Why stretching won’t solve your tightness
I’m an anomaly of a yoga instructor and even physical therapist for one primary reason: I don’t passively stretch, nor do I recommend my clients passively stretch. I don’t stretch for several reasons, but mainly because I don’t think it resolves tightness.
This topic is extremely controversial, and I recently wrote a literature review on stretching, but I wanted to explain my philosophy and why I don’t prioritize stretching.
I want to preface by saying there could be some instances in physical therapy or rehab where stretching is necessary. In this article, I will speak to the exercise enthusiast who is stretching to solve for tightness after their workouts, or intermittently throughout their day.
If you like what you’re about to read, I have two resources to help you.
The first is a neck/shoulder stability routine. This is to help you improve tightness or dysfunction in your neck/shoulders without ANY stretching.
I’ll talk about overuse a lot in this article. I have an overuse assessment you can take to see what muscles you’re overusing in your exercise routine.
Let’s get to it. First, I’ll address a few definitions.
#1: Mobility vs. flexibility
Mobility = how far you can move
Flexibility = how far you can bend
Mobility is the ability of your body to move actively. An example is the ability to lift your leg to your chest without using your hands (image). Mobility is generally more functional, as we use our joints actively throughout life.
Mobility is active, which means it doesn’t rely on an external force, but instead on your muscles’ internal contractions.
Flexibility is the available range that your joint can move passively. For example, how far you can pull your knee towards your chest (image). Flexibility is less functional but is necessary for some sports and activities like gymnastics.
Flexibility is passive, in that it relies on an external force like gravity or pulling using your hands or a strap.
Increased mobility is generally thought of as beneficial, as it allows you to move through your life with more ease. Flexibility is not always beneficial to daily life, and in fact, can be dangerous. Too much flexibility without control could result in damaging tissues like ligaments, cartilage, and even bone.
#2: Static vs. dynamic stretching
In a static stretch, you remain in a position for a certain duration of time (anywhere between 10 seconds to 10 minutes). Dynamic stretching is a continuous movement without stopping. I call this type of movement, “mobility drills.”
Next, I’ll highlight a few key points from a literature review I recently wrote.
#1: Muscles don’t stretch.
The leading philosophy behind the reason stretching increases flexibility is due to increased tolerance to that specific position. But muscles contract and relax; they don’t stretch past their relaxed state. Stretching could increase your ability to relax a tissue fully, but it’s probably not making the muscle longer.
#2: Stretching could temporarily decrease strength/power.
Many of the studies I read claimed this, but not all. I have anecdotally found that stretching for brief periods decreases strength in my clients. I have tested this in the quadratus lumborum (QL) by first manual muscle testing the QL to confirm it’s firing capabilities and to confirm it is strong. Next, I’ll have the client stretch into a side bend for about 10 seconds, and then I re-test the QL. I’ve never had the muscle come back strong after even a brief stretch.
#3: Stretching leads to flexibility increases, but those increases might be temporary.
Your increases in flexibility may diminish shortly after you stretch, meaning it might not produce meaningful outcomes in your daily life.
Next, let’s discuss why most people stretch: to decrease tightness. What is tightness, exactly?
Tightness is a sensation or perception of discomfort in a tissue. Tightness is subjective and cannot be measured. Just like pain cannot be measured and is a personal experience. Range of motion can be measured, but tightness cannot.
To illustrate the importance of this, I’ll use this example. Hypermobile people can feel tight. They have the flexibility to move their joint far beyond what is normal, and yet they can still experience the sensation of tightness in that area.
So how can that be?
It’s because, like any other sensation, tightness is an experience, or an interpretation, from our nervous system. Like any other sense we have, our brain interprets it and categorizes it as good or bad. Just like two people can smell gasoline, one person is disgusted, and the other person loves it (I’m the weird one that loves it).
So tightness is a subjective sensation, but why doesn’t stretching solve for tightness?
