Stretching the wrong way, long, static stretching, can do more harm than good. Stretching can decrease an athlete's performance, lead to increased fatigue and actually lead to more feelings of "tightness." First, let's define "stretch" and then explain why stretching is NOT your friend.
When We Say Stretching is NOT Your Friend, What is "Stretching?"
The word "stretching" in laymen terms can be confused with stretching in the medical field. It's common to say after a long car ride, "I just need to stretch my legs out." Or, when your dog first gets up from a nap to call that extension of their front paws and downward dog motion a "stretch." From a medical perspective, when we talk about stretching, we're talking about a static stretch, or a sustained lengthening of soft-tissue held for over 15 seconds. In this context, your dog is not holding their stretch for 15 seconds and typically after a car car ride, stretching your legs does not involve holding a stretch for over 15 seconds, so we would not call that a stretch. Actively moving your body to warm up your muscles in a variety of ways is not stretching and is highly recommended.
I Have Tight Hamstrings or Low Back. Shouldn't I Stretch It?
Have you been told in the past that if something hurts or feels “tight” that you should just stretch it? For example, my low back muscles are "tight" or my hamstrings are "tight", are two of the most common complaints our physical therapists hear. However, stretching those muscles (remember holding for over 15 seconds) is not the correct way of thinking. Stretching tight muscles can, and will, actually cause you more harm and worse long term effects. But why? First, we need to understand what a muscle is, what muscle tightness is and how your nerves are involved.
What is Muscle Tightness?
Muscles are contractile tissues; meaning they are either performing motion to a joint OR providing stability to your joints. That means when you do activities; like standing, both sides of your legs, your thigh muscles and hamstrings both have to activate so you are able to stand. Likewise, as you are reading this blog post, both sides of your neck have to work to keep your head upright. Muscle tightness or pain is also not just a muscle problem. Muscle tightness, as well as muscle pain, is a muscle AND nerve problem. What most of us don't realize is that every muscle is innervated, or activated, by a nerve. The feeling of tightness or pain is due to misfiring or unequal firing of these nerves - leading to poor muscle activation. In other words, the nerve and how the nerve is activating the muscle. is at the heart of your muscle tightness.
Stretching Forces Muscles to Relax and Contribute to Injury
When we cause a muscle to relax with things like stretching, you are interrupting the normal nerve-muscle connection which will cause muscles misfiring, joint instability and joint dysfunction and therefore make your joints weaker and muscles weaker. This is the medical evidence behind statements like "stretching is bad for you." What's worse, if you take your muscle and stretch it past its normal level of control, then you expect to have an effective work-out, or just go about your regular routine, this can contribute to injury. Why? Because your muscles have to be able to control the range of motion you put on it. When you passively give the muscles added flexibility without demonstrating the muscle can control the motion (such as a squat or lunge), then you have sacrificed the muscles joint stability which will lead to dysfunction. This is how stretching will lead to muscles becoming weaker and potentially lead to an injury.
Stretching is Bad. Do This Instead.
So if stretching is bad, what do I do instead? Each person has their individual movement patterns and muscle activations. In order to truly advise you on how to optimize your physical movements, consider scheduling an evaluation with us so we can give you the most effective techniques to increase motion, strength and stability without stretching. (MoStreBility)
Secondly; isometrics (which are muscle contraction without movement) help to reset the nervous system. When your dog or cat wakes up, they don't "stretch." They're actually doing isometrics. To do isometrics, flex a muscle that feels weak or tight and hold for about 5 seconds. Perform isometrics five or six times at multiple points throughout the day.
Lastly, instead of stretching, use an active dynamic warm up before and after activity. This could include a light jog, lunges, body weight squats, high knees, butt kicks, push ups, etc. Something that will require your body to move in and out of range of motion actively, and turn-on your muscles, rather than relax your muscles - which is what stretching will do.
Your muscles need to be engaged throughout the day and definitely prior to physical activity. When you stretch you are sacrificing long term joint stability, long term strength for short term flexibility gains, which will lead to pain and dysfunction. Movements that activate your muscles will lead to increase in range of motion, strength, physical performance and decrease risk of injury. So ditch the stretches and start moving.
Contact the Physical Therapists at Breaking Through IT for a free consult, or schedule your initial assessment today and be on your way to sports injury rehabilitation or a pain free active lifestyle.