Top 5 Stretching Mistakes

Stretching; Back pain;

March 6, 2024

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Stretching; Back pain;

Overcoming the Top 5 Stretching Mistakes

Do you ever find yourself back in pain/dealing with tightness even though you just finished stretching? Do you ever find you avoid stretching, maybe because it seems pointless? Have you ever wondered if you were doing the best stretches for your body?

If so, you’re not alone. 

I know many people face the same challenges when it comes to stretching. And I want to help you overcome them once and for all because having an effective stretching routine can truly be life-changing! That being said, there are 5 common ways you are hurting yourself by stretching, and we need to put each one to rest if you do, indeed, want to start feeling better. (And feeling better sooner, rather than later).

Let’s start with the most common:

Mistake #1: Symmetrical stretching

To truly understand the challenges hindering your stretching progress, it’s important to recognize the role of muscle imbalances. These are imbalances that occur from front-to-back, head-to-toe, and side-to-side. They lead to certain muscles being stronger and/or tighter than others, and create limitations in your range of motion and flexibility. 

How do certain muscles get stronger and/or tighter? Because of your habits and preferences (oftentimes called left-handed or right-handed), which causes your brain to improve its connection with those muscles so they are the ones recruited first and more frequently. In every activity you do.

~ Why does that matter?

Because you likely feel the need to do the exact same stretch on both sides of your body, for the same amount of time, even though you have one side that is needing it more. The whole goal of stretching is to return your body to a neutral position that allows for full range-of-motion and uninhibited movement, not to be “even”. If you’re staying “even”, you’re changing nothing. 

Think of it this way: by trying to stretch evenly and consistently from side-to-side, you restore both sides to a better resting length (we’ll talk more about this in a minute) but have not actually changed the relationship between the muscles. So you still have one group that is tighter than the other, even though they are both now less tight. And that lingering tension is what will continue to hinder your movements and flexibility.

~ What can you do differently?

Focus more on stretching the side/area that actually needs it, rather than focusing on whether or not you’ve stretched both sides evenly.

This can look like stretching only one area and not the corresponding area on the opposite side of your body. It can also look like stretching that primary area for longer, and being sure to stretch for less time on the opposing side.

Mistake #2: Improper training of your Stretch Reflex

All of us have these nifty little neurons in our muscles called Muscle Spindles, which produce a fun reflex (called our Stretch Reflex) when our muscles are rapidly stretched. The faster we move (specifically through stretching), the more likely we will engage these neurons, which will actually prevent us from being able to stretch any further.

~ Why does that matter?

Because you are likely stretching too fast, and/or not regularly enough to override and reset these neurons. 

Even though they are meant to protect us, these Muscle Spindles are influenced by our habits and behaviors, just like everything else. The less we stretch, and the more we keep tension in our body, the more our body believes that tension is normal. And for these neurons, that new “normal” will cause them to be triggered with less stretching because now it believes that tiny bit of new movement/elongation is bad.

~ What can you do differently?

Move slowly through your stretches, and do not “move in-move out-move on”. 

Retraining your stretch reflex takes time. Not a lot of time, but probably more than you’re used to. Rather than moving into a stretch, holding it a few seconds, then immediately releasing it to move on to another area, work through the tissue. Ease into the stretch. Hold it until you can feel the tissue soften. Then, go a little bit further. And repeat.

Mistake #3: Ignoring Neuro-specificity

I introduced you to Muscle Spindles a moment ago, but in truth, there are LOTS of highly-specialized neurons in our body. And they each respond to different types of input and stretching differently. Discussing those differences is beyond what we’ll be talking about here, but it is important to know that the input one type of neuron likes, may cause another type to respond negatively. And vice-versa. 

~ Why does that matter? 

Because you are likely not choosing the correct type of stretching for your body.

