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Why a Forced Stretch Doesn’t Work for Tight Muscles

    We all appreciate the lovely sensation of a stretch. And if we pull a little harder on that strap, we can go deeper and feel more of the stretch.  For normal muscle use and fatigue, this is fine.  However, when a muscle is chronically tight or sore, we may think it just needs a good stretch to help it feel better, to solve the tightness or pain.  But the presence of a stretch sensation does not indicate that you are doing any long term benefit to the muscle being stretched. In fact, you might be doing it harm and probably have to stretch it again the next day.  Instead, consider why the muscle is tight in the first place.

    In a balanced body, there is a suppleness to the tissues, and muscles are the length they need to be. A tight muscle gets that way because it is responding to the forces that are put upon it. It can also become tight due to habituated movement, misuse and maladaptation (read more here about that). If we move in a way where compensations are happening, for example, then this muscle can be contracting when it doesn't need to be.

    Consider the picture above of the woman stretching her hamstrings - you may have seen people do this where they are gripping, bracing and bearing down in order to get a stretch sensation – they think that's what is needed to solve the problem.  But it doesn't solve anything.  Instead they will be gaining more tension, bracing, gripping and poor neuro-muscular patterning. What they probably want is softness, ease and a release in that muscle.

    So how do you accomplish that?  Focus on how you are moving, and reduce the compensations in your movement patterns. You will become more efficient and more free in movement and feel so much better.

    Reduce compensations

    To do this, it is helpful to break things down into smaller, isolated movements and simply observe what is working and what is not working, and whether it should or should not be working.  Here is an example of a common complaint: tight hamstrings.

    Tight hamstrings:

    The hamstrings are a group of three muscles at the back of the thigh (as per diagram on left) that are attached to the sitting bone part of pelvis, and the top of the lower leg bones.  Hamstrings are used when you run or walk, and they also help stabilize your hips when you bend over to pick up something.

    When the body isn’t functioning well, the hamstrings can tighten in an attempt to hold you all together so that you can continue to do what you want to do.  They are simply responding to the environment or neighbourhood in which they reside.  Stretching them will not make the tightness go away when dysfunction is present.

    In their neighbourhood, there is a lot going on!  Movement of the leg bones involve lots of different muscles, as the legs can move in 6 different ways: abduction, adduction, flexion, extension, internal rotation, and external rotation.  By studying how the body responds to isolated, small movements, you can get a better picture of how you function.

    Explore how you function

    Exercise 1: standing forward fold

    Try this: In standing, with feet hip width apart, bend your knees and hinge at your hip creases to touch the floor.  Feel your belly resting on your thighs.  Notice how this feels: easy, hard, tight?  This is your baseline.

    Exercise 2: thigh abduction and adduction

    Next, lie on your back, and bend your knees with feet on the floor.  Bring your fingers into your hip creases, and lift one foot off the floor about an inch.  Feel the hip flexor muscle pop into your fingers.  Then, keeping feet on the floor, slowly bring your knees away from each other, just a few inches, and then back again.  Repeat this movement slowly, checking that the hip flexors are NOT firing (this is not their job).  Keep the breath easy and also notice if there is anything else happening that shouldn't be (like calf muscles engaging, or breath holding, for example).  Really become aware of the details and keep quiet that which shouldn't be working.

    Exercise 3: warrior 2 hip movement

    Next try this: In standing, step your feet away from each other, a comfortable distance, keeping the outer edges of your feet in line with your mat.  Then, rotate your left leg outward so that the toes are pointing toward the short edge of the mat.  Keep the pelvis as quiet as possible. It should be level and not tilted or tucked.  If it is tilted then shorten your stance.  From here, simply bend the left knee until it is directly over the ankle, then straighten back to start.

    Keep repeating this movement, but focus on the movement at the hip joint, feel that creasing.  You can place your fingers in the hip crease to feel the movement there.  There should be a sense of equal movement at the hip, knee and ankle.  Be sure your knee is tracking over the ankle and is not moving inward.  If so, then shorten your stance. Allow your breath to be easy.  Notice the pelvis, ensuring it is not moving.  Then come back to legs together and notice what you feel, comparing the left hip to the right hip.  Repeat with other leg.

    Then, come back to the standing forward fold that you did at the beginning and notice how this feels, compared to the first time you did it.  What do you notice?  Any difference in how the hamstrings feel?  If you are doing the movements correctly, you should feel less tightness in the hamstrings.  If not, then there is probably still compensation present that you may be unaware of.

    This is just one example of small, isolated movements you can explore, to see how your body is functioning.  The idea is to quiet that which shouldn't be working and to nurture that which is.  Awareness of these compensations is golden, as once you are aware and practice moving more purely, your neuro-muscular patterning will improve, and the body will automatically function better.  This can translate very quickly to an improvement in your tight hamstrings.

    Bye-bye Tightness!

    This approach applies to any area of the body that may be tight.  Look at the surrounding neighbourhood for compensatory movement patterns.  When compensations are reduced, the body will move the way it was designed to move, and overused muscles will quiet.  In other words, the tightness will go away and the need to stretch so much will disappear!

    I use this approach in all my classes. If this resonates with you, and you want to learn more, please check out my class schedule.

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