Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 103 “100TH EPISODE BEST OF: Why I don’t stretch”. In today’s post, I’ll talk about why tightness happens from a neuromuscular standpoint. We’ll talk about why I don’t stretch for tightness and go into what I think is more beneficial for mobility. Lastly, I’ll discuss if and how to incorporate stretching into your routine.
I’ll talk about stretching in a way that may surprise you. I want to say that this is just the school of thought I’ve adopted, but I’ve been on both sides of this. In fact, I used to be a yoga instructor and teach yin yoga. When I was exposed to this information, I really had an identity crisis because I spent my whole life as a cheerleader then yoga teacher where I glorified lots of over-flexibility and lots and lots of stretching.
I will say that I don’t stretch anymore. Not to say that I couldn’t change my opinion again in the future if some emerging evidence changes my mind, but this is what makes the most sense to me now. And the irony is that I felt tighter when I was doing all that stretching than I do now. I also am not using stretching as a Band-aid to make up for a crappy exercise routine, but that’s something that I’ll get into in this post.
Let’s get into it.
People are shocked when I tell them we don’t do a lot of stretching for tightness. This is because I actually don’t believe it’s the best tool to solve tightness.
If we reframe tightness to be a symptom, simply a signal from your nervous system that something is up, stretching to resolve or prevent tightness is simply treating the symptom instead of the underlying cause.
We can’t know if the tightness is actually for a very good reason, like maybe your body protecting you because it senses instability.
I’m going to talk about stretching from my perspective, but please know that you need to listen to a PT or professional if they are recommending stretching for you. They have evaluated you individually and there may be some reasons where a stretch is useful for your body, especially if you are getting treated for an injury. In this post, I’m talking to the general public about if and how to incorporate stretching.
In order to understand why I don’t think stretching is as beneficial as we’ve been led to believe, we have to discuss tightness, why it happens, and how tissues actually adapt to stretching.
Tightness is simply a safety mechanism from your nervous system when it feels unstable or unsafe. The role of tightness is to protect you from moving into a range of motion that your body can’t fully control.
Your tissues don’t have a mind of their own. They are controlled by your nervous system.
Your nervous system is constantly taking in inputs from your environment to decide how “tight” or mobile you can/should be. If your nervous system senses a threat, you will tighten up. If your nervous system feels safe, you will be more mobile and free.
Think of walking on ice. You don’t just casually strut across ice; your body is tight and rigid and constricted to keep you safe and stable to avoid falling.
This same mechanism happens on a macro and micro scale across your whole body, often without your awareness.
Your nervous system is constantly gathering information via five types of receptors that live in the tissues of your body. These receptors act like the security system taking in information, without your conscious awareness, of their respective area and relaying that information to your brain. Your brain then responds with tightness or pain. Or maybe there’s no threat and lots of clean information so you feel mobile and free and can generate lots of great muscular activation.
The five types of receptors are:
Mechanoreceptors are the receptors we are particularly interested in when it comes to tightness and exercise. They sense physical touch, vibration, pressure, and stretch.
You will often see us cue to touch a muscle in class. This stimulates these mechanoreceptors to give your nervous system input over that tissue which can ultimately improve muscular contraction. This is also a tool we use in our stability classes to improve muscular contraction, stability, and, therefore, mobility.
We are particularly interested in a class of mechanoreceptors called proprioceptors that detect joint position, muscle strain, and load.
It’s important to understand that these receptors exist to give your nervous system information about your level of safety. Your nervous system interprets that information and decides to perhaps give you a sensation of tightness in an attempt to keep you safe.
Tightness is actually a subjective sensation similar to pain. It’s something that you cannot objectively measure since it’s a sensation. You can measure range of motion, but even hypermobile people who have a ton of range of motion can still “feel tight”.
I like to use the analogy that tightness is like your check engine light.
The light itself isn’t the problem. It’s the engine that needs attention. We don’t blame the light and say “oh we need to fix your dashboard so that light turns off”.
We look at the engine. And when we fix what is causing the light to turn on, the light goes off.
