More Than Stretching

By Kyle Arsenault CSCS

 

I hear it all the time, “I love to stretch, I am so tight and it feels so good.” While stretching usually feels good, it may not be the most efficient use of our time. In fact, it may actually be doing more harm than good if you can already scratch your head with your feet.

 

No need to stretch!!

 

But don’t worry, this is not another post bashing static stretching, as I do feel that static stretching has its place in a performance training program (covered below). But for the majority of us who are looking to rid ourselves of “tight” muscles, enhance performance and stay healthy, we may be investing too much of our training time stretching out.

The feeling of tight muscles is usually not the problem but rather the “symptom.” A majority of the time the muscles themselves are not actually tight (short), but rather, they are stiff.

This concept is referred to as relative stiffness and is by no means a new concept, but is an important one that many still do not quite understand…but we are going to fix that.

Relative Stiffness

I was first introduced to this concept through the works of Shirley Sahrman (and actually, we just returned from St. Louis where we saw Shirley and her team in action!). As Sahrman explains, a great way to think about relative stiffness is to envision two springs that are attached to one another at one end, with one spring being much thicker than the other.

 

 

If you were to pull on the springs at both ends (after attaching them) you would notice that the thicker spring doesn’t expand much, while the thinner spring expands quite easily, and to a much greater length.

These springs represent the muscles, and there stiffness, as they act upon joints. With the thicker spring being stiffer than the thinner spring, it feels tighter (but it is not necessarily short). You can imagine that the thicker spring is your “tight feeling” muscle that feels good when you stretch.

But what are you really accomplishing by simply stretching?

You are stretching out the muscle transiently, but if you do not address the imbalance of stiffness between the muscles, the stiff muscle will return to feeling tight as it “compresses back as a thick spring”. By simply stretching out a “tight” muscle you are addressing the symptom, but not the problem.

 

 

What To Do

Instead of focusing your time on stretching the stiff muscle, which only results in short term relief, you are better off decreasing the stiffness of that muscle, as well as increasing the stiffness of the less stiff muscle (make the thicker spring thinner and the thinner spring thicker).

Techniques such as foam rolling, Graston , ART, etc. are all ways you can help decrease the stiffness of muscles.

Once the stiff muscles are addressed, you can then work to increase the stiffness of the other muscles through proper activation and strengthening exercises (your goal is to eventually hypertrophy the less stiff muscles to create more stiffness).

For a clear example of how this happens, check out this video on fixing your tight hamstrings.

 

 

In the video you observed that by stiffening (turning on / activating) the core (the thinner spring) the athlete was able to decrease the stiffness of the hamstrings (thicker spring) and achieve a greater lengthening, all without stretching. This will lead to a greater feeling of decreased tightness of the hamstrings, and works the same for other examples.

You Can Still Stretch

As I stated above, I am not against static stretching. Static stretching can be performed when muscles are truly short, as a way to promote recovery after a training session (after foam rolling), and as a way to induce a calming state when trying to get to sleep.

But when it comes to addressing the tight feeling that many of us experience (common areas include the quads/hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, low back, etc.) we are more likely to achieve a lasting effect by stiffening/strengthening the synergistic/adjacent muscle groups (core, glutes, etc.).

Address the weaker muscle(s) and the stiffer muscles can “relax” and the tight sensations will subside.

 

 

While stretching may feel great, most of the time it is merely providing short term relief (unless you are in the practice of holding static stretches for up to 30 minutes to truly achieve muscle lengthening…not me!).

Stretching should be implemented for muscles that are actually short (you can have an expert help you to determine this), and is a great way to promote a state of relaxation and recovery after training/competition as well as before bed.

But when you are looking to maximize training time, enhance overall performance and achieve long term relief from “tight” muscles, we need to decrease the stiffness of the “tight” muscles and identify the weaker/less stiff muscles and strengthen them.

So instead of spending 20 minutes of your training session “stretching out,” try foam rolling the stiff (tight feeling) muscles before strengthening the weak muscles.

With addressing the stiffness imbalance, it is likely that you will that your performance will be enhanced, injury risk will be decreased and your chronically tight muscles will finally chill out a bit!

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