Why Stretching Doesn't Work To Relieve Tight Muscles

Quick Question:

How many of you have previously googled “stretches for tight hamstrings” or “stretches for tight hips?”

Right… that’s what I thought.

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.)

Tone

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)

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In this picture, Cody came into an extended position, letting his hips roll forward with his back arched. After taking a deep breath in, we checked his hamstring length by lifting his leg straight up. As you can see, he is incredibly limited when his pelvis is rolled forward like this.

This next picture was taken after he gave a huge exhale and tucked his pelvis up and ribs down. This allowed him to change the orientation of his spine and hip socket. Upon re-checking his range of motion, you can clearly see he has more hamstring flexibility here. However, we didn’t stretch a thing!

Exhaling To Get The Ribcage And Pelvis Into A Neutral Position

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This demonstration should show you that if the joint is positioned outside of neutral range, the muscles around the joint will feel unevenly tight. A good way to get your pelvis into a more neutral range is to strengthen the muscles that help with this movement. Two key muscles that help with this would be your hamstrings and abdominals. Once these muscles are stronger, your bones will sit in a better position, and the improvement in stability will allow for brain to release the tension in muscles surrounding the joint.

By now you should have an understanding as to why stretching is not always the answer to relieving tension and tightness. Remember, don’t always go to stretching a tight muscle first, but rather think about improving stability and the position of the bones around the muscle to help improve the range of motion.

If you’d like more specific examples for your muscle aches and pains, please leave a comment below, or send us an email and we will show some examples of what you can do to help solve the problem.

If you live locally, feel free to come in for a free consultation with Dr. Payal. She can evaluate how your bony alignment and joint position and give you a recommendation of what you can do to improve your position, mobility and stability.