Stretching is a largely discussed and somewhat controversial topic in the health and wellness industry. With a simple google search, you’ll start to hear a million opinions on whether or not stretching is good for you. By the time people get to us, we’ve heard it all. “I was told to do dynamic stretches.” “I was told to stretch only after working out.” “I was told if I stretch before working out I’ll get weaker.”
These are all opinions. There is no research supporting these claims. Instead, we’re writing this blog to show you exactly what the research DOES tell us.
Overall, stretching should not necessarily be the thing to jump to when you’re trying to relieve tightness. We feel very strongly that it is often thrown around as the go-to intervention because people just don’t know better.
Best case scenario: after stretching, you’ll feel an immediate release in tightness. However, because there is an underlying reason for that tightness, this will be short lived. What might happen is, in the next 2 to 3 hours, the tightness might come right back and you’ll have to stretch again. Temporary relief doesn’t take you very far.
Worst case scenario: you can wind up overstretching the ligaments and joint capsules that hold our bones together. Overstretching these can cause long lasting damage in the body and is not a forgiving process. This will create laxity in all the wrong places, causing our muscles to stiffen up further to guard the instability in our joints. (Trust me, it can get bad.)
Let’s first examine why muscles get tight. Muscles just don’t wake up and decide to be tight. The body is much more complex than that. In fact most muscles aren’t truly short, but they feel very tight because the brain is perceiving a lack of stability. Therefore, it sends a signal to our muscles to put on the brakes, creating lots of tightness and stiffness in our muscles. The brain’s job is to keep our body safe, therefore it will continue to create neurological tension or tone as long as the need for extra stability is present. This could end up feeling like years of built up tightness and tension, seemingly worsening with age.
One common place people feel tightness is in their hamstrings. The perception of tightness is, in fact, most often caused by long and weak hamstrings. Most people do not have a good stability mechanism in the area of our pelvis and core. The core extends from our ribs to the pelvis, including our spine and hips. Limitations in stability here can cause an increased amount of tension in the back of our core to compensate for a lack of stability in the front of our core. At this point, the tension in the hamstrings is the only thing that allows for some people to stay upright, keep stability and not suffer debilitating back pain. So, in fact, stretching can actually make you worse because you are over lengthening and weakening the muscles that are helping keep you stable and upright against gravity. Stretching can be a quick fix to release tension, but it won’t address the underlying problem which is a lack of stability.
Another example is the calves. Many people turn to stretching their calves in an attempt to make them feel less tight, with no success. A more nuanced approach is necessary for long term relief. Most people actually carry their center of gravity forward and the calves are the only things holding them up to keep from falling forward. Therefore, overstretching them won’t be dealing with the reason the calves are tight in the first place.
Improper alignment and position of bones can be another contributor to muscles feeling excessively tight.
Position of Bones
If your bones are in a poor position, this will close down the range of motion in your joints. Hips tilted too far forward will lead to a decrease in range of motion in the hip joint and consequently, the muscles attached will become poorly positioned and lead to a lack of stability. Hamstrings will automatically tighten up in this non-optimal position to fight back and provide more stability. The second we start to influence where the bones are positioned, it is possible to open up the joint and put it back to a neutral position. Once achieved, the muscle tension around the joint will subside.
As you can see in the following pictures, a person’s hip position can influence hamstring tightness and how changing the position can relieve this tension.
Arching His Back And Holding An Inhale (Pelvis Tilts Forwards)