Sensations are interpretations, not always reality. They can be cues from your nervous system, but the cue doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is where you are experiencing the discomfort.
Let’s take another example. You ride a roller coaster and get nauseous and vomit. You wouldn’t take medicine to help your stomach, because your stomach isn’t the issue, it’s the symptom. The issue is your vestibular system got rustled around, and it’s responding with an output of nausea to give you a cue to return safely to land and stabilize your head and neck.
In the same sense, tightness is an output, or a symptom, from your nervous system when it senses instability, weakness, or some other form of danger. It’s not the danger in itself, but rather a cue or warning sign from your body that instability exists somewhere near the area.
What’s amazing is that your body will often respond with tightness before you experience pain, and before you have any idea something is wrong.
For example, you have highly sensitive receptors in your joints that will send your nervous system signals without your conscious awareness. Let’s say your nervous system picks up a small cartilage tear in your knee due to overuse. Your nervous system tightens your hamstrings and quads in order to inhibit you from moving through a range of motion that could rub on the bone spur, and further irritate the joint. The tightness in your leg muscles is the symptom, and it is protecting and guarding you to avoid further damaging the cartilage.
So if tightness is a symptom or a sensation, stretching is addressing the symptom, not the underlying cause. This is why stretching can temporarily provide relief, but won’t solve for tightness unless the underlying cause is addressed.
Instead of jumping straight to stretching a tight muscle, I always investigate the area to check for weak tissues that are causing instability. Instability can be a result of stress, trauma, overuse, dehydration, or a combination of those factors. Instability ultimately triggers your nervous system to produce sensations of tightness in order to prevent further damage (i.e. bones rubbing over torn knee cartilage).
At this point, you might be asking yourself some questions about whether or not you should be stretching, and maybe you’re confused about what you should be doing.
Let’s address some FAQs.
1. Can stretching be dangerous?
It can be. If stretches violate joint mechanics and twist or cram the joints, the forces from the stretch can damage the joints’ structures. There are also proprioceptors that live inside the joint that crave joint SPACE and do not like to be crammed. When these proprioceptors are smashed, they send poor signaling to your brain. When your brain doesn’t have good signaling to an area, it can send more tone to the area as a protective mechanism, perpetuating your tightness perception.
Also, stretching does temporarily improve flexibility. BUT, flexibility without control is vulnerability. So you could be exposing your body to ranges of motion that it was trying to protect you from in the first place.
2. So, is there a place for stretching at all?
If you’re post-surgical or working with a therapist, please listen to your therapist. There may be a place for stretching because it allows your nervous system to become more tolerant to certain positions.
But to me, it can get dangerous. Since we don’t have x-ray vision, we can’t see inside your joints. We don’t always know if there are structural issues that are inhibiting your range of motion, or if it’s from a weak tissue, giving you nervous system the cue of instability and perpetuating tightness.
3. What about fascia? Isn’t stretching fascia a good thing?
Fascia is the connective tissue that wraps around muscles, bones, and most structures.
Fascia is passive tissue (to my knowledge). Which means it does not have the ability to contract and relax. What does have the ability to contract and relax are the muscles that lie underneath the fascia, and ultimately move the fascia. Without muscle movement, fascia stays put.
If the fascia is getting “restricted,” it’s because the muscles that lie underneath are not contracting and relaxing to their fullest potential. So if you focus on quality contraction and relaxation of muscles, your fascia will never be a problem.
I’ve heard of creating movement by following fascial trains, which I think is interesting. I think it’s a good way to map out movement and learn to move in the full spectrum we were designed to move, but I think fascial tightness is always the symptom of muscle dysfunction, never the cause on its own.
4. What about foam rolling?
Foam rolling for tight tissues is the same idea. With foam rolling, you are not “breaking” adhesions. Your tissue is extremely tough, and foam rolling or deep tissue massage is not releasing anything in the tissue itself. In fact, foam rolling can often smash vessels, nerves, and proprioceptors, leading to increased inflammation and decreased function, which can perpetuate your tightness.
