Should You Always Stretch A Tight Muscle?
TIGHTNESS CAN BE GOOD THING
In order to understand why being “tight” is a good thing, you have to understand that a muscle functions like a rubber band. For a rubber band to function properly, it must have enough tightness for it to return to its original shape and it also must be able to stretch. The further the rubber band can stretch while maintaining its tightness the more force it will produce. But if it loses that tightness it will snap. This is due to the rubber band losing its stretch-reflex mechanism. There must be equal strength between the stretching of the rubber band and how tight it is. If the band is too tight then it won’t stretch which means it can’t produce its full force potential, but if it stretches too much it will snap. In order for the rubber band to generate the most force, it must have a balanced stretch-to-reflex ratio. The same mechanism is responsible for contracting your muscles during movement. However, if a muscle cannot contract fully to its original shape due to overstretching then it will not be able to generate as much force as it once could, which puts you at a greater risk for injury. Remember, when a muscle is over-lengthened it is at a higher risk for injury due to the less force it can withstand or generate. Just think back to the rubber band, which one is easier to snap, the new one you just bought or the one from five years ago?
WHAT FEELS LIKE TIGHTNESS COULD BE A LACK OF STABILITY
Your muscles are no different than the rubber band and need tightness (stability) to prevent injury. Granted, muscle also needs to have the ability to stretch, but most people don’t suffer from “short” muscles, rather they suffer from a lack of stability. And even if you could stretch a muscle, do you really think a 30-second stretch is going to do that? Just think about how many muscles (quads, glutes, and hamstrings to name a few) were put on stretch during your last run. I can bet you there is much more force generated on the muscle to stretch during a sprint versus a toe touch.
STRETCHING ISN’T ALWAYS THE ANSWER
Remember how I mentioned that a rubber band needs tightness and flexibility to generate the perfect amount of force? Well, your muscles need the same formula. Certain people have too much flexibility and not enough stability. These are the types of people who fill up the majority of yoga classes because they excel at stretching. And there is nothing wrong with this, it is in our nature to do what we are good at. I fell in love with weightlifting at a young age because it came easily to me. However, focusing on one thing can lead to many imbalances in the body and doing yoga is no different. The key to having a balanced body is through doing the uncomfortable movements that you have been neglecting your whole life. One person may need to do more deadlifts while another might need to do more pushups. The uncomfortable is specific to the person and their needs. But overall they both need more stability in the muscle to reduce their risk of injury.
A perfect example of this is when a flexible person stretches a tight hamstring. It makes sense, if something is tight you stretch it, right? Unfortunately, the body is much more complicated than that. The "tightness" that the person feels in their muscle could mean that the muscle is not stable enough due to poor posture and muscular imbalances (I’ll explain more below).
Once I hear this complaint, I will assess their hamstring mobility with the exercise below:
If your leg is perpendicular or past your hip then you have no need to stretch your hamstrings because the muscle has adequate range of motion. “But Erik, they feel better after I stretch them!” And yes, you will feel better after, but eventually that same tightness will come back again. It is the same thing as scratching an itch. You can continue to scratch the itch and have temporary relief or you can figure out the underlying problem and fix it completely. So let’s figure this out, shall we?
CHECK YOUR POSTURE BEFORE STRETCHING
One of the main culprits for an over stretched hamstring is due to something called anterior pelvic tilt. Put simply, anterior pelvic tilt refers to excessive forward tilting of your pelvis. (a.k.a Instagram models who want their but to look fantastic)
The anterior tilt stretches the hamstrings due to the hamstrings attachment on the pelvis. Think of the pelvis like a pulley. If the pelvis tilts too far forward then the hamstrings have to over-lengthen (stretch) to compensate for that imbalance.
The body senses this stretched state and tries to counteract it by tightening the muscle group so it doesn’t strain or tear. This tightening (contraction) of the hamstring tilts the pelvis posteriorly (backward) bringing it back to neutral. Granted, the hamstrings aren’t alone in this job. The glutes and obliques also play a key role in your perceived hamstring tightness. Therefore we can’t just stretch every tight muscle in our body.
Before stretching a muscle we need to assess the situation and see if our body is in proper alignment. Take a look at the picture above, how do you compare to the diagrams? Are your shoulders stacked over the ribcage and hips? If they aren’t, then you need to fix your alignment first before stretching. If you are stretching while out of alignment you could be doing your body more harm than good. So before you stretch every muscle that feels tight, first check your posture and see if you are in the proper alignment. Remember, just because something feels tight doesn't mean you need to stretch it. You might just need to be put in the proper alignment. So instead of stretching 24/7, maybe it is time to look in the mirror and improve your posture first.