The tightness itself often isn’t the problem, it’s what tissues are causing the tightness.
Tightness sends you a “red flag” that you should avoid going into a deep motion because it could be dangerous. Perhaps if you move deeper past the tightness, you could damage some tissue in your body.
Tightness should not be ignored. Like pain, it’s a way to capture our attention and get curious about what’s going wrong in the engine.
However, I’m not a believer in bypassing your nervous system’s natural protective mechanism by shoving you into a stretch that it’s really resisting just to “improve tightness”. Because if tightness is a symptom, a check engine light, just trying to fix the light won’t solve the problem. We have to look at why the light is coming on in the first place.
I hypothesize that the primary reason for tightness in fitness enthusiasts is overuse.
I see so many people doing squats and burpees and cycling. Doing the same movement patterns day in and day out.
Your body doesn’t have the chance to keep up with healing the tissues you’re damaging in your workout, so your nervous system is trying to give you this warning sign of tightness to get you to back off. Or at least get you to restrict your range of motion because there may be underlying inflammation and vulnerability.
Unless you adopt a routine that isn’t overstressing your body, all the stretching or foam rolling or cold plunging is not going to be a permanent solution for you. You have to stop overusing your body. You’ll also see better results when you stop overusing your body because muscles grow when they have proper recovery.
So if you’re feeling chronically tight, tweak your routine. Other reasons for inflammation and tightness can be prolonged positioning, stress, dehydration, or a physical injury.
So if tightness is a protective mechanism from your nervous system and the symptom, should we be stretching to solve tightness?
Stretching to resolve or prevent tightness is usually treating the symptom instead of the underlying cause.
We don’t know why your body is tight. Is it fighting to heal underlying inflammation? Is there a damaged tissue that you aren’t even consciously aware of, and your body is restricting range of motion to heal that tissue or keep you from further damaging it? Are you unfamiliar and unstable in a certain position?
While stretching may provide temporary relief, I have seen so many more long-term benefits from first removing what is causing the tightness, like overuse. From there, you can attempt to improve stability and neuromuscular awareness via mobility, stability drills, and strength training.
The research does indicate that stretching improves flexibility temporarily.
There are two different rationales for this: sensory and mechanical.
The mechanical theory is that your muscles are actually physically changing shape and getting longer to adapt to a stretch. The sensory theory states that tissues aren’t necessarily getting longer, but that your tolerance for a position improves. So the tissues can relax into deeper ranges of motion.
Most of the research agrees that this temporary increase in flexibility is due to the sensory theory or an improved tolerance to that specific position, not that your muscles actually change or get longer.
Most studies show that muscles contract and relax, they don’t actually stretch and get longer past their fully relaxed state. And stretching just allows your muscles to relax more into a certain position.
This sounds like a great thing. However, there are three problems with this.
First: Like I mentioned earlier, we don’t know why your body is restricted in a certain position. Unless we understand the reason for the tightness, we are just treating the symptom, and the tightness will return unless the underlying cause is addressed.
Second: Do we want to improve our range of motion without control in that new range? Earlier I used the example of hypermobile people. They have tons of range of motion, but they can’t control that range of motion, and often get injured because of this.
Even though it may seem like a good thing that they have all this range, it’s actually to their detriment. If we open up our body’s range (and often it will feel good and “looser”) but our body doesn’t have the ability to control that range of motion, are we “safe” in that new range of motion? Sometimes yes, but often, no.
Third: Some studies show that stretching can temporarily reduce muscular output. This means that your muscles may be temporarily “weaker” after stretching. Not all studies agree on this, so it’s impossible to know if this is true or not.
However, I think we should err on the side of caution. This is why I don’t recommend stretching prior to exercise. The last thing we want to do is temporarily weaken our muscles and reduce their capacity to contract prior to loading them in a workout.
I’m a big believer in improving stability. When your body feels more stable and safe, you will have all the functional mobility that your structure (the shape of your bones and tissues) allows for.
Improving stability comes in the form of being able to cleanly contract and relax all the muscles around a particular joint.
