Stretching for 15-30s seconds has been the muscle loosening prescription since the beginning of time. Not to be the bearer of bad news, but times do change.
Dear God! I Can't Believe What I Just Heard
The idea of stretching has good intentions and has been a go-to for a reason. I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen results with your own stretching and noticed you could reach further after holding it for a period of time.
What happens the next day when you feel just as tight?
Do you think you really changed anything? Or maybe you need to increase the amount you do to match all of the activity and stress you place on your body? 🤷♂️
Sadly, you’re not actually changing your muscle length. What you really are doing is increasing your stretch tolerance, which allows you to push a little further before feeling too much restriction. If a muscle is feeling tight, most likely it is under some form of tension, acting as a brake to your movement options. The further you push into the “stretch” the more actual tension you place on the muscle, leading to a greater braking force and resistance to change.
“All of these studies consistently showed viscoelastic deformation of human muscle to be transient in nature. With stretch application typical of that practiced in rehabilitation and sports, the biomechanical effect of viscoelastic deformation can be quite minimal and so short-lived that it may have no influence on subsequent stretches”
The study went even further to test hamstring stretches, showing that 45-second held stretches, followed up by 2 more 45-second stretches showed no changes in length. In fact, the muscle recovered in the very short rest time between stretches. This explains why you always feel tight and need to change the behavior of the muscle tension, rather than trying to force your way through it.
(Cynthia Holzman Weppler, S. Peter Magnusson, Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation?, Physical Therapy, Volume 90, Issue 3, 1 March 2010, Pages 438–449, https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20090012)
When we have tense muscles, it may be due to positions they are placed in based on your movement qualities. Over time, you may be accustomed to a certain position, and nay deviation from that position can cause a resistance as your body is not comfortable and may feel threatened in this newer range. By changing movement behavior and accessing positions safely, we can adequately restore less restrictive ranges of motion.
One thing you can do to decrease tension in a muscle it to use a method like reciprocal inhibition. This simply means that if you contract opposing muscle groups of the area you want released, you can shut down that tension. Granted, both muscle groups may contract at the same time, but we want a dominance of the opposite side so it reduces the braking force of the tense side. Below is an example using a couch stretch where we are using the hamstrings by squeezing a block with our heel to loosen the quads. Ideally you will squeeze for 2-3s with 203s rests in between for 10-15 reps.
Another way to create a stress relaxation in the body for muscles like the hamstrings would be to actually hold an isometric at their end range. This will apply tension where they normally would have it, but with the prolonged isometric, we can release the connective tissues so the hamstrings can learn to give way much easier, slowing down the rate at which they apply the brakes in normal mobility drills.
It should be noted, the faster we move or have a quicker rate of force applied to a muscle as it goes into a slightly lengthened position, the faster and harder it will resist and pump the brakes. Also, you should understand that when we speak of “lengthened positions” we are talking about the available ranges within the muscle, not how far we can tolerate a stretch sensation.
If you still are not sure on how to loosen up your body, seek guidance of a professional first to ensure you do not have anything more serious that could be affecting your body. If all clear, seek out someone who can help with your biomechanics and get you on a program to fit your needs.
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Dr. Peter Dionisopoulos is the owner and founder of Dynamic Performance & Rehab. He has worked with many high-level athletes and military personnel, but his true passion is to help active adults maintain their lifestyle by providing information and potential solutions to their aches and pains so they can continue with the activities they love.