When Stretching Doesn’t Work

by Dr. Christopher on July 7, 2010

Editor’s Note: This post is meant to educate on ANATOMY on a deeper level.  Knowledge is power!

You think you are stretching your hamstrings? Well, you’re not. At least not likely. Why is it necessary to even discuss stretching?

Why Flexiblity is Important

The ability to move in a full range of motion is important because we use our bodies the way we were meant to move. We use ALL of a muscle instead of only a part. We use ALL of our muscles instead of a specific few. This is healthy, balanced movement.

Once we start losing flexibility, our tightness snowballs. My grandmother would ask me at least once a day to get something out of the cabinet for her that was right above her head. My grandfather didn’t have the flexibility or strength to perform a squat; he died as he fell going to the bathroom, hitting his head on the sink on the way down.

Flexibility allows movement. Movement allows the body to function. You (and your grand-kids) can be happy because you are able to do everything you want and need to do in life.

Do you feel that behind your thigh or in your calf?

How to Make a Human Cell Out of an Apple

Flexible people made themselves flexible. Inflexible people made themselves inflexible. Everything we do has a cause and an effect.

It is easy for us to forget sometimes just how amazing the human body is. We start life as a single cell. We can put all of the most brilliant minds with all of the money and technology in the world and they still wouldn’t be able to turn an apple into a human cell like the human body can. We can observe the world, and adapt to it. We can treat our bodies like garbage, disrespecting it with poison in the form of processed foods, alcohol, and chronic sitting, and still live a mid-range life into our 60’s.

Being as amazing as it is, everything that our body does is an adaptation to the environment we put it in. Every disease or condition is a SMART response from our body.

Arterial plaquing is a condition characterized by the accumulation of fatty plaques and inflammation in our blood vessels. Too much sugar damages our whole body, including the blood vessels. Plaquing is the body’s attempt to patch the holes caused by the presence of too much sugar. Everything has a cause!

Conventional Wisdom – To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

Fitness enthusiasts and healthcare practitioners alike say “if a muscle is tight, stretch it.” This is a very general level of detail. In order to get to the bottom of “tightness,” we need to delve a bit deeper into specificity.

If everything our body does is smart, why is your hamstring “tight?” A muscle can be “tight” for 3 reasons:

1. Actual mechanical stiffness

According to the “use it or lose it principle,” our body will use energy for necessary body processes because we evolved with a limited food supply (unlike American culture today). Using our muscles in large ranges requires energy. Being efficient, if we don’t use our muscles, our body makes our active muscles passive so that they don’t require energy, thus conserving it for other processes. This is the stiffness that occurs.

This mechanical stiffness is the only reason you would want to stretch a “tight” muscle. A “normal” stretch should be experienced in the whole muscle, not a small part of it. So if you are stretching your hamstrings, you should feel the same intensity stretch from your butt to your knee.

2. Adhesion

Muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves develop adhesion (a form of scar tissue, that by definition, formed without trauma). Adhesion is like taking a piece of gum and putting it between muscles, ligaments, tendons, or nerves so that it becomes difficult for them to slide past one another when moving. It is another way to make muscles stiffer as to conserve energy. But it also is a result of tissue overload and injury.

Overloaded muscles without the proper healing environment will heal with adhesion because the damage done cannot be optimally repaired. Overload can occur from:

  • doing the same exercises day after day (too much bench press)
  • holding the same postures such as sitting or typing or playing an instrument
  • stretching or shortening a tissue for too long

3. It’s protecting something.

The back of your thigh and butt

Yes, your hamstring contracts to protect you. Certain tissues of the body are more sensitive than others, especially when already irritated or overloaded. Nerves are particularly sensitive because once damaged, they have limited healing ability.

The sciatic nerve is a nerve the size of your index finger running down from your butt to behind your knee where it splits. Because of our sedentary lifestyle, this nerve is apt to developing adhesion between it and the muscles it runs near due to the pressure (sitting on our butt) and stretch (sitting puts tension on the sciatic nerve). Again, imagine multiple wads of gum stuck between this nerve and the muscles. As you bend forward at the back and hips, you put tension on the sciatic nerve (will often be felt in the calf!). If it is adhered and stuck, it won’t like being pulled. Hence, your body contracts your hamstring so that you don’t put any more tension on the nerve.

The 2nd and 3rd conditions are more common than the 1st. This is evidenced by the number of people who stretch without effect, not becoming any more flexible and staying in pain.

What To Do

1. Prevention is the first step: Move often. Don’t do any activity (ie. sitting) for longer than 30 minutes without stretching and moving that muscle in its full range of motion for a couple of minutes. So do a 2 minute lap to get a drink of water every 30 minutes at your desk job. Move your wrist as far as it will go back and forth for 10 repetitions when taking a break from playing an instrument or typing.

2. Perform exercises in a full range of motion with good form. This tells our body that we need to use the full range of our muscles and maintains our flexibility.

3. If tight, perform dynamic stretching. This is stretching into a lengthened position, holding for 2 seconds, then coming out of the stretch. Perform repetitions of 10 before and after workouts. Also, doing this throughout the day is not a bad idea.

If daily stretching does not get you increased flexibility after a couple of weeks, chances are that you have significant adhesion in that area of your body. Continued stretching of adhered muscles or “protective contractions” may make it feel better temporarily. But stretching nerves for long periods of time is not healthy and can contribute towards significant damage. If chronic pain goes along with that inflexibility, an Active Release Technique (ART) provider can help you with this specific problem.  Active Release Technique is quickly becoming the gold standard in soft tissue treatment.

Stretching and flexibility is an area of fitness and health that is overlooked. While stretching does have a place, it is not the be all-end all to the “tightness” you experience. If it doesn’t help, you weren’t born tight.  Just don’t let your inflexibility progress until you can no longer do the things you love  in your life.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dennis Lesniak July 12, 2010 at 11:50 am

Chris,

Great article, very concise and well written.
“We use ALL of a muscle instead of only a part. We use ALL of our muscles instead of a specific few.”
Very true and something that I think many people overlook on a regular basis.

Chris July 12, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Thanks Dennis. Your opinion is always helpful.

Ashley November 3, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Hello,

I feel lucky to have stumbled across your website. I’ve had chronic SI pain in my left leg for years now, but doctors haven’t been able to figure out the cause. I’ve recently become very active in yoga, but I’ve noticed that no matter how much I stretch, my thighs/hips are always just as tight as if I hadn’t stretched and the area right underneath my right sit-bone feels like it’s going to snap. I had an injury there years ago as well. I don’t know for sure if adhesions could be the case, but I’m definitely going to give foam rolling a try to help alleviate the pain and see if my flexibility returns without areas wanting to pop. Thank you.

Dr. Christopher November 3, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Hi Ashley! Is it the SI joint or under the sit bone? When someone says SI joint, I think “back dimple.” When someone says under the sit bone, I think hamstring tendon. Hard to diagnose through written communication, but we do the best we can. Give foam rolling a try. If it doesn’t work, remember that a skilled ART provider can likely help you. Let me know if I can help in any way. Thank you!

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