“My hamstrings feel so tight today,” she says, pulling her shin to her forehead in an effort to “release” her “tight” hamstrings.
“My back is killing me, it’s been cramping up all week,” he says, pulling himself forward in his chair and twisting to stretch is lower back.
“I get this pain in front of my hips when I squat. I’ve been stretching my hip flexors a ton beforehand, but they still want to seize up at the bottom of my squat.”
If this sounds like you, don’t worry; I didn’t overhear you on the gym floor and decide to put your problems on display for the internet to see. We do, however, hear things like these all the time from our clients, friends, and family. If something hurts, colloquial wisdom says to stretch it. However, this is very often not addressing the root of the problem, and in some cases may even be making things worse.
Sometimes, joint or muscle pain can be relieved with a bit of smart stretching. There’s a reason so many physical therapists prescribe stretches to their patients as part of their rehabilitative process. However, it is almost never the sole method of treatment, and instead usually just complements the more effective parts of the process. Think of stretching like the “salt” of pain management: it can really bring out the flavors of the main dishes, and is probably a crucial addition to the meal, but you wouldn’t pour out a plate of salt and call it dinner.
And yet, so many of us go to the gym and eat our salt and wonder why it isn’t paying off.
Below, we’ll go over some common stretching misconceptions. We’ll also look at some common issues people try to “stretch” out of, and offer some more effective alternatives.
What does stretching actually do?
The term “stretching” itself might bring an erroneous notion to mind, namely that of pulling on something until it is longer, like yanking on a sock until it loses its stretchiness. Physiologically, stretching doesn’t really work like that. Instead, you’re altering the neural tone in the muscle by spending some time in its current end range, reducing the “oh no, we have to tighten things up so nothing snaps” instructions from your brain. Ease into position, breathe deep and slow, and try and envision yourself giving your muscles permission to relax with each exhale. That’s what stretching really is: giving your muscles access to the physical length that was already there.
But I’m tight! Doesn’t that mean I need to stretch?
Well, where and when are you tight? Stretching works best in freeing up end ranges of motion; there is some limited carryover into reducing normal resting length tone, but that usually subsides after 10 or 15 minutes. For example, if you are standing up straight and your hamstrings feel tight, it’s not because they’re “short” and need stretching, because they’re not even close to their end range (they extend your hip at the top, and your hip is already extended when standing up straight). If they were tight in that position, you would have tremendous trouble bending forward at the waist or extending your leg in a seated position, because that’s all the length your muscle has. So if they feel tight in their normal resting length, something else is going on and stretching the hamstrings probably won’t cut it.
If muscle length is not the problem, stretching is not the solution. Often a tight muscle is a symptom of something further up the chain not doing its job. In that case, stretching would be like painting over a wall to repair the water damage from a leaky roof: fixing the resulting symptom without addressing the real problem.
“My hamstrings always feel tight.”
We see a lot of people like the woman at the beginning of this article, who have very good hamstring flexibility (she can lift her leg up very high, and presumably bend forward at the waist very well) and yet they still complain of “tight” hamstrings. So, in our previous example, what should you do?
Well, honestly, see a physical therapist or someone similar who can tell you what is going on in your exact and unique case.
But before that, try this: many of us have sleepy butts. Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the world’s leading back pain specialists, coined the term gluteal amnesia to describe how, with many of us sitting for the vast majority of the day, we forget how to use our glutes effectively. The glutes’ main job is to extend the hips, such as in standing up from a chair or propelling us forward when we walk. If the glutes are asleep or not pulling their weight, so to speak, the hamstrings often have to take up the extra work. If your hamstrings are always tight, even if you have good flexibility, try doing some gluteal activation work. Below are two examples of exercises that may help “turn on” your glutes:
Do these, and re-test. Stand back up and assess how your hamstrings feel. Are they better? If so, you’ve identified the problem, and now you can find the solution.
“My hip flexors always feel tight.”
If you feel tightness in the front of your hips, you might have been told to stretch your hip flexors, which look (with a bit of artist’s interpretation) like this:
This is one case where stretching might actually be beneficial; if you sit most of the day (i.e. at your job, on your way to and from your job, and on the couch when you get home) your hips are in flexion, and the iliopsoas muscle group (aka the biggest “hip flexors”) may adjust to that shortened position. The key to stretching the hip flexors correctly is to engage the abs and squeeze the glutes. In which case a gentle rock forward on one’s knee should be all that is needed.
