My muscle is tight. What stretch can I do?
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question. . . Well, you know the rest.
Despite advancing science, it is still a commonly held belief that if a muscle feels tight, it must be stretched. I must admit, I was once in this camp as well. I believed tight muscles were bad and needed to be stretched. I thought all this stretching would help prevent injury (nope) and loosen up my IT band (nope, that sucker should be tight!).
My thoughts on stretching began to change when I was researching the literature for my master’s thesis. I wanted to know if flexibility affected the running economy (I was once a runner). Specifically, if you were more flexible, was running easier, more efficient etc. What I found was that the tighter runners were actually more economical which means they used less energy to run at specific speeds. There are a few reasons for this but what really struck me was the research on stretching. Stretching didn’t actually change the muscle tissue! I felt like I had been lied to my entire life. Researchers indicated that the increased range of motion we get in response to stretching is due to an increase in tolerance to the stretch, not a change in the properties of the muscle (Magnusson, 1998). Basically, we are telling our brains to let us go further into the stretch. The catch is this is only a temporary increase and will go back to where you started in roughly 20 mins unless you load the area so it gets used to the increased range of motion and the brain feels safe in that position.
Yay, science! But I said my muscles feel tight so surely I need to stretch them so they feel less tight, right? Well, not exactly. The tightness you feel is subjective and is an output of the brain. Ever see those really flexy people saying they feel tight but their legs are behind their heads? Yeah, that tightness is a subjective feeling because clearly, their muscle length is just fine. Oftentimes, our muscles FEEL tight because the brain decided a joint in the area doesn’t feel safe and needs more protection. The way the brain accomplishes this is by clamping down some muscles so the joint feels more secure. Viola, you feel tight muscles.
Let’s do a little experiment to illustrate this point. Lay down and lift one leg off the ground as far as you can. The point where your hammies feel tight and you can’t go anymore is your active range of motion, active because you are doing the work. Now, if someone else were to lift your leg as far as it will go, most often, you can go further. This is your passive range of motion, passive because someone else is doing the work. Now, if you have more passive than active range of motion, the tightness you feel in your muscles is more likely a stability issue (joint wants to be safe) than a mobility issue (tissues are physically shortened).
Well, how can I make my brain think the joint is safe? I’m glad you asked. Tension is the key. My response, when asked what stretch a person needs, is usually “That’s probably not what you need”. Next, I find an exercise/movement that helps create tension around the joint that is probably feeling insecure. This may include abdominal bracing, isometric movements at said joint or eccentric movements.
Abdominal bracing is always a great place to start. There is a concept called proximal stability for distal mobility. What this means is if your center/core is stable, your brain will allow your limbs to move more freely. You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe (I stole this from someone but I can’t remember who so this is my sad attempt at giving them credit). Being solid in the middle helps the arms and legs move better. I’m sure we’ve all felt this in a squat. Crappy bracing leads to crappy squatting.
Next, introducing tension into the area in question further increases a sense of security at the joint. Tension can be produced by hold a contraction (isometric) or lengthening the muscle while it is contracting (eccentric). For example, maybe the quads feel tight. There are two ways to approach this. You can use reverse nordics or lunges for the eccentric component. Both of these create tension in the quads via eccentric movement. Both of these exercises can be held for a period of time instead to create tension via isometric contraction. There are a plethora of exercises that can be used to accomplish this. Eccentric exercise has also been shown to actually increase muscle length so if that’s your goal, go eccentric! (i.e RDL’s for hammie length). Some people have called this strength stretching.
Here’s a classic example: the hip flexors! My hip flexors are tight and I’ve been stretching them for 90 years! Maybe they aren’t actually tight as in shortened (like we’ve always been told). Maybe they are weak. Maybe the brain is trying to stabilize the pelvis. How do we approach this? You guessed it! Exercise! Google psoas band march. Your hip flexors will thank me later.
Ok, let’s make this specific to powerlifters. Whose had trouble hitting depth in a bodyweight squat but once enough weight is on the bar, you’re fine and it doesn’t feel like your groin is going to explode? Anyone? Anyone? Right, this is the same idea. We are strength stretching into the hole which will over time, help the desired range of motion be more permanent. Think of a gymnast. They are jacked and stretchy. The reason they can be both is that they are strong in those stretchy positions. Most of us are not so our brains won’t allow us to access that range of motion. Does that make sense? If you get stronger in the range of motion you want, it will stick. Simple as that.
In summary, generally we don’t need to stretch tight muscles, we need to create tension around them. If we do stretch, we need to load the new found range of motion so it sticks. There are some people who actually have tissue restrictions which can be addressed with eccentrics for some strength stretching. Stretching won’t prevent injury either. Use your warm-up time wisely by skipping the stretching and utilizes exercises that create tension.
Magnusson, S. P. (1998). Passive properties of human skeletal muscle during stretch maneuvers. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 8, 65-77.