Foam rolling provides a sensory input, stimulating the receptors inside your tendon’s cells called mechanoreceptors. These receptors send signals up to your brain that can allow your nervous system to feel “safe” and decrease perceptions of tightness temporarily, just like stretching can.
But again, treating a tight tissue is addressing the symptom, rather than searching for the cause of the tightness. Integrating some light foam rolling could be beneficial in some cases, but I don’t advise aggressive foam rolling.
5. How do I integrate stretching (or not) into exercise?
My recommendations for warm-ups are to integrate dynamic movement and explore the contract/relax capabilities of muscles. Remember that they don’t stretch beyond their resting state, but they are often held in a constant state of slight contraction due to guarding or instability. Learning how to move and contract in the full spectrum that your structure allows, is key in keeping healthy joints, and prepping the body for exercise.
My cool-downs mimic my warm-ups, but are much slower and closer to the ground, to calm the nervous system. My workouts are usually slow (hard!), so they rarely spike cortisol (an inflammatory hormone). But if you’re running, biking, doing lots of cardio, or repetitive movement, there’s a good chance you’re spiking your cortisol. So spending time on slow, mobility drills at the end of exercise will be especially important.
If you’re exercising with lots of impact or exercising using poor biomechanics (exercises like lateral raises, curtsy lunges, upright rows, tricep dips, to name a few), it’s also likely that you’re cramming joints. As I said earlier, cramming joints can lead to decreased proprioceptive input and decreased muscle function, tightness, and, eventually, damage. So opening up your joint spaces through mobility drills can help improve the proprioceptive input, improving the wiring and signaling to your joints. This leaves your joints healthier post-exercise. Of course, there’s the risk that the damage was already done, so don’t lean on your cool-down to make up for a poorly-designed exercise routine. (My apologies for the tough love, it needed to be said).
6. So how do we do this dynamic movement?
I like to start with each joint and move throughout that joint’s range of motion. Ankle circles, hip circles, trunk rotation/flexion/extension/side bend, shoulder circles, neck circles, etc. About 4-6 reps in each direction per movement is probably enough.
Spending time on this will pay dividends in the results of your exercise. Your muscles will function better, and you’ll be able to gain more strength.
7. Stretching doesn’t solve for tightness, how do we solve for tightness?
Step 1: Avoid overuse.
Exercising smart (shameless plug for my Levo programs) is the first step to avoiding the overuse of muscles. You also want to exercise in biomechanically advantageous ways to improve efficiency and reduce the risk of cramming joints. I have an overuse assessment you can take to see what muscles you could be overusing and my tips on how to help, here.
Step 2: Integrate mobility drills during your warm-ups and cool-downs.
This is also a great time to take inventory of how your body is moving. Say you’re having a hard time moving your left hip in the back quadrant of a circle. This could be an insight into an area where your nervous system isn’t connected, and a good opportunity to focus on that area before blowing right into strengthening your left glute. I created a glute activation video if you want to check it out here.
Step 3: Hydrate excessively.
This one is super easy, but shouldn’t be brushed past. A big reason for tightness and dysfunction is simply due to dehydration.
Step 4: Decrease stress in your exercise.
Your exercise shouldn’t be stress-inducing; it should be stress-relieving. So if you’re exercising in ways that are spiking your cortisol (intense or prolonged cardio), it could be leading to decreased function of your muscles. This can lead to plateauing results, tightness, and, eventually, injuries. I have a 10-day free trial of my membership, so you can try workouts that aren’t stress-inducing, click here.
If you’d like to try the neck/shoulder stability video, i’ll link it again here.
Here is the overuse assessment, give it a go.
Questions?? Comment below. I’d love to answer your questions and get the discussion going! I know this is controversial, and it took me a long time to adopt this philosophy. But it’s working extremely well in both my own body and for my clients.