When most people think of getting in shape, corrective stretching is probably not the first thing that comes to their mind. This is for good reason as nutrition, working out and rest are the 3 most important things you need when you are trying to attain fitness results, but stretching will have an effect on 2 of the 3 factors. This effect could be pretty significant depending on how serious the muscle imbalance is.
When I first meet a client one of the first things I do is a movement assessment. This allows me to see how their body is moving and if any corrections need to be made. Many people lead sedentary lives and this can lead to tight muscles. These tight muscles restrict movement and can lead to other muscles compensating for them. Correcting these imbalances is key for injury prevention. It doesn’t matter what your goal is because if you get hurt, you will not be able to work out at your normal level and it can be very difficult to work around some injuries.
Where do these imbalances come from?
The biggest cause of muscle imbalances is injuries. Some serious and some minor. When an injury occurs, the body will do certain things to protect itself. One of them is swelling and tightening the injured area to prevent further damage. While this might be a useful thing at the time of the injury, once the body heals the tightness remains and that can lead to further injuries because of the movement compensations that can result.
The other major cause of muscle imbalances is poor posture. This does not just include things like slouching; it also includes putting your body in a restricted position for an extended period of time. While this does not sound like something would ever want to do to themselves, a position like sitting restrict muscles in the hips calves and lower back. Another common thing people do while working at a desk is hunching over a computer which restricts muscles in the neck, traps and upper back.
Well, first off, if a muscle is constantly tight it will be weak. This directly impacts workout performance by decreasing strength. The other thing that happens is the opposing muscle to the tight muscle will also be weak. For example if the bicep is tight, it will flex more often than it should and the bicep (opposing muscle) will get weak because it will be looser than it normally should be. So basically if your bicep is tight it will also affect the other muscles around it and your whole arm will be weaker than it should be.
In addition to directly impacting performance, tight muscles create compensations from other muscles that can lead to injury. This will also negatively affect performance. One of the most common deviations that I see are tight calves. While this doesn’t seem like a big problem it can cause tightness in the hamstrings and lower back from the compensations that the body will use to overcome the limited mobility in the ankle.
Deviations from tight muscles are also dangerous because they can place added stress on joints while moving and this added stress can cause injuries. A common problem I see with tight hamstrings is the knee joint coming while trying to stabilize. A frequent injury that happens with this is an ACL tear.
So what can be done?
Unfortunately the muscles getting tight happens over time so most people don’t even realize that it’s happening. I have trained many seniors over the years that are unaware they have any tight muscles or improper movement patterns. After I assess a new client, if they have any type of imbalances the first thing I will work on with them is to start correcting them.
Foam Rolling, also called Self-Myofascial Release ( SMR) is something that has been gaining a lot of popularity in recent years. The idea is to release any knots that you may have in the muscle and break up scar tissue that may have developed. Breaking it up can be very painful, but it will allow the muscle to stretch properly.
The action behind SMR is similar to what happens during a massage. During this you will use a foam roller or any other apparatus that can apply pressure to your muscle in the tight area. The roller is good because you can roll the muscle and this can help you to find the spot that is most in need of releasing.
When you find the correct spot, you would hold the tension on it while trying to relax. You will know you found the right spot because it will be the most painful spot on the muscle. You should try to let gravity do the work and relax as much as possible. I tell my clients that they should apply as much pressure as possible. There should be as much pain as you can handle, but not too much or you will not be able to relax the muscle.
Static Stretching is the type of stretching that most people are familiar with. This is where you stretch a muscle and hold it. It is usually done after SMR stretching because sometimes the muscle is so tight it will not be able to lengthen properly if it is not first SMR stretched. The only thing to really watch when static stretching is to make sure no other joints are compensating for the tight muscles. A common example of this is a hamstring stretch. I often see people round their lower back when stretching their hamstrings because their hip joint is so tight. This will start to stretch the lower back and less emphasis is placed on the hamstring, which is the actual muscle that is attempted to be lengthened.
The other major consideration in regards to static stretching is the timing. It is generally not recommended to do static stretching right before working out. Dynamic stretching is usually recommended before a physical activity and static stretching is usually recommended for after. (I’ll get into more detail about dynamic stretching in a bit.) The exception to this would be is there are some major deviations in the body’s movement patterns. If that is the case, I would generally have a client do some SMR followed by static stretching and then do their dynamic stretching. The reason for this is if you work out with improper form caused by tight muscles you will only be furthering any deviations and compensations that the body is already doing. So the reason for stretching becomes about returning the body’s movements as close to neutral as possible.
Dynamic stretching is normally used for a pre-workout warm up. It takes the muscles through movements that mimic the type of action that will be performed during the activity. This type of stretching involves taking the muscles through a full range of motion at a controlled speed. You generally do not “hold” the stretch when dynamic stretching. For sports and other type of explosive activity, dynamic stretching is a must, but most workouts that I put my clients through are not explosive so sometimes I do not do a dynamic warm-up with clients. I will usually hold off if my client has too much tightness in the muscles and a lot of movement compensation will occur during dynamic stretching.
So that’s a brief look at why it is important to stretch and correct tight muscles. There are numerous side effects that they can cause and most of them decrease workout performance and can lead to injury. In the next post I’ll cover how to identify which muscles are tight and some specific solutions to correcting them.