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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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!
60 Responses to “Why Stretching Isn’t Working For You”
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Top stuff, was wondering if you could help. I often get terrible pain in my lower back, usually just to the right of my spine, and a friend mine who’s had some massage experience tells me the whole thing feels really tight. I’m normally fairly active – I play a fair amount of sports (mostly rugby) and I don’t usually have any trouble while playing, but it’s when I’m just out jogging or occasionally weightlifting that I get the pain, often so bad I have to stop. Any ideas? (My dominant leg is my left, by the way).
A great read, I couldn’t agree more! I have a client of mine who sometimes gets Illiotibial band issues, often at the 7km mark. He’s a minimal runner so is quite conscious of his technique and at the moment he is on a set of stretches for it. Any other suggestions on what to look for?
LOVE this site (and the fitspiration post). I practice yoga 4-6 days a week (almost seven years now) and also do cross-fit about 4 days a week (started a couple of months ago). I have found that the squats and lunges in cross-fit have made my right hip tighter than it normally is (it’s normally pretty tight) and I’m having trouble doing lotus on that side without pain in my inner right knee. Usually if I can get my hip to loosen up, the lotus becomes pain free. I can’t seem to shake the tightness since starting at the gym though. And my right side is my dominant/stronger side, left side is weaker but more flexible. Any thoughys?
Reblogged this on The Champion Factory.
Good stuff, very technical. You’ve addressed the physical nicely. I take it a step further backwards down the rabbit hole and find out what thought patterns and subsequent emotions are triggering said unpleasant results. You know how people slouch when they are depressed, look down when they are ashamed, cross their arms when they are angry or defensive? Well, it goes deeper still, pun intended. I’m sure you’re aware there are internal musculoskeletal and biochemical cascades that are triggered by sudden, intense emotion as well as chronic, wearing ones. Neither are good. Well, they’re good if the emotion is good but people don’t come to us to fix “good,” do they?
Stress is always a mosh pit of symptoms–and causes. You can say the divorce caused the defeatism that caused the slumped shoulders that caused the neck pain. Divorce = neck pain. But not all people who get divorced get neck pain and not all pains in the neck are divorced. Wait and minute….
Anyway, my point is that it’s an individual’s practiced responses to stress that is the root of the problem, and I don’t mean physically. You can say Ohm, apply heat packs, stretch, lift, pop pills, study the Alexander Technique, even fund your chiropractor’s new BMW, but you’re still just “handling” it, not ending it. When you find the belief that triggered the defeatism–and replace that belief with a better one–you’ll soon forget what neck pain was.
Not so fast, you say, what about injuries? Think about it. Certain mindsets keep a person below peak coordination and judgment. Stress is like a heavy-duty computer program that’s always running in the background of your brain, sucking up precious RAM space you could be using to NOT face plant off your mountain bike, or NOT walk absentmindedly into the door frame, or NOT cut your finger while chopping up fruit salad, or NOT pick a fight with the drunk dude who craps bigger than you.
Well, fine, but what about when something’s done TO you? There are no coincidences; you have control over that, too.
But that’s much further down the rabbit hole.
PS: Love the reference to being in a constant state of near-falling. I always explained to people why descending a steep mountain is far more dangerous than ascending by revealing that hiking uphill is a Place Foot, Then Shift Weight Safely proposition while hiking downhill is basically a controlled fall. For four hours. While you’re tired. And thinking about a shower. And beer.
Oh, yes…My husband and I definitely noticed this while climbing out of the Grand Canyon several years back. The hike down into the canyon was much more taxing as we were constantly working to keep ourselves from tumbling headlong down the trail; while in climbing out we were able to throw our weight into the effort – especially as the steps (Bright Angel Trail, I think – ?) were spaced such that falling (ahem) into a step-push-step-push rhythm came naturally. We were still tired when we reached the top…and boy, that prime rib and chocolate lava cake at the Arizona Room was good. And it didn’t hurt that it was our anniversary too.
Hips/groin/pelvis are my problem; I’m a dancer, and while I’m mostly quite flexible, I’ve never been able to do a proper “straddle” split or even come close. My teachers’ advice is inevitably to “stretch more,” which has gotten me absolutely nowhere… Any help would be incredibly welcome!
The inner hamstring. I’m super flexible in most places, but if I put my legs together I can barely touch my toes. Spread apart is no problem, neither is a single leg stretch on the floor. Easily can touch my toes. But put the legs together, impossible.
