What if I told you that stretching can do more harm than you think. What if I told you that stretching could be the reason why your lower back hurts.
"But Erik, that can't be, I have always been told that stretching is good for you and flexibility is key," says every single one of my clients.
And you aren't wrong when you make the statement above, stretching and flexibility are keys to a good bill of health, but these two methods tend to be overused and this overuse is what leads to injury. For example. the hamstrings are by far the most stretched muscle group, just walk into any gym and look at the stretches that people are doing. People constantly complain that their hamstrings feel "tight" all the time and that they have to stretch them.
Now, get ready for the news I am about to drop on you. Make sure you are sitting down for this and that you have nothing in your hands that you could potentially drop, like a baby or something of that value. Just because a muscle feels "tight" doesn't necessarily mean that the muscle is tight. In fact, this "tightness" could mean that the muscle is over lengthened and not stable enough due to poor posture and muscular imbalances. And this is why the muscle feels tight because the body is trying to stabilize the muscle. One of the main culprits for this weakness in the hamstrings is due to a thing called anterior pelvic tilt. Put simply, anterior pelvic tilt refers to the forward tilting of your pelvis, which causes your hamstrings to become over lengthened because your hamstrings are attached to the pelvis.
Think of it like a pulley, if the pelvis tilts too far forward then the hamstrings have to over lengthen to compensate for that imbalance. The body senses this over lengthened state and tries to counteract it by tightening the muscle group so that the muscle doesn’t tear. When a muscle is over lengthened it is a higher risk for injury due to the less force it can withstand and this is why most athletes pull their hamstrings. Just take a look at their posture, the athletes with the greater anterior pelvic tilt angle will have a higher rate of hamstring injuries due to this imbalance. And stretching is not the answer to fix this, rather, our focus should be on proper alignment and dynamic stability, but we will discuss that another time.
So how do you know if your hamstrings are over lengthened? The easiest way to test this is through a supine leg raise (pictured below).
If your leg is perpendicular or past your hip (like in the picture) then you have no need to stretch your hamstrings.
“But Erik, they feel better after I stretch them!”
Yes you are correct, you will feel better after, but eventually that same tightness will come back again and again until the muscle tears. 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. Our society constantly wants the quick fix , but their is none. If someone tells you there is then they are full of shit and just want your money, but I digress.
Another easy way to tell is through your posture. If you suffer from an anterior pelvic tilt then you must address that problem first. The only way to fix it is through strengthening of the glutes and abdominals. By strengthening the glutes and abdominals you will pull the pelvis back to neutral.
When the pelvis returns to a neutral position, the hamstrings will relax and the tightness will go away. But don’t expect this to happen overnight, it can take months for the body to realign and heal itself. Remember, you didn’t injury yourself overnight, it took years and years of poor movement and posture. So swallow your pride and get to work. Perform the following circuits 2-3 times per week for 4 to 6 weeks and you will see vast improvements in your strength, posture, and health.