Not Every Stretch You Feel is a Stretch You Need
Everyday a new athlete comes up to me with a muscle that needs to be stretched, or a hip that feels stuck, or a shoulder that needs greater range, and I am asked for a good stretch for that area.
Here is the rub (HA!): not every tightness is meant to be stretched. Not every stuck joint is stuck due to a muscle that is too tight. Sometimes what your body really is looking for is control, sometimes it just needs massage, and occasionally we need to stretch the muscle to gain motion.
How do we tell the difference? How do we decide when to use a certain tool to get a desired result?
Here are some cases of mistaken identity
The Tight Muscle:
Do you have hamstrings that are tight right now? If so, I want you to do me a favor. Stand up and touch your toes and feel how tight they are and then stand up. Now I want you to take off your shoes and roll a tennis ball under your right foot for about 30 seconds. Really dig that sucker in there. Now reach down and touch your toes again.
Which one feels looser (because we both know that you actually did this……..do it……..please?)?
How the heck did I loosen your hamstring up from across the internet on my computer!? Maybe I am a wizard (I am) and maybe I just understand your body a little better than you do.
You see, your muscles are wrapped in a bag of tissue known as fascia, without getting too technical, the wrapping is connected across various patterns throughout your body. When muscle in one area is affected from stress, it can bind up tissues throughout that same pattern. Remember your foot and your hamstring, they are both on the same pattern, and your foot has been impacted by the stress of standing and walking and being restricted in shoes all day. The ball we used unlocked that tissue and it gave your hamstrings some room.
Still having trouble connecting the idea?
Grab a piece of your shirt near your right shoulder and twist it. The area that is twisted was obviously affected, but did you also notice that the restriction on your shoulder traveled diagonally across your body? Did it also raise the back of your shirt up a little? This is what happens when the fascia in your body gets restricted. We have an obvious knot (your twisted shoulder) but then the underlying impact is seen throughout a number of areas.
The solution: Stretching can work, but so can soft tissue release throughout your body. A simple solution is to buy a foam roller ($15-50 depending on style, size and brand) and roll out your muscles multiple times per week. This simple solution can unbind the tissues that have begun to be matted down from life. Need a more aggressive fix? Get a PVC pipe about 12-18” long and grind a little deeper. Need to hit a smaller area? Get a Tennis or Lacrosse ball and tuck it into your nooks and crannies and get after some relief.
How Do I Stretch My Lower Back?
Short answer, you don’t. Longer answer, you probably don’t need to.
Often times the people who complain of having a tight back do in fact have muscles that are very tight, but stretching them is not the solution. Why don’t we take a second to think why those muscles are tight?
Did you lift something heavy? Was your form off? Was it a new rep range you haven’t used? Were you over extended?
Overextended? What the heck is that?
THAT is overextension.
For the guys and girls staring at her butt and wondering how it got that big it’s because on the flip side her front side has completely shut down. This in shape female now looks like she has a little belly; she is pushing her stomach forward and not keeping tension, and her back is now taking the brunt of all stability. Her butt has just shot up due to loss of control.
Tomorrow she will have a “tight” back and wonder how many core exercises she must do to actually “feel” something.
This tightness is formed from improper distribution of energy. In other words her form sucks. If you are feeling lower back tightness, check your posture, does your stomach push forward, when you squat or deadlift do you arch your back as hard as possible to stabilize. Well lets fix that first.
Solution: Working on your form is a first step to taking pressure off your lower back. Take the time to learn movement correctly before trying to start pushing heavy weights. After that, focus on strengthening your core muscles to take on more load while doing exercise. Lastly, don’t forget to take part in Solution 1 across your body. Foam rolling your hamstrings, upper back and hips can take a lot of pressure off your system. If these tips don’t help, consult a doctor to discuss the issue, because you may have underlying issues that no amount of exercise can help. While not the fun answer, it is one and should be noted.
Can I hang from the pullup bar to stretch; I get a great pull in my shoulders!
Quick test. Put your hands above your head and look in the mirror or better yet, have someone take a picture.
Do you look closer to the left or the right picture?
If you look like the left side, maybe, as long as your feel the stretch in your lats (under your arm pit down your side); otherwise that pinch in your shoulder you feel is the damage that your shoulder is taking from being placed at its end ranges and yanked back, sounds gnarly right. That’s because it is!
This is a huge note **PINCHING IS NOT STRETCHING! PINCHING IS THE BODY SAYING THIS IS NOT A GOOD SPOT**
Most people are missing the shoulder ranges to effectively do pull-ups and chin-ups, the people who have the range probably don’t feel the need to stretch all that much (funny how that works). That lack of motion is usually because we are missing a number of supporting ranges of motion. Your thoracic spine (between the middle of your ribs to your neck) is mostly likely locked up (it should move), and its lack of motion has worked its way up to your shoulders (you also will suffer from problem 2 whenever you overhead press, see how I knew that, wizard baby).
Solution: Take the time to improve your ranges of motion through stretching the appropriate muscles and teaching your body good position. Stretching your lats using a stretch like this will help.
Here, you want to focus on feeling the stretch in your lat while also maintaining your core in a good position (no crazy arch in your back). Push your butt back until you get a good stretch. If you want to improve the stretch over time, try and squeeze your lat imagine driving your elbow down to the floor. This will activate your lat and deepen the stretch and the improvement you see in motion.
You also can take a tennis ball (solution 1) and massage the area around your shoulder and clavicle; this will unbind tissue and allow for muscles on the opposing side to take you back. Your clavicle is part of your shoulder, freeing it help to free the shoulder.
Follow this stretch and soft tissue work up with an exercise like a wall slide to help ingrain good movement and support of your scapula to your back with proper shoulder movement.
There Are Always More Answers
This isn’t the definitive list to freeing up your body to increased levels of movement, but it is a start. What I hope you will do is ask why.
Why am I tight there? Is it my lifestyle (sitting, standing)? Is it my technique (arching, short reps, excessive volume)? Was I injured recently somewhere else (the body is connected remember)?
In asking why, you can find solutions to problems you didn’t realize you could, and in the end you will make more progress faster than you ever have.
Till next time.