Don’t Stretch the Tight Stuff

Tightness is a sensation, a feeling. Like being happy or sad. In life, despite your best intentions, acting upon your feelings without understanding what’s going on doesn’t always work out the way you’d like. If you don’t have the range of motion you think you should, then stretching, smashing or bashing always seems like the “go to” answers, but should they be?
You know you’re guilty too. Every time you hear someone complain about their tight hamstrings, calves, low back, etc…the first bit of unsolicited advice you hear, “stretch more”. What if I told you that is not likely the best way to reduce that feeling? What if I told you that the feeling of stiffness or tightness doesn’t always mean that muscles are anatomically shortened and need to be stretched to not feel that way anymore?
The nervous system controls everything and muscles don’t contract unless the nervous system says so. If a muscle is chronically tight, there’s a reason. An unlikely reason is because it hasn’t been stretched enough. A few common reasons could be the body trying to provide stability to an unstable or injured joint, the tight muscle is overworked because a synergist or antagonist muscle(s) is not doing what it should be, or because the brain is trying to protect that muscle from being stretched too far to prevent possible injury. Some muscles may also feel tight, yet are stretched long (think about a rope pulled on both ends); in which case strengthening those specific muscles would yield better results.
Let’s explain further, shall we?
First, let’s discuss the case of tightness in effort to stabilize a joint. In my experience, the most common place this occurs is in the hips and low back. If you feel tightness in your right hip, how do you know if the tightness isn’t the result of issues with your left hip? The tightness you may feel may be what’s required until the issue with the left hip are resolved. You can stretch the tight area all you want, but until the brain senses it’s safe to do so; the feeling of stiffness will likely remain. Some in the rehab world would call this “chasing pain”; in that the right hip is showing symptoms of possible injury, however the actual cause of the pain is not in the same area. “Chasing pain” is something many doctors still do, as do most people that try to self-treat in response to an injury. Addressing only the site of pain will often not correct the cause of the problem.
Another reason for muscle tightness can be a result of poor motor control during a particular movement. For example if your low back, or hamstrings are always feeling tight regardless how many hours you spend stretching, bashing and smashing; I’d suggest it’s much more likely a motor control issue than short muscles that need to be stretched issue. In simple terms, “motor control” is the order the brain instructs the body to move. Repetitive stress (i.e. sitting all day) and injuries (mild to major sprain/strain or worse) are two events that can disrupt proper motor control. In this case, stretch all you want with little long term results. You’ll need to “reprogram” the brain, and learn to move better and properly for the muscle to relax for a long term solution.
Another common reason for the feeling of tight muscles that shouldn’t be stretched is when muscles are stretched long. Think about your neck and mid back tightness after working on the computer, or a long car ride. Many times that will result in a feeling of stiffness, but muscles will not benefit from more stretching. In situations like these, it’s strengthening of the upper back and deep core musculature that will diminish the sensation of tightness and thus your feelings that you need to stretch more.
In conclusion, remember your stiffness is a feeling. Like most feelings, dwelling on them isn’t going to help them go away.  Generally, specific improvements in your strength, motor control, self-awareness and general health will help you limit these feelings.