Similarly to feeling the need to stretch evenly from side-to-side, there is also a pattern of uniformity in the TYPE of stretching we do. The way we stretch one muscle is the way we think we should stretch all our muscles.  But did you know there are over 14 types/styles of stretching? And depending on the cause of your problem, type A may work really well in your bicep while type D works really well in your calf (remember those differing neurons, each with their own stretching preference)?  

~ What can you do differently?

Try a variety of stretching for each area. Do not focus on a static-only routine, or dynamic-only routine. Mix them up. Try some static stretching AND dynamic stretching AND PIR/PNF stretching AND Passive stretching. And try each of them in the same muscle/area. Discover which one made the biggest difference for you in each area. And focus on using that style the next time you return to stretch. 

Mistake #4: Lack of Regularity

We use our muscles constantly. Every time we exercise. Everyday at work. Every time we talk, and eat, and sleep. Yes- even while we’re sleeping, our muscles are contracting, causing more tension and further reducing our flexibility. To state it more plainly, there is never a time in your 24-hour day when your muscles are not working (and I’m specifically talking about your skeletal muscles here). 

~ Why does that matter?

Because you probably are not stretching often enough to counteract the negative effects of each 24-hour day. 

Can you think of a time when you really wanted to improve a skill, a relationship, a habit? Can you remember a time when you actually DID improve a skill, a relationship, a habit? How much time did you spend on it? Less than 30 minutes a week? 30 minutes a day? More than that? 

To improve anything, we have to give it a regular and larger place on our calendar. The same is true for stretching. Thinking you can stretch for 60 minutes once a week (and believing it will improve your flexibility) is grossly underestimating exactly how much work your body does, and how much is needed to help it heal. The good news, though, is that while it will take more than what you’re (likely) giving, it will probably take less than you expect.

~ What can you do differently?

Spend 20 minutes each day focusing on stretching. This doesn’t have to be all at once (although that can help to make sure you are doing enough), and you can even stretch while watching a movie, or talking with your family. Better yet, start a new habit of stretching as a family! 

20 minutes is not some magic number that holds power on its own, but in my work I have found it is sufficient enough to work through the entire body so you can start seeing results. Feel you need more time? Go for it! But the key here is to learn to make it a daily part of your routine.

Mistake #5: Stretching because it “feels good”

This one, right here, is the biggest mistake I hear. And it may be the hardest to overcome. I’ve seen it so many times- clients delaying their progress by: 1) adding a stretch to a muscle that does not need it because “it felt good”, and 2) not knowing if something is actually good for them beyond whether or not it “feels good” in the moment. 

~ Why does it matter?

Because you are likely structuring your own routine around what “feels good”, rather than what is needed. 

Ask yourself this question (and answer it): What would you do right now to feel good? 

Now ask yourself: What would you do right now to feel good while also achieving your goals?

Did you answer differently the second time? How come? Because left to our own devices, we choose what feels good regardless of the outcome.  If all I thought right now was that I wanted to feel good… (end of thought), I would go eat a pint of ice cream. But if I thought I want to feel good… while still achieving my goals, I would go for a walk. And that’s the trick our brain plays on us constantly. Without being a little more specific, our brains will actually lead us away from the thing that will help us most. 

~ What can you do differently?

Before stretching, ask yourself this question: “What stretching can I do right now to help my body be better, not just feel better?” See what comes to your mind (your mind is highly intuitive after all, and will likely already have a sense of what it needs).

And after you’ve finished (stretching), pay close attention to whether or not you notice positive changes all throughout your body, or only where you stretched. Then, pay attention to whether those positive changes last more or less than 60 minutes. That timeline will tell you a lot about whether the stretching you are doing is the kind of stretching that will actually help you start to heal. 

Stretching arm

Stretching really does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. But it will often feel like an uphill battle, and a waste of time, when we ignore these simple rules. Make your time and stretching really count; follow these easy-to-implement tips to reap all the benefits stretching has to offer!

And if you need extra help or a guiding hand, we are here for you.

Happy stretching, friend!

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