However, that may not be the only issue. If you look at the anatomy picture above, you’ll see that the psoas major is attached to the spine, and is a huge player in achieving spinal stability. If the other muscles around the spine (the rectus abdominus, the obliques, the quadratus lumborum –your core in other words) aren’t as “turned on” as they should be, the hip flexors may try to take up the slack and pull hard to try and achieve some semblance of stability.
This is especially true in the bottom of a squat, where the spine needs the most stability. If the hip flexors try to fire in this position, when they’re already shortened, they may cramp up, resulting in a feeling of severe tightness when you rise out of the squat. Try the following exercise to get the rest of your core muscles firing:
Get into a plank position on your elbows. Make sure you’re level from head to toe; your butt shouldn’t sag to the floor or pike up in the air. Now, squeeze your glutes. Harder. Now, exhale through pursed lips. More. Keep exhaling, trying to push every last bit of air out of your lungs. Don’t pass out, now! Keep your glutes tight, inhale, and do two more. Re-test how your hip flexors feel. Better? If so, work on some similar core exercises, and most importantly learn to brace your abs in compromising positions, such as the bottom of a squat.
“My shoulders have no flexibility.”
Of all the common complaints addressed in this article, this one is probably the most likely to be correctly addressed with actual stretching. Most of us spend the vast majority of our day with our arms to our sides, maybe reaching for the coffee mugs from the shelf or to the keyboard, but often no higher. Hours and days and years in this position can indeed alter the normal resting length of the muscles around and especially underneath the shoulders, so that when we actually do need to reach over our head, the muscle length isn’t there. This is what full overhead range of motion looks like:
The two biggest muscles underneath the shoulders are the pectoralis major and the latissimus dorsi, the “pecs and lats”. Stretching these muscles is simple enough, but it’s easy to “cheat” and get more range of motion without actually moving the shoulder properly. Here’s an example of incomplete overhead motion with compensation:
For the following stretches, keep the ribs down and the spine neutral, focusing on lengthening the muscle as opposed to yanking the shoulder into extreme positions.
From there, work on restoring proper active range of motion. Practice “tipping the shoulder blades back” and keeping the sternum from running away from the belly button.
The problem could also, however, come from unstable shoulder blades. Your shoulder socket is actually on the side of your shoulder blade, and if your shoulder blades aren’t steady and supported by their own musculature, the muscles around the shoulder may tighten up to compensate for that instability. If that’s the case, some straight-arm pushups and dips may be the ticket not only to restoring that scapular stability, but also in teaching you how to control your shoulder blades:
“My back hurts. When I stretch it, shoul-“
NO. NO. BAD. For most back pain sufferers, improving mobility in the spine –which is what stretching is for- is the exact opposite of what they need. In his excellent book, Back Mechanic, world-renowned back pain expert Stuart McGill says as much, and offers this on stretching the lower back:
“Physiologically, pulling your knees to your chest, or other similar stretches, trigger the “stretch reflex.” This is a neurological phenomenon that reduces pain sensitivity. This provides about 15-20 minutes of pain relief for some, making it a short-term fix. The problem is that in putting your spine in this position, you are aggravating your discs and after you’ve experienced temporary relief, the pain will return, often worse that before. Thus begins a vicious cycle with a misinformed back patient who thinks their only solution to pain is to “stretch it out”, not realizing that this is in fact contributing to their pain.”
Not every back pain sufferer is that same, but across a multitude of cases, learning proper spinal mechanics and control will be far better for them in the long run. No one exercise works for everyone, but many people find success in learning how to “hinge” at the hips as opposed to the spine:
…and doing some basic core work that involves keeping the spine in a neutral position:
Stretching feels good. At no point do I hope I discouraged you from unfurling yourself after a long car ride, or going through your favorite mobility routine, or doing that one shoulder stretch you learned in high school that always feels really good after you’ve had a good workout. It is, however, only a tool, and as my exasperated woodshop teacher used to tell me, there are many ways to misuse a tool. Hopefully you’ve gained a better understanding about what stretching is and isn’t for, and how to better apply it to your fitness goals. As with all pain, you should consult your doctor or physical therapist before trying a new exercise program, and consult one of our many qualified trainers and fitness professionals if you have any questions regarding mobility, core training, or injury prevention. Happy lifting!