If you have healthy neuromuscular connection (wiring from your brain to your muscle), you should be able to touch any muscle in your body, contract that muscle immediately, and relax it fully.
Many of us do not have this level of neuromuscular control. This can result from overuse, or from being in one joint position for too long, or from not exercising and using muscles, or from inflammation from poor diet or dehydration.
But we can improve that neuromuscular control by improving awareness of the tissue with contract/relax techniques and by stimulating mechanoreceptors via touch.
In the Evlo membership, we have a Joint Stability Program where I walk you through an assessment of your entire body. We go through a range of motion assessments everywhere to get some objective data about your entire body, find the areas that could use some more awareness and stability, and point you to short, stability classes for those particular areas.
This process, when combined with a routine that isn’t overusing or overstressing your body, is truly so much longer lasting and potentially safer than shoving you into intense stretches all the time.
I want to be clear: this is not physical therapy. This program does not treat injury or replace PT. Think of it more as a way to improve stability and, therefore, improve mobility.
Stability work, or neuromuscular reeducation, still requires lots of repetition because motor learning, or learning a new pattern of movement, takes lots of practice. Just like it takes practice to learn how to swing a golf club. So although it generally “sticks” more than stretching may, it isn’t a magic pill and still requires repetition.
Although I’m a fan of stability over stretching for the general fitness enthusiast, you could do all the stability work in the world, but you will still feel tight if you aren’t addressing why your tissues are getting tight.
You could do all the stretching, foam rolling, core work, stability work in the world, but unless you stop overusing your body and beating it up in your fitness routine, it’s always going to feel awful and tight. Any stretching or foam rolling (or stability work!) is just going to be a Band-aid.
I love the analogy of a splitter. You get a splinter in your foot and instead of just taking it out, you put a Band-aid on it, rub it, take some ibuprofen, and maybe feel a bit better. But it’s never going to heal and fully improve unless you remove the splinter. The same goes for a workout program that’s overusing your body.
You also need to look at overall stress, hydration, and recovery. You could have a great workout routine, but if those things are off you could still feel tight since your body is in a state of survival and protecting you.
If you’re coming from another program that is overusing your body into Evlo and you’re feeling super tight, I sometimes recommend taking a few days off to just walk, take some stability videos, and give your body a second to catch up on the inflammation. That way you’re starting from a clean slate and you will get much better outcomes than just trying to jump right into more exercise when your body is inflamed and needing recovery.
Additionally, it’s really important to know when it’s time for a reset week. I like to take 4-7 days off exercise every quarter or 8-12 weeks. If you’re starting to feel tightness all over, feeling weaker, or like you aren’t progressing, reset weeks can help your body heal from your workouts. You will likely feel stronger, looser, and see better results when you come back to your routine.
In our workouts, you’ll notice we don’t do a lot of passive stretching after our workouts.
Stretching post-workout is one of those things that is more tradition than based in solid science in my opinion. The conventional wisdom is that you should stretch to avoid tightness and help your body recover faster.
But stretching can actually cause more muscle damage, which may delay recovery and, as we talked about, is not likely going to prevent tightness.
What we do post-workout is attempt to calm the nervous system. Because when your nervous system feels safe and stable, range of motion and tightness improves.
You also may recover better when your nervous system transitions from fight or flight into rest, digest, and heal.
This is why we do breathwork, easy mobility, and a final relaxation. All of those things will likely have a bigger impact on your mobility and perceived tightness than stretching because of its effects on your nervous system, the decider of your tightness.
I think gentle stretching post-workout is totally fine if it relaxes you and you enjoy it. But I don’t think it’s super necessary and I think stability/mobility/or even meditation to calm the nervous system would be a better use of your time if improving range of motion and feeling more free in your joints is your goal.
I never want you to be afraid of any movement. But if you’ve been stretching consistently and not feeling any better, you may try adjusting your routine and working on stability instead to see how that affects your body.
Listen to Dr. Shannon Ritchey, PT, DPT as she integrates the most current literature with her experience as a fitness trainer to give you tangible takeaways to improve your fitness.
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