Have you ever heard this classic phrase: “The muscles just seem tight, stretch it out and you’ll be fine.”
With best meaning intentions, this is one of those classic ‘go-to’ pieces of advice that people have been handing out for decades. And for good reason, when muscles are working hard they tend to feel tight and sometimes pretty achy and a quick stretch can bring some relief. But if stretching was really all it took to fix an achy back or neck, why are so many people having such chronic issues, wouldn’t the problems be gone with doing that stretch? I’ve written about this previously but one of the issues lies in the context of the advice and what is causing or leading to the achyness and tightness of the muscles in the area.
Well meaning advice might not do you well.
Some of this well meaning advice doesn’t work so great and this is often because the people handing out the advice are usually not trained or well versed in looking deeper into finding a cause. Even your average primary care physician will usually send you a list of stretches and maybe a muscle relaxer or pain reliever to help you push through but if you’re anything like most people who go through this type of system, the issue doesn’t go away. In fact, it often gets worse because when you’re able to push through a signal for your body to stop or slow down and you end up causing more damage.
Muscles are tight because they’re trying to protect you.
So what’s going with the muscles feeling tight? Muscles have numerous roles and functions in the body and one of the main jobs is to stabilize joints to help keep good posture and balance as well as prevent injury to the joints themselves, including the ligaments, tendons, bones, etc. If there is already a pre-existing injury or pain in an area, the surrounding muscles will contract to prevent more injury and pain. And because we still have to move in order to get around, we’ll start to naturally change the way we move, walk, lift, etc… which often perpetuates the symptoms of the tight and achy muscles.
So why not stretch when it’s hurting or feels tight?
We’re certainly not suggesting that you never stretch again, in fact stretching can help bring awareness to the area and can be great to help you develop strength. Actually, the answer lies within the understanding of what’s going inside and why the muscles are contracting in the first place. Now if you just feel like you’re lacking some mobility because you don’t exercise or move much and you have ABSOLUTELY no known previous injury, then getting some general stretching and muscle awareness for ‘movement prep’ is just fine. However, if you’re chronically tight in the neck, shoulder, low back, hips, etc and it’s causing you discomfort, it’s time to look deeper.
Weak muscles are tight muscles, and tight muscles don’t relax well.
Especially when you know you have a previous injury, your muscles will be tight because they’re trying to prevent you from further injury. Given enough time, the muscles of the opposing side will get weaker because they aren’t being used as much (use it or lose it). This is frequently seen with low back tightness that’s usually tight on one side and the opposite side is not only more relaxed but the muscles are smaller and weaker. This often mistakenly appears to be purely a good thing since you can stretch further and experience less pain, however it could also be that those muscles just aren’t working as they should in order to stabilize the joints of the low back. This principle holds true for many different parts of the body as well.
Use stretches to build awareness, strengthen to build resilience.
So if you’ve been struggling with a chronic tight set of muscles and you’ve been stretching them to no avail, learn how to strengthen. The exercises to strengthen don’t always have to be with weights, in fact, you can get tremendous results with bodyweight and no equipment, you just need to put in the effort. If you need help figuring out what exercises to choose, we’re always here to help you find someone that can get you started.