I’d love to see your response to the calves issue! Mine is primarily on my left (non-dominant side). I wake up with calves so tight, especially on the left side, that I can barely get out of bed. In fact, they’re SO tight that I’m developing a bad case of plantar fasciitis, and extensor tendonitis on the left side. I have incredibly high arches and struggle to find shoes that feel good. Too much arch support, or too high of a vamp, I can’t even get my feet into them. But sandals or minimalist shoes cause too much pain on the outer edge of my feet.
From the information you’ve supplied here, I’m almost certain that your feet are excessively inverted and most likely, limited in 1st MPJ range of motion.
There is a handy manual release technique which can be very helpful in this, with the goal being increasing your eversion. It does, however, require someone else to do it to you. Do you currently see a trainer or a massage therapist? I can provide details of the technique to them, or maybe provide a short video of the technique? Let me know what would be most helpful.
I’ve been wondering if I should go to PT for it, or if there were things I could do on my own. So inverted means that theres more pressure on the outside edges? I definitely bear all my weight and wear out my shoes on that side. I’m probably going to have to look for a therapist, as I don’t think the stretching (as your article states) is really helpful. If you have a link to a video that could be useful. Thanks! Love your blog.
I sometimes feel a tight, sharp pain along my spine, right in between my shoulder blades. I started getting it when I took up violin years ago, mostly only when I was playing at first, but later when I’d been sitting for a long period I could feel it as well. The left side (the one that held the violin) is always more tender when it is massaged, and I have a really hard time holding my left shoulder back- it rolls forward. When I actively attempt to hold my shoulders back, I get headaches, which makes me very leery of actively working on my posture, even though it *seems* like that would be the right answer to make the pinching go away. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!
Hey, first thanks for your wonderful articles, you have a good, engaging style. And second, I play the bass professionally, upright and guitar, and have been having terrible tightness in my left shoulder, and a fair amount of pain and numbness radiating up into the neck and down to the pinky. This started when I began trying to correct my posture (very large breasts pull my shoulders down and forward). I don’t want to keep having terrible posture but nor do I wish to be in bad pain and unable to play. Um, so, can you use your magic? Or “science”, as the kids call it.
Is your left hand your dominant hand, Elizabeth?
I have been having issues with my soleus muscles for a long time now. Your post is making me think that there may be an alignment issue. Are there any common causes of tight/painful soleus muscles?
What is not commonly known, Andrea, is that, due to torsion of the achilles tendon, the soleus muscle has a significant moment as an inverter. This means that your soleus tightness is probably associated with a rigid, high-arched, inverted foot position.
I’ve just recorded a video detailing a manual release technique for this issue. I will let you know once it’s edited and available.
I also have the tightness in my calves when doing most activities: running, jumping jacks, etc. I already know that I have reduced flexibility in my ankles that has improved slightly over time with increased activity, but even with regular activity, it only improves so much. This tightness also prevents me from getting into a full squat position, even before reaching 90 degrees it is difficult for me to keep my torso up (I think this is also a problem with my hip flexors or simply core strength). I would LOVE to stop having calf pain that prevents me from improving in running, skiing, and other activities and to regain the naturally flexibility humans are meant to have!
I would appreciate any ideas!
I am one of those lovely, or more accurately horrible hypermobile people. It’s not extreme but I have definite joint laxity most notably in my pelvis. This has led to years of issues which I won’t bore you with the specifics of, but are slowly coming under control with the help of physio, Pilates and some funky injections (prolotherapy). My question is mainly to do with self massage as I tend to leave stretching alone these days for it often ends up leaving me feeling worse; but in your opinion is there such a thing as too much self release? That is, can you end up doing damage when hitting up a massage ball even when it feels good?
The massage itself is probably not damaging, though the incessant desire to do it is indicative of an issue.
What I often find with the hypermobile is that there are in fact tight spots hiding in between all those loosey-goosey bits. Based on what you’re telling, I’m going to suggest that there are some tight bits hiding in your lateral rotators and probably in your Link text and probably in your thoracolumbar junction.
Try a yoga-style standing forward fold with these things in mind:
Keep both ankles, in particular the ankle of your dominant leg (the one you would use to kick a football) more dorsiflexed than usual. Keep both knees more flexed than usual, say between 10 and 15 degrees. As you hang, I’m going to bet that keeping the ankles in dorsiflexion will feel odd and unstable. If you can hold it, however, I believe you will find a pleasant stretch in your middle back and an unusual feeling of work in your hamstrings and glutes.
Let me know how that turns out and we’ll go from there.
