Stretching Tight Muscles : Are You Doing It Right?

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If some is good, more is better, right? In a nutshell, the misconception with stretching is that “tight muscles” need to be lengthened. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case; and more often than not, people tend to not only over-stretch, but lengthen the wrong areas. Stretching seems to be the most popular yet misunderstood topic. So let’s clear some things up. Don’t get this twisted, stretching is not the evil twin that should be avoided, but you need to understand HOW, WHY, and WHEN and it’s appropriate. Lets start with “tightness.” Many patients complain about feelings of tightness, but are the muscles really tight? “Tightness is merely a neurological response and stretching does little to change or improve the causes of movement dysfunction. Weakness, or more specifically muscle inhibition, and resultant synergistic substitution is at the root of most movement dysfunction and losses of range of motion.” To translate that to laymen terms, when your brain (nervous system) perceives instability and/or joint laxity (too much flexibility) the “tight” muscles that are often complained about are actually the muscles that are up-regulated (overactive) and compensating for instability. For example, If you’ve struggled with what feels like a tight, stiff low-back, and yet you can still reach down and touch the floor with your fingers or palms - you’re likely a victim of improper stretching. You may think your stretching your hamstrings, but in reality, you’re over-stretching your low-back. I’ll use the relationship between the low-back and hamstrings. The yellow elastic tube represents your low-back musculature, and the grey represents the hamstrings and posterior hip-complex. Whether you trying to stretch your hamstrings or low back, the stiffer elastic tube (grey) is less susceptible to stretch, thus, when you attempt to stretch, it creates excess laxity in the surrounding soft tissues (yellow). When this is repeated over and over, you eventually create inhibition (weakness or inactivity) of the muscles that are overstretched. But here’s the kicker - often, the over-stretched muscles are the ones that scream for your attention i.e. you “feel” tightness and stiffness. This causes you to stretch. Which gives you temporary relief… key word being temporary. Then the cycle repeats itself. Fun, right? On the other hand, if you don’t fall into the first category, but you simply need to stretch in order to get relief, you’re likely dealing with a weakness and/or muscular control component. I often hear, “as long as I stretch my low-back I don’t have any issues.” So what are you supposed to do? To oversimplify, you need to identify what’s ACTUALLY tight and restrictive, and differentiate between what needs strengthening and control vs. what needs releasing and inhibiting. To do that on your own takes a lot of self-awareness, discipline, and education. Excerpt From: Evan Osar. “Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Shoulder and Hip Dysfunction.”

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