When is Stretching a Good Thing, When is it Not?


The Stretching 101 Class

Again with the stretching? Haven’t we already written articles about the usefulness of stretching? Why yes, yes we have. Today we will get more into the weeds of which muscles to stretch, why to stretch or strengthen a muscle, and the expected timeline to resolve a problem. When someone asks flat out, is stretching good? Well, that answer is it depends. Static stretching before an activity like a volleyball game, a run, or weight lifting isn’t the wisest. Whereas, it is advised to routinely stretch the hip flexors in a stereotypical desk worker.  The following are a few examples of when muscles might feel tight and what should be done. Enjoy!

The Chronically Short Muscle

Chronically shortened hip flexors
Chronically shortened hip flexors – https://freesvg.org/woman-sitting-at-desk

A chronically short muscle occurs when we adopt one posture without balancing it with an opposing posture or activity. This could be sitting all day with few instances of standing, running, or extending the hip all the way backward. This could also be an active activity. We see this a lot with avid cyclists or people who use the elliptical too often. These activities are all fine as long as you do the opposite. Cycling and the elliptical include forcefully pulling the hip up repeatedly. This is completely fine as long as there is an activity that balances that out like a full extension glute/hip bridge. Similarly, sitting is completely fine as long as there are frequent breaks to get up, move around and stretch the hip the other way.

The body is the epitome of “use it or lose it.” Length in the hip flexor will be lost because the body has decided you don’t need it since you aren’t using it. At the same time that the body is shortening the hip flexors, it is lengthening the hip extenders, like the glutes. Once a muscle has become chronically lengthened it becomes weak. Lacking the strength in the glute or the extender allows the hip flexor to become even shorter and tighter.

The Fix

The fix is two-fold. The chronically short muscle (i.e. the hip flexor) needs to be repeatedly stretched. This has to be done several times a day and for 8-10 weeks. Unfortunately, it’s not like a bendy straw that needs to be stretched out once and things are good. To make a lasting change the muscle needs to be remodeled to a longer length. While the hip flexor is being stretched out, the hip extender/glute needs to be strengthened to help balance the pull on the hip.

The Injured Muscle

An injured muscle will naturally shorten to protect itself from further damage. This is for a brief period. It is important to move the injured area as soon as possible. Movement and activation of the muscle do several things. It flushes toxins and damaged tissue out of the area. It helps with blood flow to the area; bringing in healing factors. Movement and contractions also help prepare the muscle for regular use again. If it was allowed to stay in that shortened protective state, it would end up in the previously mentioned chronically shortened muscle category.

The Fix

The fix or treatment in this scenario is light stretches and movements. Keep pain mild to moderate with lingering soreness no longer than a few minutes afterward. Progressively increase activity, load and stretch as the body allows.

The Weak Muscle

A weak muscle will shorten to artificially give itself more strength. A long muscle is much harder to contract so the muscle is more comfortable and better equipped in its shortened state if it is weak. Simply stretching this muscle will yield minimal results even if it’s done over an extended period because the muscle will continue to return to the shortened length to keep it in a safer zone. Furthermore, if it is lengthened, injury risk goes up because the muscle isn’t strong enough to handle that increased range of motion.

The Fix

The fix in this situation is the simultaneous strengthening of the shortened muscle and stretching. This way as strength is gained, the length is also being added as the body can now handle it. 

The Overtrained/Unbalanced Muscle

The Overtrained/Unbalanced Muscle
Overtrained pecs leading to a rounded weak back – https://jackhanrahanfitness.com/3-ways-fix-rounded-shoulders/

Picture the gym rat that only works on his pecs. The person with the shoulders pulled forward with a big rounded back. This is similar to the chronically shortened state. Chronic training/overdevelopment of one muscle without comparable training of the opposing side causes an imbalance. The overtrained side will overpower the opposing muscle. Counterintuitively, it is often the overpowered, lengthened muscle that feels tight. and like it needs to be stretched. And tight it is. This poor muscle has been stretched to its capacity and is tight because it’s holding on for dear life. People often stretch this muscle because it feels tight, but complain that it never gets better. Treating it this way won’t yield any meaningful results because the wrong muscle is being stretched. We need to stretch the short and tight muscles, not the long and tight.

The Fix

The fix for this is similar to the chronically shortened muscle. The opposing muscle will need to be strengthened as the shortened muscle is stretched. At the same time, the long muscle that feels “tight” doesn’t need to be stretched, it actually needs to be strengthened. This again can be a longer fix as it takes time for the muscles to remodel. 

The Protective Muscle

This happens in cases like a sudden back strain or damage to surrounding tissues. The body will tighten the surrounding muscles in order to protect the injured area.

The Fix

In this instance, movement and light stretching is key. The goal is to not overstretch. The body is in this protective pattern because it needs to repair something. Stretching out the surrounding muscles too much removes the stability the injury needs to repair itself. This can delay healing. 

The Neurologically Short Muscle

One of the last scenarios is neurologic tightness. This is the tightness you routinely see in cerebral palsy (CP), multiple sclerosis (MS), and stroke. These are conditions that have damaged the brain or spinal cord.

The Fix

There is less of a “fix” in these conditions. The road to recovery depends on the amount of damage. A minor stroke can see a full recovery. Whereas, MS and CP see smaller changes and usually require ongoing care. 

The Wrap Up

As you can see, there are an array of different reasons muscles are tight or feel tight. Each has its own way to address its specific problem and how it should be stretched and/or strengthened. If you can decipher where you fit into these categories, try the suggested fix and see if you get relief. If you can’t figure where you fit into the scheme of things or you aren’t getting the relief you expected that’s where we fit in. We can treat this in person or easily diagnose and treat this through a virtual telemedicine visit. Don’t wait to get relief. Now is the perfect time to start working on these routines while we are all sitting at home trying to figure out what to do!

Tom Cotter, DC, DACRB