URGENT NEWS Stop Stretching IMMEDIATELY!
If you are above the age of 25 and have a consistent workout regime, somewhere in there you set aside time for stretching because you believe or were told it would prevent tight muscles. Or perhaps you have experienced muscle tightness because of past trauma, injury, surgery or after a very long day at the office. Either way, these tight muscles can limit motion, restrict daily function, and cause pain and discomfort. Normally, the # 1 remedy that is prescribed by physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors, strength coaches, massage therapists and loved ones alike is a series of different type of stretches.
Well, I am here to let you know that unfortunately stretching is not always the best prevention or medicine for tight muscles or joint pain. In fact, it could be one of the worst rehab exercises to perform when you have muscle tightness.
Now, you may be wondering “What you talkin’ ‘bout Schmidy?”
You heard me! Stretching is one of the worst rehab exercises to perform when you have tight muscles. Many professionals who prescribe stretching are doing their patients and clients a disservice.
I can hear you now: Okay smarty pants! If not stretching, what should I do for my tight muscles?
Before I dive into answering your questions, I would like to spend some time defining a few things to help you understand my claim. By understanding those components, you will learn how to properly care for your muscles and joints, reduce tightness, and improve your daily function.
What is Stretching?
To be perfectly clear, there are many different types of stretches that someone can perform, like ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching, static stretching, passive stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. All of these stretches differ by some degree and have different neuromuscular benefits. When I mention "stretching" throughout this blog, I am referring to passive stretching. Passive stretching is a form of static stretching during which an external force is moving your limb or body part past your active range of motion (ROM).
I know what you may be thinking now.
Phhheeeewwwwww, thank goodness, I’ve never done passive stretching! Why would anyone let someone push them past their range of motion?!
Sorry to tell you, but if you are like most people you probably have been doing passive stretching. If you had a fitness professional, personal trainer or a friend do this (Figure 1) to you, then you have been passively stretched.
And if you have done this:
then you have definitely performed passive stretching on yourself. If you are wondering where the external force is coming from in all the images above, know that it is coming from different places. Figure 1 is pretty obvious; it is the personal trainer. In Figure 2 for example, it’s coming from the small bench. The small bench is pushing the leg upward as she leans toward her foot. Lastly, in figure 3, the force is coming from the arm pulling his leg into extension, and heel toward his glutes.
Now, most people assume that when they perform a stretching exercise, they are actually making the muscle longer. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but It is simply not possible. I repeat: it is structurally impossible to make your muscles longer. Your muscles have a set physical length. If you try to force it to get longer by stretching, you will end up straining the muscle. Check out Figure 4 below.
According to the Mayo clinic, muscle strain is an injury that occurs when the muscle or tendon is overstretched causing minor tear. More sever can include partial or complete tear of the muscle or tendon.
Let me explain something, muscles are designed to CONTRACT and CONTRACT only, which means they can only pull one end to the next. These contractions create tension that stabilize and protect joints while performing daily activities. The muscular system’s main job is to create tension through contractions, and because of that they are always tightening. Some muscles will tighten more (agonist) while other muscles tighten less (antagonist). That is how motion or movement occurs at a given joint. When the relationship between agonist and antagonist muscles becomes less synchronized, they lose their ability to create proper tension and stability. Therefore, the agonist muscles can’t contract more on demand and the antagonist muscles become unable to contract less. That is what you are sensing when your muscles are tight; you are simply becoming aware of your body working harder to perform its duties.
What is Muscle Tightness?
Now that you understand all that, let’s talk about muscle tightness. Muscle tightness is your body’s way of protecting you or, better yet, protecting itself. Once your body senses instability from a muscle or group of muscles, it becomes protective and does its absolute best to restore stability so you can function. It does this by increasing muscular tension and reducing ROM. The same thing happens when you walk on a slippery surface.
When you step on ice and feel unstable, you perform certain actions without thinking. You lower your center of mass by bending your knees, tighten your body to become more rigid and stable, reduce the length of your steps and start taking baby steps. Those actions are executed simultaneously or in sequence. Regardless of the order, you do them for a reason: to improve stability and protect yourself from a fall that could lead to injury.
My question for you: If tightness creates the stability that protects your body and prevents injuries, then would you want to reduce or remove the tightness through stretching?
The answer should be NO, you should not want to. There is a growing amount of research that supports the idea that passive stretching will decrease performance, decrease your maximum strength/force output, and does NOT reduce your chance of injuries. Therefore, instead of stretching your muscles the moment you start to feel tight or tension, you should be asking yourself; WHY AM I TIGHT? WHAT IS MY BODY PROTECTING? WHAT IS MY BODY COMPENSATING FOR?
Remember this, short term muscular tightness or compensation is a very good thing. The key is knowing what can you do to get back to normal as quickly as possible. The complete answer to this question is in part 2 of this blog coming soon. Stay tuned!
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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