I read Charlie Weingroff’s blog post 2 days ago that was called Putting Manual Therapy Into Perspective (make sure you read it, as it is one of the most enlightening thing I’ve read recently). For those who might not know Charlie, he is one of the smartest minds in this business and he has a unique perspective on things (I guess that’s what happens when you put physical therapy, strength and conditioning, powerlifting and manual therapy in the same person!). That being said, Charlie was discussing different manual therapy options in his blog post and when each one might be appropriate. The part of his blog post that really caught my attention though is the first part where he explains why we lose mobility in the first place.
Muscles are rarely, if ever, short. When a muscle feels stiff, it’s not necessarily short and it definitely doesn’t automatically means that you should stretch it. Stiffness can be created for many different reasons, and sometimes the cause of the problem may be somewhere else. For those who’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you know that I’m a big advocate of stretching, so that might sound confusing coming from me, but bare with me you’ll understand why I’m saying this (because it is not ALWAYS appropriate to stretch).
One other thing to understand is that a muscle that feels tight might be short, or it might actually be long. This might be a complex thing to understand, but here is a simple example: think about someone in an anterior pelvic tilt.
When your pelvis is tilted forward, your hamstrings are going to be put on a stretch. Because of that, your hamstrings might feel stiff and if you use a straight leg raise to assess their length, they will most likely test short. But if you think about it, in this specific example, your pelvic position is what causes your hamstring to test short. If the pelvis is reposition correctly with appropriate strategies (read: not stretching your hamstrings), your hamstrings will get some slack and they most likely won’t feel stiff anymore (or less stiff).
This is just one example of why muscles that feel stiff might not need to be stretched. Another reason might be when muscles get stiff as a protective mechanism or a compensation pattern. Never forget the brain-muscle connection and its importance, especially when it comes down to “stiff” muscles. Your brain might send the signal to the muscle to stiffen up because there is something going wrong around the area. This might happen to prevent a muscle to overstretch or that might even prevent you from pulling a hammy or a quad while you sprint or play hockey or whatever else you’re doing. And when you’re performing a task at high or near-max intensity, your body will always compensate in the easiest way possible. And unfortunately this is not something we have control over; your brain is the boss and he’s the one sending the signal to the muscles if they should activate, stiffen, shut down, etc. So you can stretch all you want, but the muscle in question will never loosen up.
This is why assessing and addressing imbalances is key. It’s really important to address the underlying issues to whatever problem one might have. If you don’t, you might be studying for the wrong test. You can stretch a muscle all you want and it’ll always feel tight.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg when talking about short/stiff muscles and the implications of stretching and how the brain has so much control over what’s happening. And there are so many other things to consider. Hopefully that opened your eyes a little bit on how stretching stiff muscles might not always be the solution to everything.
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