Thanks for getting in touch!
Thanks for all your responses folks. My recent article on fitspiration photos has garnered a huge response and it may take me a few days to get to your individual questions. Rest assured I have some useful information for each of you and will do what I can to help soon.
Thanks again for reading, and take care!
Starts near the right shoulder blade up thought the neck. Super tight!
After any kind of exercise, being on my feet all day, any sort of repetitive motion etc, it’s always always my lower back that bothers me. Sometimes I don’t notice until I go to bed, as soon as I lay flat everything tightens up, I get pain, spasms, and a sense of shifting and grinding along that part of my spine. Usually some stretching will settle it down. Chiropractic adjustments have helped in the past but I can’t currently afford them. A couple years ago I “put my back out” whatever that means, lifting a can of soup. Not even joking. It took a few sessions at the chiro to finally loosen things up so I could walk upright, and he had said that the muscles felt like golfballs. He used a combo of adjustments, ultrasound heat therapy, and deep tissue massage to fix that mess, and I’d really like to know how to avoid that happening again. Both the injury and the treatment were insanely painful.
Any tips? Thanks!! Great blog
I have a really successful technique for dealing with this kind of problem, Sandra. A video discussing said technique is being edited now and I will let you know as soon as it’s available.
Thanks, and take care!
Thank you for this! i was introduced to your blog this morning via your Fitspiration post (which was super awesome, by the way) – glad I kept reading. My tight right hamstring has been causing me a lot of pain for years – I am overjoyed to learn that my feet may be the answer (!). Thank goodness I stopped stretching it like a maniac a while back, then I thought the problem was in overtraining my quads and glutes, but that didn’t resolve it either. I’ve been feeling hopeless, thinking it’s a nerve problem. Never thought about my feet! I’m going to start looking at my foot alignment, which I know is off. Bodies are so amazing! I also feel a lot of pain in my right hammy when I sit for long periods of time, is that part of it?
In addition to foot position, tight hamstrings are usually a sign that there is a loss of transverse-plane strength on the side opposite of the pain. If you’re right hamstring is overactive, I’m going to guess that your left glute is undersactive, or maybe your left external oblique. Probably both. I’ll be releasing some diagnostic techniques as a few short videos soon. I’ll send you link as soon as their available.
I would be really really grateful if you can work out how to alleviate my issues. I have suffered very tight neck and shoulders on the right side (my dominant side) on and off for years. I started working as a fitness instructor this year but had to give up as my pain got progressively worse and worse. It has also now spread into the delt and down into the lateral side of the elbow. I have been diagnosed as having tennis elbow which I still have and have also had an op to fix tendonitis in my wrist 2 years ago. My issues have meant giving up weights which I loved doing too. Any suggestions? I’ve had an MRI scan to rule out anything that may be structurally misaligned in my spine.
I have a lot to say about this one, but I’ll start with this and reply to you by email later.
While the MRI ruled out any structural deviation, like scoliosis, I would make the bet that there is a muscular force pulling your thoracic spine into a rotation to the right. Put another way, while in motion, there is a standard rotation in the trunk which channels energy coming form the low body into power for the arms and shoulders. I think there’s a good chance that your rotation to the right is overpowered, while the left is underpowered.
This rotational deviation drives the humerus of the dominant arm into internal rotation, which, in turn drives the radius and ulna into external rotation, which, finally, isolates the wrist in palmarflexion.
Again, we can discuss more by email so I can get a little more information.
Yes! you are correct, I am an everter and have had issues with plantar fasciitis in the past! What techniques would you recommend??
I am certain that your forearm is over-rotated externally. This rotation is dragging your shoulder into internal rotation and aggravating, among other things the scalenes, which, in turn, trap and aggravate the the brachial plexus.
I will release a short video shortly detailing a few methods for alleviating this issue. Don’t worry, this is a totally manageable problem.
My traps are always tight. My trainer says to use a ball to roll over them as I lean against a wall to release them. Does doing this help?
It can, Milka, but it’s easy to become over dependent on those kind of techniques. It’s a bandaid fix, not a cure.
Can you tell me which is your dominant hand and your dominant leg? What activities do you do?
My right side is dominant. I am doing lots of weight training, and a bit of yoga.
Currently doing GBC training, which I love, as hard as it is..
But traps being tight leads to a sore neck and sometimes headaches.
I have heard the ball is only temporary relief, appreciate any advice you have.
Kevin! sorry for calling you Steve!! Was chatting to my mate Steve about your page.
