That is truly a great question! Common conception is if it feels tight: stretch. But we must first ask ourselves, why does an area of our body feel tight? It could be tightness after a hard workout, general lack of flexibility, or there could be and underlying injury. If stretching is appropriate, then what kind of stretches are best? How hard should you push it? In the rehabilitation world, we sometimes see stretching do more harm than good. Keep reading to make sure you are stretching for the right reasons and doing it the correct way!
When to stretch
Preparing your muscles for sport or exercise is a great time to do some light stretching. Dynamic stretching is ideal in this situation. Dynamic stretching involves going through a range of motion but you do not go to your absolute end range and you do not hold. This type of stretching gets the blood flowing through the muscles and prepares the tendons to decrease chance of injury. Static stretching, where you go to your limit and hold it for 30 seconds, for example, can actually decrease muscle efficiency during the upcoming activity. Cold muscles do not like aggressive stretching!
Increase flexibility and mobility (in the absence of injury)
Having better flexibility can reduce likelihood of injury and reduce stress to areas of the body that may compensate for a lack of flexibility. This is often seen in the low back. Poor hip mobility or extremely tight hamstrings can lead to excess flexion demands on the lumbar spine and can increase chance of injury to the spine.
When not to stretch
When a nerve is compressed or irritated at the spine, it will often create pain in the area of the body where that nerve controls sensation. For example, a compressed nerve in the low back may cause pain and a sensation of tightness along the back of the thigh. This may feel like a “tight hamstring,” and you feel the urge to stretch. Although the muscle itself can actually become tight, the source of the tightness is the nerve. Until you correct the source of the pain, the muscle will continue to feel tight no matter how much you stretch. In this case, you could also end up putting a stretch on the nerve itself which is very aggravating and can worsen the condition.
“Pulled muscles” are a common injury in sports. Initially there is a pain, usually followed by tightness. However, this is not a tightness to stretch through early on. A muscle strain consists of micro-tearing of muscles fibers. These need time to heal. Imagine if you glued 2 ends of a rope together. You wouldn’t put tension through the rope until the glue was completely dry. Consider torn muscles fibers in the same manner.
In regard to stretching healthy muscles, an appropriate stretch should be felt in the muscle belly, not where the muscles inserts onto a bone (in the tendon). The hamstring is another easy example here. If you are trying to stretch a hamstring but you feel it your butt, this is not good! Stretching should never be painful. Pain is your nervous system telling you that you are putting yourself in a position where you risk injury. Muscle tightness can be your body’s way of preventing you from going to a place where a joint in unstable. While flexibility and mobility is important, stability is just as important. If you find yourself constantly stretching something but it always feels tight and never gets better, it is best to consult with a physical therapist or rehab professional to determine the source of this and formulate the best treatment plan to fix it once and for all!