Should You Always Stretch A Tight Muscle?
In a world where we sit constantly and move less than ever, it is imperative that you perform an adequate warm up before your workout. A proper warm up should increase your heart rate, core temperature and oxygen uptake so that your muscles are ready for the upcoming workout. Unfortunately, most people fail to do a proper warm up. They either stretch too much or do nothing at all. By jumping into your workout without a proper warm up you put yourself at a greater risk for injury, but it has nothing to do with being “tight” and not stretching.
In fact, being “tight” before a workout is a good thing and is essential for resistance training. However, once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, (yeah, I love Star Wars) stretching before your workout was recommended by everyone. Personal trainers, yogi’s and everyday gym goers screamed it from the mountaintop, “Don’t forget to stretch those tight muscles!”
But this was incorrect and by the end of this post you will know why.
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. This 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 will put 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’s also need to have the ability to stretch and the majority do have that. Most people don’t suffer from “short” muscles, rather they suffer from a lack of tightness (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) are put on stretch during your last run. I can bet you there is much more force generated on the muscle to stretch during the sprint versus your toe touch. But the majority of people don’t get this because the internet suggests that stretching is the answer to everything. When in reality it isn’t and I will explain why.
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. And certain people have too much flexibility versus tightness (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 weight lifting at a young age because I was good at it and it came easy to me. However, this love for one thing led me to many imbalances in my body and doing just 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 flexible people complain that their hamstrings are tight. They then go stretch these tight muscles because they have been led to believe it is the right thing to do. 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 there is no structural damage to the muscle. “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)
This 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 (backwards) 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.