How to know when stretching isn’t the solution

 

“How should I be stretching?” I get this question all the time. My answer might surprise you:

You may not need to be stretching.

 

A friend came to my office last week with tight shoulders and a stiff neck. She’d been stretching for days but her tension kept getting worse, and had become painful. It made her feel like screaming.

I had her lie on the massage table, tell me how it all started, and describe the progression to now, while I explored the patterns of tension in her body. After 40 minutes of bodywork her pain was gone and her body properly aligned. Turns out stretching was making things worse. What she needed was muscle relief.

While stretching is an excellent tool in certain situations, it isn’t the only tool for creating flexibility, restoring range of motion, or loosening tight muscles.

Flexibility comes down to two things: You’re either trying to change the physical tissue or the neurologic patterning. Sometimes you need to change both.

Let’s look at the underlying causes of flexibility and inflexibility.

Structural glue vs. functional inflexibility

The physical length of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are probably long enough, unless you have a special condition or injury. It’s more common to have layers of muscle and fascia stick together in places where they should be sliding freely, especially if you spend a lot of time in a chair or are otherwise sedentary. When your muscles feel short and “structural glue” is limiting your freedom of motion, you’ll need to delaminate or un-stick these sliding surfaces with techniques such as foam rolling and massage.

Your flexibility changes throughout the day as your body adapts to your posture and movement. If you feel restricted — functionally inflexible — it’s likely your brain has reason to block access to the range of motion you expect, whether that reason be instability, muscle or joint fatigue, perceived weakness, or pain. When your muscles feel tight, like they won’t let go, you’ll need to find a way to relax them, then realign your body while activating correct muscular support of your joints. Once your brain is convinced movement is safe, or stable, it will release the restrictions on your range of motion.

Methods to restore flexibility

Stretching can be a useful tool to affect flexibility, but targeted techniques will often get better results, in less time, and in most cases, without fuss.

To illustrate why different approaches to restoring flexibility work in certain situations and can be less effective in others, let’s talk about a few of the reasons your body might hold itself in knots — and how to resolve each case.

Trigger points and why you shouldn’t stretch them

Tight muscles often have trigger points. Everybody gets them, even those of us who are physically active all the time.

Trigger points are short sections of muscle stuck in perpetual contraction. You know you’ve found one of these knots if you run your thumb along the length of a muscle with some pressure and suddenly your discomfort spikes as you pass over it — a trigger point can be so intense that it’s painful.

Stretching muscles that have trigger points makes things worse because most of the fibers in the muscle are already being stretched out by the small portion held short. Think of it this way: If I held a rubber band apart at two ends and then shortened a segment in the middle, what would happen to all the parts of the rubber band to the left and right of that middle segment? Can you see how the rest would get stretched toward the middle?

Ask yourself, does it make sense to stretch this muscle even more?

Of course not!

To get your flexibility back, you need to release your trigger points. Instead of stretching, find your trigger points and slowly roll over or massage through them 6-12 times. Repeating this a few times a day will ensure your knots don’t become permanent areas of restriction and pain.

Unstable joints

When the body senses instability, weakness, or misalignment, it activates a motion-limiting muscle girdle around the area to prevent further movement.

If you’ve ever dislocated a joint or broken a bone, you’ve felt the extreme version of this guarding mechanism. But if you’re like most people, the guarding you feel is less obvious; you might not even be aware your body does it. Your body guards itself in response to everyday situations like poor posture, fatigue, and overuse.

When your body is guarding weak or unstable joints, forced stretching works to undo the emergency bracing, triggering the body to further ramp up its guarding mechanisms, which results in even tighter muscles.

To get your flexibility back you need to convince your brain to let down its guard. How do you do that? Learn to restore good joint alignment and create supportive patterns of muscle activation. When you hear us use the terms “corrective exercise” and “functional exercise,” we are largely talking about how to promote these supportive patterns.

You might be amazed at the kind of release your body volunteers when you restore your joint stability.

Structurally rigid and habitually short muscles

If you do need to increase the physical length of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia because you have injuries that have produced scar tissue — or you’ve simply sat in a chair, daily, for decades — static stretching will help you restore flexibility.

You can structurally remodel your soft tissue with stretched positions on a consistent basis. It takes daily practice, stretching in individual positions for 2-4 minutes at a time. Yoga is effective at this, with its emphasis on relaxing into the stretch, but other static stretching methods work too. You’ll notice you move more freely after the end of each stretch. And over months the accumulated structural changes will become permanent.

Build your flexibility tool kit

The key to getting the flexibility you want is to use the methods that work for your situation. Stretching, foam rolling, and corrective exercise are a few of the many techniques that improve flexibility and create greater range of motion. There are also neurologic inhibition techniques like PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation), AIS (active isolated stretching), and PRRT (primal reflex release technique™) that you can use to augment your efforts.

Send me your questions about stretching, or feel free to leave a comment.

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