Isometric Stretching- How to Improve Your Flexibility

by Cole Matthews - Last Updated October 31, 2018

Isometric stretching is the perfect complement between flexibility and strength. It allows you to improve your flexibility as a result of strength increases at the extremes of your muscle’s range.

When most people think of stretching, they envision holding a muscle in an elongated static position for a set period of time. That’s the traditional way to stretch, but it has proven to be an ineffective method. Isometric stretching is a newer, better way to stretch that will strengthen your tendons, ligaments as it increases your flexibility and range of motion.

The Types of Stretches

All stretches are either static or dynamic. Static stretching refers to maintaining a position of that elongates a muscle for a period of time. Static stretches are often held for around 30 seconds. The stretch is held without any bouncing. Ballistic stretching, which does involve bouncing, has largely been discredited.

Dynamic stretching combines movement with a stretch. Examples od dynamic stretching are swinging your arms to warm up your shoulders or jogging in place prior to a run.

Another classification of stretching is as passive and active stretching. Active stretches are unassisted, whereas passive ones include a force that exerts pressure on the muscle to achieve a greater stretch. Clasping your hands together and bringing them overhead I an example of a passive stretch because you are using the force of your arms to add an extra element to the stretch.

The Flexibility Myth

When most people talk about flexibility, what they are really referring to is the range of motion of a muscle group. Now, the interesting thing is that range of motion actually ha very little to do with flexibility. The most important factor is strength. Your body will only enable itself to move into a position where it is strong and where it has the ability to support itself.

Your range of motion is controlled by your Golgi Tendinous Organs.

What is Isometric Stretching

Isometric stretching is a variation of static-passive stretching that incorporates contraction-relaxation techniques. It involves exerting force against a static object, such as a wall or the floor. During the stretch your do not actually move the muscle.

The following are the 3 steps involved in isometric stretching:

(1)       Get into a position where the target muscle is able to be tensed against an immovable object.

(2)       Move the muscle to the full extent of its stretchability

(3)       Tense the target muscle for between 7-15 seconds.

(4)       Relax the target muscle for 20 seconds and then repeat the stretch by extending slightly.

You should always precede your isometric stretching with a short warm-up. Perform 5-10 minutes of cardio exercise. On your resistance training days, you should do your isometric stretching after you have done your resistance exercises.

Benefits of Isometric Stretching

Isometric stretching teaches muscle control as it improves your flexibility. You will develop the ability to effectively contract the muscles of your body, control your breath and then relax those muscles. It is, many people believe, the fastest route to achieving flexibility. That increased flexibility will improve your posture, prevent tight hamstrings, and loosen up the tight hip flexors that cause spinal issues.

Isometric stretching, unlike any other method, will improve strength at the extreme ranges of movement. It is a very effective way to ‘dig into’ your body and determine where the tightness is that is preventing full stretch. As you learn how to flex your muscles, you are also increasing your strength. At the same time, you will greatly improve your ability to control the muscles of your body.

To get the most out of isometric stretching, get into a position where you cannot stretch any further. As an example, go down into a straight legged toe touch a far as you can. Now tighten all your muscles as you push into the floor (the immovable object) with your hamstrings. Breathe in a hallow manner as you hold this position for 10 seconds and then relax.

Stretching in this manner teaches you to control your nervous system, which is what governs the length of your muscles.

A Word of Caution

Isometric stretching puts a lot of pressure on your muscles and tendons. As a result, you should be an experienced strength trainer before beginning this type of stretching. You should already be doing regular resistance training and dynamic stretching moves.

Isometric stretching should not be used by people whose bones are still growing. So, children and adolescents should hold off from doing it. Nor should you perform isometric stretching on an injured or recovering muscle group.

You do not want to perform isometric stretching on a cold muscle. Rather, it should be performed after a strength training session. Do not perform isometric stretching for a specific muscle group more than once a day and ensure that you have a minimum 36 hour gap between isometric stretching sessions for each muscle group.

Using Isometric Stretching to Perform the Splits

The majority of people are unable to do the splits, believing that they are not flexible enough. However, this is not the case. The vast majority of those people who can’t do the splits would be able to do the following. Why not try it for yourself . . .

Stand and out your left foot on the chair that you’ve just been sitting in without bending your knee. Keep your right leg straight. Your left leg should now form a 90 degree angle to your torso. Now do the same thing with your other leg.

What you have done with this little exercise is performed the two ‘halves’ of the split, each one of which put your leg at 90 degrees to your torso. So, why can’t you do it with both legs?

There is no muscle that connect the two legs. Each leg fits independently into a hip socket. So, theoretically, you should be able to do with both legs what you can do with each leg independently. But you can’t!

The reason has to do with your golgi tendon organ or GTO. It is the GTO which measures the level of tension and contraction in each of our muscles. When you attempt to do the splits, your muscles contract as a self- preserving measure in order that you do not hurt yourself. The body will not allow you to go to a position that it cannot return from. Your muscles tense up, shortening and so stopping your from doing the splits.

Isometric stretching trains your body to overcome

the tenseness that prevents you from doing the splits. Here are the steps that you need to follow . . .

(1)       Get down on the floor and assume the split position going down as far as you can with your hands resting in front of your body, palms pressing into the floor.

(2)       Now tense your entire body, with a focus on your hamstrings. Imagine becoming a clenched fist. Hold this position for 10 seconds.

(3)       Once the 10 seconds is up, breathe out gently and relax for a few seconds.

(4)       Now increases the depth of the stretch slightly and tense the body again for a 10 seconds hold.

(5)       Breathe out gently again and go slightly lower again for another 10 second tense hold.

You will be amazed at your ability to sink slightly lower into the stretch after each contraction and relaxation.

Partner Assisted Isometric Stretching

A popular form of isometric stretching is to do perform the stretch with the assistance of a partner. An example of partner assisted isometric stretching is to have a partner hold your leg straight up in the air, while your contract against them to try to bring your leg back to the ground. A similar thing can be done with most muscles of the body. 

Isometric Stretching for the Shoulders

(1)       Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your hands behind your body, palms forward and pushing into the floor.

(2)       Your hands should be back in a position that is just about the limit of comfort in terms of the stretch in your shoulders.

(3)       Take a deep breath and contract your arms as if you were pushing them into the floor. Hold this contraction for 10 seconds.

(4)       Relax and scoot your butt forward slightly to increase the range of motion. No tense again for a further 10 seconds while taking a deep breath.

(5)       Scoot forward again to further increase the range of motion and repeat the process.

(6)       In the furthest range of motion position, hold the contraction for 30-60 seconds.

This process of isometric contraction will allow you to vastly improve your range of motion very quickly. The mechanism at play here is that your GTO sees that you are requiring a lot of muscular tension, so it responds by causing the muscles to relax in order to prevent an injury. This relaxation allows you to increase your range of motion.

Isometric Stretching Key Points

  • Hold the contracted stretch position for 7-15 seconds
  • Slowly relax and release
  • Now increase the range of motion slightly and contract for another 7-15 seconds
  • Repeat this process 3-4 times

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