Everybody has a tight spot: hamstrings, IT bands, shoulders, groin. Sometimes tightness comes and goes; sometimes it’s the only way you can remember ever feeling.

You tell yourself you should stretch more.

Maybe you’ve even got a trainer or physiotherapist telling you to stretch more. They provide you with clever and inventive stretches, some of which bring about a momentary relief while others are such a grotesque form of torture you can’t believe they weren’t designed by 15th century inquisitors.

Unfortunately, we’ve been trained to think of tight muscles as wads of taffy,  stiff and tacky, and that all it takes is some vigorous pulling and kneading to loosen them up and lengthen them out.

I do love taffy . . .

I do love taffy . . .

This is not true.

Muscles aren’t tight because they haven’t been stretched enough; muscles are tight because they are in use—often without your awareness or consent.

The somatic nervous system (SNS) is a network of nerve tissue that takes in information from your environment and tells your muscles what to do with that information. In a stable skeletal environment, the communication between your SNS and your muscles is clear and amicable: muscles are called into action only when they are needed and never asked to do more than they can handle.

great job, postural tissues, no you're great!

Nice job, postural tissues! No, you’re great!

Sadly, nobody who drives a car, uses a computer or television, wears shoes regularly, or makes frequent use of a chair has perfect alignment.

Here’s the deal: when you stand—let alone walk, run or practice parkour—you are in a near-constant state of almost falling over. You don’t notice this because the muscles throughout your feet, legs, hips and spine fire in short, low-intensity bursts at strategic leverage points in an effort to keep your balance (and store some of that acceleration due to gravity for later use). The SNS coordinates these bursts of muscular energy. The geometry of the skeleton, too, lends itself to this process: bones actively conduct ground forces, minimizing the amount of energy needed to maintain structural integrity.

admittedly, the stakes are higher for some than others.

Admittedly, the stakes are higher for some than others.

When your skeletal alignment is compromised, you become vulnerable to muscular tightness. The balancing act that once was accomplished through short, low-intensity bursts of muscular activity now requires a greater force over a longer period. The communications coming from the SNS also change as it is forced to recruit certain muscle tissues to work beyond their capability.

you'll just have to stay late, then! No you're an asshole!

You’ll just have to stay late, then! No, you’re the asshole!

As an example—one that I see, literally, every day— let’s say your right foot is rolled a few degrees onto its outer edge (likely due to a combination of footwear and repetitive stress injury). Imperceptibly to you, your SNS thinks you’re always just on the verge of rolling your right ankle. Consequently, it will send commands to contract all the muscles that prevent you from falling to the right and, until your foot alignment is corrected, these commands never stop. This means that your left glute and hamstring, as well as your right calf muscles, peroneals, and TFL, are receiving continuous warning signals to stay contracted in an effort to protect the ankle.

Your foot position is the cause; your muscular tightness is the effect.

But you feel that tight left hamstring, and you probably don’t feel the small deviation in your foot, so the urge is to yank on the hamstring and relieve the pressure it’s causing on the surrounding tissue. That tightness, however, is secondary; attempting to stretch it would result in a tense, burning sensation that is frequently—and incorrectly—associated with a “good stretch”.

painful-face

If you’re making this face, it’s an injury, not a stretch.

Pull on the muscle all you want, but as long as the brain thinks it needs that muscle to be short to prevent you from falling on your face, it simply isn’t going to get any longer.

Achieving longer muscles, then, has little to do with the actual muscle tissue, but instead with the flow of information from the somatic nervous system telling the affected muscles to remain short.

In our example of the rolled out right foot, that means bringing the alignment of the foot back to an everted, abducted position. Fix the position and the tight muscles will simply stop being tight.

And here’s the great thing: use whatever method you want! Acupuncture, massage, Pilates, weight lifting, running, walking, Qi gong meditation, literally anything done with the foot properly aligned will help restore the correct patterns of communication and diminish muscle tightness.

So if you’ve got a tight muscle that won’t budge, look first to your bones. Look at your balance. Look for positions that put less stress on your overall stability and, if that doesn’t work, ask a professional!

Comments welcome!

 

60 Responses to “Why Stretching Isn’t Working For You”

  • Sherry Boyce

    I have pain in my left gluteus and left outer obliques when I walk and try to set and swing into the drivers seat of car. How can I improve the tension??

    Reply
  • Dave

    I have been training in martial arts for two years now but my groin just isn’t easing whilst my gluteus and hamstrings have and enable me to touch my toes easily but my groin just does not ease up and struggle to kick higher than the waste in certain kicks, I stretch as much as I can but still nothing?

