The Stretch Reflex

The stretch reflex is something that is designed to protect us, but can get a little annoying when you are trying to get more flexible!

Inside the millions of tiny fibers that make up each of your muscles are little cells called Muscle Spindles that measure how much stretch there is in your muscles. As you stretch the muscle, a message gets sent to your central nervous system (not necessarily your brain) that can cause a reflex contraction of the exact muscle that you are trying to stretch!

The most common example of the stretch reflex is a test for the stretch reflex in your quadriceps (thigh muscles).

In this test, the tendon below the knee (Patella tendon is hit with a small reflex hammer. (Dont try this with dads regular hammer – it might hurt!)

Stretch Reflex in The Quadriceps

This causes a stretch in the quadriceps (Thigh Muscles) which is sensed by little stretch receptors in the muscle cell.

The message of the stretch is carried by the nerve to your spinal cord.

The message gets translated and immediately (your brain does not get involved) a new message is sent back down the nerve to contract the quadriceps, thus reversing the stretch. There is also a message sent to relax the hamstrings (the opposing muscle).

The same principle applies if we try to stretch our hamstrings too hard. As you pull your leg closer it starts to shake. This shaking feeling is the fight between you pulling the leg in (Stretching the hamstring) and the stretch reflex wanting to contract the hamstrings!

So, what do we do about it?

The first thing is not to try too hard. Most people think that if they pull harder, then the muscle will stretch more and they will get more flexible. Unfortunately this is just simply not true. The harder you pull, the more the stretch reflex will fire and the tighter and more sore you will feel the next day.

So when you are stretching next, try taking your leg just to the first point of tension that you feel and just pause there. Close your eyes and see if you can use your mind to slowly just let go of the tension in that muscle. This may take some practice, but once you master it, it will help you immensely. Once that point of tension has released, come out of the stretch, bend and straighten the knee a few times to pump the muscle and increase the blood flow and then try again moving slightly deeper into it. This will result in much faster flexibility gains than just pulling harder.

If you can learn to let your muscles relax in longer and longer positions, you will get far less activity of these little muscles spindles, and find it much easier to go into your stretches. This also helps protect you from injuring yourself while dancing, as you body will allow itself to go into a position easier. Muscles tears and strains often come when a muscle contracts as it is being stretched, and tears in the process.

Do yourself a favor, and learn how to make friends with your stretch reflex rather than hating it! Try releasing the restriction to your flexibility in other ways (neural and fascial releases) before stretching and you will be amazed at how much easier it is!

7 Responses to “The Stretch Reflex”

  1. Taya J. Matoy Says:

    What is meant by: Once that point of tension has released, come out of the stretch, pump the muscle a few times to increase the blood flow and then try again moving slightly deeper into it.

    Pump the muscle? manually by hand, with your leg, not sure what you mean here.
    Thanks for any clarification.

  2. Tyler Says:

    I have been athletic most of my life with a fair amount of flexibility. I have always wanted to me more flexible. I practice yoga a bit. I notice that when I do exercise related to or preparing for the splits my lower right sacrum area will become aggravated. Any suggestions and does your program help with lower back sacrum area discomfort?

    Seat wide angle forward bend, pigeon..etc..


  3. lisahowell Says:

    Hi Tyler

    This is a common problem for many people, and often occurs if you have neural tension and the nerve is getting ‘tethered’ where it exits from the sacrum… This unfortunately does not usually improve with stretching around the area (as you have discovered!) but it does respond will to the following exercises from the program… The tennis ball releases for the piriformis and deep external rotators, the sub occipital releases, the QL stretch and the hamstring massage in the bonus videos. Also, either the thoracic mobility section or the foot and ankle section will usually help free things up a bit! I hope that helps!


  4. Muhammad Says:

    Very helpful , I always noticed that my feet is shaking while stretching , And i noticed also that i don’t improve my flexibility , Maybe that’s why , thank you .

  5. annabelralph Says:

    Hi Muhammad,

    I hope this explanation of the Stretch Reflex helped you to improve your flexibility. Gently trying this technique regularly can be very effective especially when combined with the other parts of our program. Our Front Splits Fast program is specifically designed for people with problems with flexibility so make sure to give it a go if you want to make long lasting improvements!

    Dance Physio at Perfect Form Physiotherapy

  6. Nadirah Says:

    Ahhh.. Now I know! Thanks so much Lisa!

  7. Em Says:

    thank you thank you thank you!!! i have wondered why i shake alot!!

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