What is CR Stretching?

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CR Stretching or Contract-Relax Stretching is a form of stretching where you hold the muscle in a state of contraction for a period of time (usually around 5-10 seconds) then on the relax phase (usually around 3-5 seconds) you move the joint to it’s new longer range and repeat. Repeat this contract-relax phase for 3 to 5 times until the muscle no longer increases in range. Follow this by holding the last position for 30 seconds. Sounds easy enough, right? But what is actually happening and why choose this form of stretching over dynamic stretching or passive stretching?

What happens when you stretch?

We used to think that stretching was causing a change in the structure and length of a muscle. We now know that stretching is more to do with the nervous system than the muscle. Our bodies are adaptable to our environment and within certain limits we can either shorten or lengthen a muscle over time depending on what feedback the nervous system is receiving.

So what is actually happening? When you hold a stretch, your nervous system gives feedback to your central nervous system that tells it is safe to “let go”. The central nervous system then sends a signal back to the muscles instructing them to lengthen a little bit. When we contract-relax stretch we fast track these messages. Holding the final position for 30 seconds also helps the nervous system to think of this as the new normal. If repeated often enough, i.e. daily for a period of 6 weeks, you should see significant gains in flexibility.

Factors that affect flexibility

Factors that can limit a person’s flexibility include:

  • previous injury to the muscle that has caused scar tissue (scar tissue lays in a cross fibre pattern unless stretched during the repair phase)
  • elasticity of the skin
  • temperature of the tissues on stretch (warmth increase flexibility)
  • time of day (most people are more flexible in the afternoon)
  • age (pre-adolescents are typically more flexible than adults)
  • gender (females are typically more flexible than males)
  • and the most important factor, ones commitment to achieving flexibility!

Who choose CR Stretching?

When considering what type of stretching is most suitable, always consider the sport or activity you want to master. If you are wanting to weight lift, you don’t just want length in the muscle but you also want strength, therefore dynamic stretching using your weight lifting in conjunction with lengthening the muscle may work best. If doing gymnastics you need strength at end range so passive stretching is not enough to keep injuries at bay, you again need a slower version of dynamic stretching to keep the strength in the end range of your stretch ability.

Contract Relax stretching is a great choice for people wanting to increase their flexibility. Try stretching at night after all your training and work for the day is done and focus on balancing your body out. For example, my hip flexors are short compared to my hamstrings when compared to standard range of movement charts. As much as I’d achieve the splits a lot quicker if I stretch my hamstrings each night, it would do no good for my gym and running technique so I choose the slower pathway to flexibility over injury!

You can also choose a CR stretch when preparing for strength training. Once you have completed the round of contract-relax stretching and held the last position for 30 seconds or so, you simply need to activate the muscle to be ready for strength training. You can do this by holding one last contract phase for a period of 10-30 seconds. This sends signals to the brain to get ready for contractions rather than stay relaxed. Passive stretching before working out before activating the muscle can leave you vulnerable to injury.

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