Why do you continue to stretch?
Welcome back! For those of you reading part two first, I would highly recommend that you take some time to read part one as it fully explains what stretching is, what tightness is, why you get tight, and more.
I know by now you want me to get to the answer of how to reduce and relieve muscle tightness. I am excited to tell you the answer, but before I spill it out, I would like to first take the time to answer a few questions that you may have had during or after reading part one.
Why are professionals still prescribing stretching if it’s not always the best rehabilitation exercise to do?
You have more than likely heard of someone who used stretching as part of their rehabilitation exercise and it was helpful, right? Why is that?
What about Yoga?
To answer the first question, we need to understand that all of those professionals are doing the best they can to fix or address the symptom that the client or patient is presenting at that moment. Second, we need to understand their definition of the word tight. According to dictionary.com, tight or tightness means the state of being fixed, fastened, or closed firmly; hard to move, undo, or open. Or perhaps the professional views muscle tightness as the muscle getting shorter in length. Therefore, the main course of action is to change this fixed state or increase the length of the muscle by performing a stretch. By definition, to stretch is to be made or be capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.
The second question is a simple one to answer because it is all about the purpose of the muscular system. The two main purposes of the muscular system are:
Muscles hold and support your structure or skeleton against the force of gravity. Without your muscles, your skeleton would just collapse towards the ground.
Muscles create specifically precise movement on command. That simply means whenever you think of doing something, your muscles will develop tension to move you precisely as you want.
With that said, countless research studies have shown that there is a decrease in force output or quality of muscular contraction immediately after passive stretching. For some, this decrease in force output may last hours while for others it may only last minutes; it all depends on your neuromusculoskeletal health. Therefore, some people may have greater muscle tolerance or resilience than others. Those people with great neuromusculoskeletal health may be able to recover much faster from the effect of passive stretching. Regardless of the individual’s tolerance or resilience however, there is always a decrease in muscular force output after passive stretching.
The third question depends on the style of yoga that is being practiced. There is a great difference between traditional yoga and modern yoga. Traditional yoga is more of a spiritual practice where the breath is used to help a person move into a range or position. By focusing on the breath at the end range, the individual is attempting to down-regulate the nervous system. That means that the person is physically moving from the sympathetic system to parasympathetic system. In other words, the body is moving from being tense and tight to calmer and more relaxed. Modern yoga however, is more about improving the physical body to become fit, lose weight etc. The focus of modern yoga is high repetition of movement, complex yoga poses, and elaborate stretches. Therefore, the two practices are far from each other when it comes to end results and process.
Now let’s get to the answer!
How to Reduce or Improve Muscle Tightness
The most effective way to ease tight muscles is through strength training. Strength training is defined as increasing the contractile capability of muscles or tissues that are not performing effectively. Tightness develops as a result of many things such as trauma, injury, or over-working muscles. These muscles have become over-worked because they are protecting the body from something. It’s the body’s way to restore stability when it has been placed in a vulnerable position—doing what it was not designed to do or being stressed in an inappropriate manner.
A 100-lb dumbbell is being held up by five cords, each attached to a fish-scale. If all the cords are working evenly, each fish-scale will read 20-lbs. If three of the cords become unattached from the 100-lb dumbbell, that weight is now distributed between the remaining two cords. Therefore, tension as well as the workload of the two cords increases dramatically. If the tension and workload are not adjusted, over time the cords and fish-scales will end up damaged. To reduce the tension on the two cords properly, the three other cords must be reattached, allowing them to take the stress off the other two.
To apply this analogy to the body, let’s say you go out for a run. Towards the end of the run, your hamstrings and calves start becoming tight because you haven’t run in a while. Now imagine that the bones in your hip, lower leg, and foot represent the 100-lb weight and each cord represents a different muscle that stabilizes and moves the hip joint. During the course of the run, you have overly stressed one, two, three or many of these muscles, causing the muscle(s) to underperform, thus putting stress and tension on the remaining muscles. From the scenario, you can see why the hamstrings and calves are tight and may become tighter the longer you run.
In this situation, stretching the hamstrings and calves will not help reduce the tension. In fact, it may contribute to more tightness. The best way to decrease the tension from the hamstring and calves is to strengthen the other muscles of the hip joint such as hip flexors, trunk flexors, and glutes. By making these muscles stronger, the tight muscle can “relax” because the workload is shared by more muscles.
Next time you feel tight, instead of stretching, try performing isometric contraction in the direction where you lack range of motion. Here are some examples:
You wake up one morning with a tight lower back and you are not able to bend backward or extend your body. Try these two movements:
1. Lay on your stomach with a pillow under your pelvic bone if needed then slowly lift your upper body from the ground. Hold this position for three long breaths then repeat the process 5-8 times. Make sure your legs remain on the ground.
2. Perform everything as listed above, but instead of lifting your upper body, lift the right leg slowly off the ground, then the left. Make sure that your upper body remains on the ground.
*** These movement work on strengthening your back musculature.
Perhaps it’s not your back, instead it’s your hamstrings that are tight and it’s hard for you to bend your knees. Try the following movements.
1. Sit on the floor with both legs straight then slowly pull the heel of your foot towards your butt while keeping your entire foot flat against the floor. Make sure that you perform this one leg at time.
2. Lay on your back on the floor with both legs straight then slowly pull the heel of your foot towards your butt while keeping your entire foot flat against the floor. Make sure that you perform this one leg at the time.
*** These movements work on strengthening your hamstrings as well as the muscles on the back of your legs.
At times the problem could be a lot more complex than just performing isometrics in the direction of the limited range. If that is the case, contact a health care professional who can assess the situation fully.
If you found this blog useful and would like to learn more about the following:
· Why stretching is the worst rehab exercise to perform
· How to improve flexibility without stretching
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