To Stretch or Not to Stretch
Must. Stretch. More. This seems to be a mantra for so many of us, and it’s no surprise why. From a young age, we’ve had the message drilled into us that we must always stretch before and after exercise, when we wake up, when something feels tight, etc. Stretch, stretch, stretch. Of course, there absolutely is a time and place for stretching, but it shouldn’t necessarily be done willy nilly. Many of our patients and clients have developed habits of endlessly stretching and rolling tight muscles as a form of self-therapy and treatment, a habit that is encouraged by many trainers and other professionals. We would like to highlight two reasons why this may not be helpful.
The tightness and tension we feel is just a sign that a muscle is dysfunctional. It’s a Goldilocks problem in that it can be held overly shortened, or overstretched. Both states will feel tight, but the overstretched ones will not respond well to more stretching. For example, many people complain about tight hamstrings, yet are able to touch their hands to the floor in a forward bend. Here the hamstrings are overstretched and the tightness is a message from your nervous system asking you to stop stretching out and possibly tearing the muscle. In this case, an activation exercise to shorten the muscle is going to be a much more effective strategy.
If a muscle is short and tight, it is due to the body creating tension to help maintain postural stability. The first priority of your nervous system is to keep you safe and stable, and it sometimes shortens muscles to do this, creating a scaffolding of support. This is especially true when you are not breathing well and unable to generate good core stability. This can lead to tight hip, mid back, neck and/ or jaw muscles. Attempting to loosen these patterns without getting to the root of the problem is futile, as you are trying to defeat your nervous system’s prime role in movement control.
In both cases, we often hear patients describing that foam rolling or massage feels good for a few hours or even a day, but then the symptoms return because the underlying cause has not been addressed. So your brain recreates the stability strategy it has got used to even if it is not optimal.
At Backs Etc we use NeuroKinetic Therapy to assess the strategy your brain is using to keep you safe and stable, and then design a treatment plan incorporating both stretches and activations that work with your nervous system. This leads to normalisation of the tensions and tightness in the muscles so that you don’t feel the need to constantly stretch, roll or massage them.