You won’t be met with any argument from me when you tell me that stretching feels so good. Even my golden retriever loves to stretch into some of the most luxurious down dogs and up dogs I have seen. But for dogs stretching isn’t complicated; they just do what feels natural for them. For us humans, on the other hand, stretching is a more complicated topic. I have read so many articles on the Internet about this. Some are about how beneficial stretching is for us and others are about its negative effects. It is safe to say that none of the research appears to be conclusive and so much contradictory information only leaves us feeling overwhelmed and skeptical. We all agree on one thing, though: just because you are flexible, does not mean you are strong and stable.

Why do we feel we need to stretch anyway?

When we feel the sensation of tightness in our bodies, one of the first things we want to do is stretch. Stretching our muscles can improve mobility; however, the effects have been found to be short lived and even detrimental to physical performance. There are many tissues in and around our joints in addition to muscle tissue. We have ligamentous attachments, fascia and nerves, Golgi tendons and spindle fibers, to name a few. While we are stretching, these tissues are also put under tension and don’t always return to their normal length. In fact, over time, with repeated stretching they may never be able to create the same amount of stability in the joint as they used to – like an over stretched elastic band. With our ligaments and connective tissues now a bit looser, we rely heavily on the strength of our muscular system to hold our joints stable while we move.

Imagine this scenario when we exercise and play sports, which challenge our bodies in the more extreme ranges of motion necessary for competition and the maintenance of healthy fitness levels. This can prove disastrous if our muscles can’t control the additional motion we have created. In relation to sports injuries, Thacker et al. reported, “…stretching not only might not prevent injuries but also might compromise performance.”[1]

How do we relieve that tight sensation?

OK then. What do we do when that sensation of tightness becomes a nagging, uncomfortable presence that just does not want to go away?

Believe it or not, that tightness is telling you that something else is weak! Your body knows this fact more instinctively than you can imagine. Enter the Central Nervous System (CNS). If you listen to it, the CNS is going to automatically protect you from injuring yourself. The tight “sensation” is your body’s way of saying, “Whoa! Don’t go that far! You are moving in to a position that I feel weak in.” Generally, the tightness is also accompanied by a range of motion deficit or limitation (i.e. I cannot lift my right arm as high as my left arm).

Is it the tight muscles that need stretching or is it a few weak muscles that need to be turned on and strengthened? Let’s think about that for a minute.

In simple form, how do we create movement?

Your body moves as a result of an orchestrated effort of many muscles contracting and lengthening, pulling on your bones in different directions. Muscles respond to one important command, and that is “contract”. The inability of a muscle to fully contract throughout the available range of motion in any specific joint will result in a loss of range of motion.   As one muscle contracts so another muscle must simultaneously lengthen. It’s really kind of a timing issue. If I want to bend my elbow, the biceps must contract but at that same time the triceps must lengthen. If one elbow does not bend as much as the other, is it the biceps or the triceps that are the problem? Hmmm?

Enter that tight “sensation”. The lack of movement in our one elbow leads us right back to that old feeling of tightness! If you now believe the tight sensation is your body telling you that something is weak, then why do you think that “stretching” the tight muscle will be the solution? After all, he is the guy that is trying to protect you from going too far and hurting yourself. Then what we will have created is instability; a joint which has become vulnerable to injury because on one side there is weakness and on the other side you have just stretched out the only guys that are holding the joint stable. OOPS!

A different paradigm

Let’s try another approach. Let’s see if we can make the weak muscles stronger and more responsive to that “contract” command that our CNS is looking for. Stretching is not the answer here, but any number of other techniques that will improve the conversation between the muscles and the CNS might be. Two such techniques are targeted isometrics and Pilates. Another possibility is Muscle Activation Techniques.

Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) is a relatively new approach to treating muscular imbalance and weakness. It uses positional isometric tests to determine if a muscle has a strong contractile signal (is the muscle talking to the brain?) Then a gentle manual palpation to the attachment sites of the muscle is applied. This helps create a stronger contractile response, which is confirmed by re-testing the muscle and noting a definite change in the muscle’s response. As more and more muscles begin to respond, the range of motion generally improves. The sensation of tightness around that joint, and often in other related areas of the body as well, begins to relax and lessen. The result is that feeling of relief you were looking for without the negative effects of passively stretching.

[1] Thacker et al. “The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature”. Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. Pp. 371-378. 2004.