches?
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