By Myprotein Writer Hugh Thompson
Whilst more and more gym-goers are incorporating dynamic stretching and foam rolling into their pre-workout routines, it’s still not uncommon to see people ‘stretching out’ almost every muscle you can think of after an intense training session because they’re feeling ‘tight’.
However, more often that not what people don’t realize is that all that static stretching they’re performing may be doing nothing to alleviate their chronic ‘tightness’, and in fact may even be compounding the problem!
If the situation above sounds familiar to you, then read on to find out a few reasons as to gym goers may be feeling ‘tight’, when static stretching can be beneficial and when static stretching can do more harm than good!
True Muscular Shortness
Muscles contract during the concentric phase of an exercise and relax during the eccentric phase.
Muscular shortness refers to when muscles remain in a shortened (or contracted) state. This shortness often occurs as a protective mechanism (often common in lower back injuries) or through repeated bouts of concentric motion (e.g. lifting weights).
In the latter case, static stretching can be highly beneficial as it can help return muscles to their original lengths and help restore their approrpriate length/tension relationships!
EXAMPLE:The pectoral musculature, anterior neck complex, biceps and anterior deltoids are muscles which are frequently short in regular gym-goers, leading to internal rotation of the shoulders and excess curvature of the thoracic spine, contributing to a Quasimoto-like appearance (minus the excessive hunchback and dodgy haircut).
Got tight hip flexors?
Most sit in their cars or when riding a bike to work, sit at work, sit on the journey back home, sit for dinner then sit when relaxing. All this sitting leads to a shortening of the anterior hip complex (psoas, illiopsoas etc), as essentially the hip joint is in flexion at c.a. 90 for most of the day.
Unfortunately, tight hip flexors affect things like squat and deadlift mechanics, and can lead to problems at the shoulder and ankle. However, they can be alleviated with regular hip flexor stretches and hip mobility work.
How about tight calf muscles?
The second most common example in the developed world would be a chronically tight and shortened Achilles tendon, soleus and gastrocnemius (calf muscles). This is particularly prevalent in people who spend a lot of time in high heels, but is generally present in most people who wear shoes with least some sort of heel rise (think nice office shoes with those wedge heels).
Again, shortening of the Achilles and calf muscles particularly affects squat depth, and can contribute to painful conditions such as plantar fasciitis if left unresolved. Nontheless, tight ankles can be resolved with regular stretching of the calf muscles, in addition to soft tissue work on the Achilles Tendon and Plantar Fascia.
Protective tension is a strategy employed by the human body to guard individuals from injury. A common example seen in individuals are tight hamstrings in conjunction with an anterior pelvic tilt. Here, the hamstring musculature are in a constant contracted state to prevent the lower back from going into excessive extension.
This state of constant tension leads to the hamstrings feeling ‘tight’ and ‘short’ from the individual’s perspective. However, static stretching the hamstrings in this case would be doing more harm than good, as it would be counteracting the human body’s innate protective mechanism.
A more beneficial strategy would be to correct the apparent anterior pelvic tilt through lengthening of the anterior hip musculature and possible strengthening of the anterior core (e.g. prone planks)
Joint hypermobility (JH) is often present in individuals who are born with ligamentous laxity (their ligaments are more pliable than average). Individuals with JH need a higher-than-average amount of stability work in their training regimes (think prone and side bridges, single-legged bridges etc).
Moreover, in these individuals, their muscles often contract and shorten as a protective mechanism to compensate for a lack of joint stability. This can also lead to a feeling of ‘tightness’.
In this case, what these folks need is a heavy dose of joint stability work and to AVOID static stretching as doing so will actually lead to greater joint instability, which can lead to injury.
Stretching beyond end-range
The muscles interconnecting joints (e.g. shin and calf musculature between the knee and ankle joints) have a natural range of motion associated with them, which varies between individuals for a range of different reasons.
As such, very flexible (but not necessarily hypermobile) individuals (e.g. dancers) who often employ static stretching as part of their training can actually end up ‘teaching’ their muscles to be stretched beyond their natural range of motion.
Here again, static stretching can do more harm than good because, analogous to the case outlined above with JH, it can lead to joint instability, paving the way for injury.
Post-Injury Stretching – Pulled your hamstring?
Injury to a muscle (e.g. ‘pulling’ a hamstring), leads to physical tearing of muscle fibres. As part of a natural repair mechanism, the body lays down scar tissue (collagen fibres), which is then remodelled over time.
However, collagen fibres are less elastic than human muscle fibres, and depending on the size of the muscle tear, can lead to shortening of a section of the muscle in question.
In this instance, a static stretching regime can be employed by individuals in a post-injury setting (provided it has been approved by their medical practitioner and physiotherapist, of course) to help remodel the collagen fibres and restore the muscle in question to it’s original length!
Take Home Message
So there you have it, a few examples of when, and when not, to incorporate static stretching into your training and lifestyle.