You stretch, you feel better, and then the tightness comes right back. What gives?
Many of you have been told that your upper traps are like rocks, your hamstrings are like bricks, or your calves are the tightest your trainer has ever seen. Usually these muscles also hurt. And typically the first remedy is stretching. While stretches aren't necessarily harmful, there is a reason why you would seek out a physical therapist for help. You're still in pain even though you've been doing your stretches regularly. But why?
It all comes back to balance. Your body requires balance in many dimensions. You need balance between your left and right sides. You need balance between your core and extremities. You need balance from the contribution of your smaller muscles that stabilize the joints, versus your larger muscles that move the joints. You also need balance between being strong yet flexible, and being stable yet mobile.
Often times, people will develop pain because they have fallen out of balance in these areas. The body is smart, and will compensate for this imbalance to get you through your sport and daily life. For instance, if you are always breathing to the right in your swim stroke, your neck will become more mobile into this rotation, and stiff into the other direction. If you are always throwing overhand, your stride leg will develop more explosive power, while your plant leg will develop better balance. If you are constantly working on yoga back bends, your low back will become more flexible to achieve this position. If you don’t work on balancing these things out, you may begin to stress certain areas of your body more than they can handle.
So, how could stretching possibly throw off your balance? Well, let’s think about what you are trying to achieve with stretching. Typically, stretches are meant to lengthen and elongate muscle fibers for improved flexibility, range of motion, and joint health. You may do them to improve performance and help prevent injuries. But what if that muscle is tight because something else is weak? This tightness could be your muscle’s way of holding on for dear life to give your body the stability it needs. What if the tight muscle actually HAS to be tight in your body right now to keep you out of pain? If you stretch this type of tight muscle, it may feel better temporarily, but then you just took away the body’s necessary compensation. And without any stability or strength training to follow it, the body will have to tighten that muscle up again to get the support it needs.
So what can you do about this? I always recommend pairing a stretch exercise with a strength exercise to achieve the goal of more long term relief. For example, let’s look at your hamstrings. They are a powerful hip extensor and knee flexor. Your gluteus maximus is also a hip extensor. What if your hamstrings are tight because they are working so hard to make up for glutes that aren’t doing their job? Next time you do your hamstring stretches, try adding in a glute activation exercise. Eventually, this should help lower the body’s need to keep your hamstrings tightened down.
Believe it or not, strengthening your glutes could improve your hamstring flexibility, without even doing a single stretch. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually works! And this same neuromuscular concept can be applied anywhere in the body, using anatomy to guide those pairings.
Keep in mind there are many other reasons a muscle might be tight. But this is one example as to why stretching only addresses part of the problem.
We are all constantly searching for more balance in life (not just in our muscles). While it's not really possible to achieve perfection, you can apply strategies to strive for a more well-rounded body with less pain and limitations.
If you believe you're dealing with some of these imbalances, physical therapy is a good place to start. Physical therapists are expertly trained to assess your movement patterns and to surface what is tight, what is weak, what is doing too much, and what is not doing enough. At Activcore, we seek to determine the underlying source of your symptoms by looking at not just the WHAT, but the WHY.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.