Stretching...Is it Working?
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
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“Man I’m always so tight, ugh. What should I do Bob?”
“Well, Antonio, the answer is obvious! You should stretch more.”
“What about foam rolling? Or those guns that vibrate all over you? Maybe I’ll go get a massage…”
“Yea those are good too! I think…”
Skit of the year, yes thank you. Very common complaint though. You feel very stiff, very tight, and overall uncomfortable, and conventional wisdom says to stretch. Stretching here means your typical holding you foot quad stretch, reaching your toes, etc.
This isn’t to knock stretching, it has a time and a place, and can help to varying degrees. But just don’t expect it to magically cure all your problems. If you keep doing it, you will feel some relief, but it won’t fix the root cause as you’re probably just putting a bandaid over a larger issue. Stop stretching for a couple weeks and see how stiff you get again. The root cause is your day to day movement, maybe not even in the gym, that’s causing your pain. So let’s go over the different options.
Okay, let’s say your hamstrings feel tight and you begin a typical toe reach hamstring stretch. You have trouble touching your toes, hold it for 30 seconds, switch legs, and when you stand up it feels a little better and looser. One day later, a few days later, whatever, you complain about the same tightness and repeat the same cycle. Why do your hamstrings still feel tight? Two different reasons.
Reason number one is that you actually have tight hamstrings. To create any real change in muscle tissue length, you’d have to hold that toe reach stretch for 10, 20, maybe 30 minutes. That’s why the muscles snap back just as tight soon after. So again, while the stretching makes you feel good for the time being, and you can by all means do it, just understand what it is and isn’t going to do for you.
Reason number two is that you don’t have tight hamstrings at all, but they are working double time because you’re compensating for weakness somewhere else. If you can touch your toes, but feel like you have tight hamstrings, then this is the case for you. Somewhere else in your body (possibly your core or internal rotators) aren’t doing their job when you are standing and walking, and your hamstrings have to work that much harder to keep things in place.
FOAM ROLLING/LACROSSE BALL
Those styrofoam, cylinder-looking things that you roll around on and it kind of hurts or the hard rubber ball used in lacrosse. This is categorized as self myofascial release and the idea is that this will break up and increase extensibility of connective tissue to alleviate chronic tightness and movement restrictions. Either traditional foam rollers, or lacrosse balls, are great tools to use either before or after workouts.
Again, don’t expect miracles here, it doesn’t correct movement patterns but it will definitely help especially if you are experiencing chronic, significant discomfort/pain. Remember with pain/tightness, driving into the exact area where it hurts usually isn’t the solution. Something else is overactive and jammed up that is causing other muscles to fire at a higher capacity than they should. So be pragmatic and “search and destroy” as you roll around; find where it “hurts” and keep a concentrated, consistent roll on that area. Again, this isn’t going to be a comfortable experience, but it could be a very useful tool.
SOFT TISSUE MUSCLE RELEASE
So this doesn’t really mean getting a nice Swedish massage. While that is a delightful experience, and feels good, it won’t necessarily alleviate your tightness. Manual soft tissue release is typically conducted by a medical professional of some kind, but like with anything else, there are good ones, and bad ones. They take their hands, and find areas where you are having significant compensations, and manually release the areas.
This may be needed if you have significant, chronic tightness/stiffness/pain. If it’s really bad then you might need this level of intervention to give you some room so that when you go to correct your movement, you’ll get the most out of it. Massages can help but most will probably put you right back where you started as massage therapists mainly focus on superficial muscles (the big ones on top, not the small important ones).
FIXING HOW YOU MOVE
Okay, so you’ve done the foam rolling, the lacrosse ball, maybe even gotten some manual tissue release work done and you’re feeling better. Now how do you prevent this from happening again? Well, how did it happen in the first place? Usually you’ve spent a long time, years probably, doing something wrong, moving inefficiently, and loading your body incorrectly. Most people have done it, currently do it, and might continue to do it.
The solution? Fix the way you move!! Learn proper hinge mechanics, core bracing/stability, shoulder positioning, scapula movement, and foot activation; all of which will help you become better positioned to experience less tightness and agitation on a daily basis. Learning to “map” your muscles will teach your brain how to effectively communicate to them, so that they can go through full contractile ranges and relax properly afterwards. The discomfort occurs when they stay more contracted than relaxed, and even more so when groups of muscles are working double time because other groups are taking a nice vacation. Reteach your body so that when you stand, walk, sit, or run, your brain will know where and how to access your muscle fibers properly.
A lot of people say that they should stretch more, and they might very well be right. But sometimes it’s more beneficial to take a step back and assess what’s causing you to say that. It’s not so much what you aren’t doing, but what you are continuing to do and how you’re doing it that’s creating the need to stretch. After you’ve given yourself some relief, address why this is happening in the first place and take the time to start from there.