I guarantee that on more than one occasion you have had someone tell you that you need to stretch.
It might have been your Phys Ed teacher in school, a coach, a personal trainer or physical therapist, a co-worker or even me (I advocate stretching in every workout article I post!)
Add to that the fact that everyone has a tight spot (whether it comes and goes or is constantly as tight as one of the Hulk’s fist): calves, shoulders, hips, hamstrings, iliotibial bands, etc…
It’s only logical that you tell yourself you should stretch more, right?
Not so fast.
Basics of Stretching
Before we get into why stretching might not be the answer for your tight muscle woes, let’s take a minute and discuss how to stretch properly.
The first thing to remember is that your muscles are most pliable when they are warm (and it is even better if they are a little fatigued).
So make sure you stretch after some sort of initial warm up; even better, get your stretching done after you’ve beaten your muscles into submission with a super heroic workout. That way your muscles are too tired to resist your attempts at stretching them out!
Ease Into It
Start off with what’s referred to as the “Easy Stretch” (technical sounding, isn’t it?)
This involves stretching to the point of mild tension (not pain), and holding this position for approx. 30 seconds (shoot for 40 if you are in the “over 30” crowd). This stretch should feel comfortable.
Once you’ve held the position for a bit and the tension has backed off, you can proceed to the “Developmental Stretch”.
From the position you held for the Easy Stretch, move a bit further until you feel slight tension in the muscle again. Now hold this position for 30 more seconds.
I know every time someone reminds me to breathe when doing something I want to smack them in the face, so forgive me this hypocrisy…
While stretching, it is important to breathe normally.
No holding your breath!
That means you’re not relaxing and that you are short-changing yourself. Just keep breathing slow and rhythmically through your stretch to avoid any sudden movements that can cause your muscles to react by suddenly tightening up.
You’re Doing It Wrong
Stretching the wrong way means:
- Stretching to the point discomfort or pain
- Bouncing during the stretch
- Not holding the stretch for a sufficient amount of time.
Muscles react best to trying to stretch them like taffy when you’re able to relax them.
If your muscles are screaming at you like they’re being tortured by 15th century Spanish inquisitors then you are doing it wrong.
Stretching to the point of pain or discomfort automatically means that the muscles aren’t even close to being relaxed, and therefore won’t let you stretch them. In fact, you are more likely to tear your muscles when you take a stretch to that level.
The Stretching Myth
I am a huge proponent of stretching long and often (being flexible has saved me from a lot of injuries over the years); but just like Plastic Man isn’t usually the best answer to fighting a super-villain, stretching isn’t always the solution to feeling stiff and inflexible…
You see most people think of muscles as wads of taffy, and that all it takes is some vigorous pulling to loosen them up and lengthen them out.
Unfortunately that just isn’t the case.
Many times your muscles aren’t tight because they haven’t been stretched enough; they are tight because they’re in use — often without you even realizing it!
WTF Is The Somatic Nervous System?
The somatic nervous system, or SNS, is a network of nerve tissue that is constantly taking in huge amounts of information about the world around you and then telling your muscles how to react to all those data points.
In a perfect world, when your skeletal alignment is dead on, your SNS sends your muscles clear and simple messages. They are called up for duty only when they are needed and as soon as they are done stabilizing you, they go back to relaxing and chilling out.
So What’s The Problem?
Unfortunately, nobody who drives a car, sits in a cubicle or wears heeled shoes regularly has perfect alignment; it’s very often even worse for us geeks (damn you computers and gaming consoles!)
When you stand (let alone walk, run, practice martial arts, etc…) what is really happening is you are almost constantly falling over.
What stops you from landing flat on your face is the fact that your muscles, all the way from your feet to spine, are continually contracting and expanding in short, low-intensity bursts to keep your balance.
Have you ever stood on a trampoline or on ice and felt your muscles tightening constantly in a herky-jerky fashion?
That’s just an over exaggeration of what your body does the entire time you are walking around!
In addition to the SNS coordinating these bursts of muscular energy, the skeleton plays a big part as well. When your skeleton is aligned it minimizes how much your muscles need to get involved.
When your skeletal alignment is compromised though, your muscles have to pick up the slack!
That constant, imperceptible, low-intensity bursts of muscular activity that was required to keep you upright now requires a much greater force (and over a longer period of time.)
I see this all the time in people with bad posture, especially people who sit in cheap chair and stay hunched over their keyboards for hours and hours on end.
As an example (and one most computer geeks will immediately relate to) let’s say your shoulders are spent rolled forward for 6-8 hours a day while sitting at your desk banging away on a keyboard and clicking the mouse furiously.
This constant affront to good posture, the mis-alignment of your skeleton, has your SNS constantly trying to pull those shoulders back… even when you aren’t sitting at the keyboard!
It will constantly send commands to contract all the muscles necessary to bring your shoulders and neck back into natural alignment and, until you stop slumping like a Neanderthal, these commands never stop.
So your trapezoids and rhomboids (all your upper back muscles) get angry because they are constantly being pulled forward, your chest muscles get all tight because they are constantly working to maintain your protracted shoulders and your SNS is constantly telling all the connective tissue in your back, neck and chest to try and protect your spine and neck.
From yourself. /facepalm
Your crappy posture from hours and hours of World of Warcraft is the cause (For the Horde!!!) and your muscular tightness is the effect.
When you feel that lump in your shoulder, and that tightness in your chest, the urge is to yank on your arms and elbows to relieve the pressure you feel.
That tightness, however, is secondary and stretching any of those over-recruited muscles will provide only limited relief if anything. As long as the brain thinks it needs the muscles engaged to prevent you from sustaining an injury or to keep your skeleton in alignment, it simply won’t get any longer.
How Do You Fix It?
So how do you fix this sort of tightness if not through stretching?
The answer is pretty simple: Do whatever you want as long as it helps calm your SNS down!
Regular deep tissue massages, Yoga, weight lifting, Tai Chi, running… whatever! Just be active and perform exercises with proper alignment to restore the correct patterns of communication in your SNS and diminish muscle tightness.
Then you can actually work on increasing flexibility.
So, what tight muscles anger you and what (if anything) have you done to correct the problem? Let me know in the comments below!
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