Thanks in advance.
I have the same question as Sowmya, though in my case it’s walking quickly for more than 20 minutes or so.
My left calf is a bit bigger then my right calf and it’s always tight after a 20-30 minute run or an hour biking. The tightness is most noticeable towards the “top” part of the calf. There is even a bit of a vein that’s prominent on the calf where the tightness seems to be concentrated. I’ve had this tightness for over a year now. Here are a few things that might help you in your response: I’m right handed. I used to have a tight IT band on my right knee that I fixed (I assume through correlation) with lateral squats (I also did rest and foam rolling). I also now have plantar fasciitis in my right foot. The tightness in my left calf was felt before the plantar fasciitis.
Thanks for any information you are able to give.
Love your message of health and balance. Thanks for the inspiration to listen to our bodies.
How about lower back? I have a long bus ride every day, and after 3 weeks of it my lower back is terribly tight. I am a runner and pretty healthy, and I try to be mindful of my posture and not crossing my legs.
Great blog! Especially the post about fitspiration. Right on.
The issue is most likely glute strength, Joy. During hip flexion, which is where you rest when seated, the glute is designed to be in an eccentric holding pattern, centering the femoral head and preparing for the moment when you’re ready to stand up. A long seated period (like a 3-hour bus ride) can interrupt that eccentric action and cause the glutes to check out. When you stand up, the responses that center the femoral head are delayed, which, in turn underpowers hip extension, which, ultimately, overpowers lumbar extension.
Which is your dominant leg?
Right leg. I live in South Korea where a visit to the physical therapist and an hour of treatment costs $4 (amazing!) but I’d rather figure out how to fix the problem rather than just alleviate the symptoms.
BTW, your fitspo post was right on. I read that the average weight of female runners at the London marathon was 148lbs, you can read it here:
I wish every woman (and man) knew this!
I’ve just recorded a little video with a manual release technique I use for exactly the kind of thing you’re going through. It involves leverage ing the foot to create release in the TFL, which releases compression on the anterior, dominant quadrant of the lumbar discs, which I suspect is what you’re experiencing. The video is being edited now and I’ll post it on the Reembody youtube page as soon as it’s ready.
Thanks for your patience!
My calves!! After a minute of jumping jacks or similar exercise, my lower calves become ridiculously tight and painful! What can I do about it?
Agree on the calves!!
Yes! Agree on the calves!
The calves are made up of two major muscle groups, the soleus and the gastrocnemius. What is not commonly known about these muscles is that, in addition to acting as plantar flexors of the ankle, their geometry relative to the heel and the torsion of the achilles tendon means they also play a role in eversion and inversion.
So, much like in the example from the article, the first thing we need to discern is whether you tend towards eversion or inversion. Based on the location of the discomfort, my guess, Sowmya, is that you are an everter with flattened arches, though there may be several other factors at work, here.
Either way, if we can nail down your eversion/inversion pattern I can give you some simple motions that will help modify the way you spring off your midfoot, which will hopefully relieve some of the tension.
Yes! you are correct, I am an everter and have had issues with plantar fasciitis in the past! What techniques would you recommend??
Hips! I don’t know what the muscles are called, but my hips, the right in particular, are always tight.
This is not an uncommon complaint, Kelly, and there are a few patterns I see repeated in clients with the same issue:
First, I’m going to assume your right leg is your dominant leg, that is, the one that feels stronger and more coordinated to you. When caught with your weight shifted onto one foot, it’s probably your right foot and, if I were to take another stab in the dark, I’d guess that you either experience occasional pain in your left knee or, at least, don’t have much confidence in it.
Tightness in the dominant-side hip is often associated with a tendency for that hip to be internally rotated, adducted and slightly flexed.
As an experiment, try standing with your fee parallel and shoulder-width apart. Soften both knees slightly and then soften the right one a little more than the left, creating the sensation that your right hip is lower than the left. This may also create the feeling that your right hip is rotated forward; counter that by consciously rotating the right hip backward. During that rotation, you should be able to feel a releasing sensation in the areas of your hip that you perceive as tight, as well as an increase in the amount of effort being exerted by your left leg.
Play with that and let me know how it feels. And thanks for commenting!
It’s startling how accurate you were with this! Wow! So how do I maintain that lovely sense of relief?
Wow. I just tried the exercise, and felt a tremendous sense of relief.
I’m reading your archive because I liked your video about joint problems not being caused by needing to lose weight.
So glad it works for you, Nancy. Keep up the good work!