    Reply
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  • Terry Valentine

    So, if my bones are the problem, how is it that after 10+ years of chiropractic adjustments to my hips I finally figured out that I could correct my chronic anterior pelvic tilt by diligently stretching my hip flexors? Abdominal and hamstring exercises have likely helped as well, but not until after I’d been stretching 3x/day for several weeks did I notice a distinct shift in my profile and how my pants fit. Additionally, my now-level hips no longer translate to uneven leg lengths (provided I stay stretched out), which means that my lower back no longer has to compensate for the imbalance (or supination) when I run (now minimalist). Apparently in this case it was the muscles that influenced the bones, which in turn influenced other muscles; not the other way around.

    On the other hand, I’ve successfully had peroneal tendonitis cured with a single foot adjustment, and I don’t doubt that my tight muscles elsewhere have chiropractic origins. But if it’s possible for muscles to have such undue influence on bone conformation, how do we know which came first – the chicken or the egg?

    Reply
    • Kevin Moore

      Clearly the method you are describing, of diligent, frequent stretching, was able to give you relief for some of the issues you were facing. First of all, that’s fantastic. Bodies are complex things and there are as many ways to solve a problem as there are problems. Not everyone finds their solution and I’m glad you did.

      There are two things about your situation that stick out to me. First off, while I definitely believe that bony alignment is still the “chicken,” classical chiropractic adjustments of bony alignment have a poor track record of providing lasting change. This has more to do with the methodology than the principle. In fact, many chiros, like my colleague Dr. Perry Nickelston, have been steadily moving away from the typical schedule of adjustments and instead toward a blend of intelligent manual adjustments and coaching techniques that allow those changes to stick. My own methodology follows a similar pattern.

      What you accomplished through diligent stretching could potentially have been accomplished just a bit faster with the manual adjustment/functional movement combo. I wrote the article because the intensive nature of making a stretching routine successful makes it an inaccessible method for a lot of folks, and I wanted to steer them toward something that would provide results a bit faster and with less obstacle.

      Thanks for the feedback, Terry, and keep up the good work!

      Reply
      • Terry Valentine

        Well truth be told, the hip-leveling effect came a few years before the pelvic-tilt correction…It all started when I found a chat forum post several pages back in my search results on why I was suddenly getting plantar fasciitis in my left foot (http://www.davedraper.com/fusionbb/showtopic.php?tid/17713/). Apparently the leg-length differential caused by tight muscles from my right core down to my right knee was forcing my low back to compensate, making me feel as though my torso would snap off at my hips during runs (and walks…and long periods of standing still). Unbeknownst to me the imbalance was partially compensated for several years by motion-correction running shoes, but when I starting opting for straight-last shoes (as the former didn’t seem necessary) the discomfort increased (hindsight!). And once I started running in minimalist shoes, any remaining masking went out the window; and the imbalance culminated in fasciitis and then tendonitis in my left foot/ankle. Nobody had been able to tell me what the problem with my back really was (“Gee, I’ve never heard of that…”), but once I found this post and put 2+2 together, I took a tennis ball and foam roller to my right side…and was sick as a dog 3 days later (presumably from all the ahem, “crap” released into my system). Once I had my left foot adjusted, and as long as I kept my right side stretched out, the back issues stayed away.

        Fast forward 3+ years, and I started taking Pilates Barre – which is great but very taxing on the quadriceps and hip flexors. I had more or less achieved left-right balance in my hips but had never really tackled the forward-tilt issue (after all, women are supposed to have arched backs). But after a few months of Barre class I realized the tilt was getting worse; and that’s when I started really stretching my quads/flexors in earnest. The difference has been dramatic – so much so that my profile is much less an indicator of weight gain; and I’ve been having to relearn how to assess weight management from my clothes (as I always did, just differently) so as not to deceive myself. I guess I mention all of this to clarify that all of these changes weren’t an “overnight” revelation; and because others here may be experiencing similar issues and might find my story helpful.

        Reply
  • Victor

    I’m interested in learning more about the somatic nervous system and more details about its relationship to muscle contraction and tightness (in addition to other stuff I don’t quite understand but can’t quite for into words … my particular curiosity has to do with two key areas: tightness around base of skull/shoulder girdle and hamstrings. I’m having trouble mapping your example of foot inversion). Also am curious about the history of this knowledge, and why static stretching is so widely advised in comparison to this new concept of reprogramming the SNS … was it a recent revelation? Do you have any names of scholarly publications or other researchers through which one could learn more about these tantalizing tidbits of info?

    Thanks!

    Reply
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