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Why Consistent Stretching Doesn’t Work

This will be a *fairly* limited-in-technical-jargon commentary on why continual stretching doesn’t produce lasting effects.


Most people I see and train usually come in complaining about “tightness”, particularly in the beginning. They then tell me they know what they need, “more core and more stretching”, probably because some magazine or television personality told them this was the super secret key.

Besides ultimately shifting blame to your work ethic or discipline, which I disagree with, (perhaps we should just make the path easier??), this also doesn’t actually produce the results everyone thinks it’s going to.


I’ve seen people with hip flexors tighter than a white-knuckled toddler’s grip on his favorite toy, and people with hamstrings longer than the line of traffic headed into downtown Houston both complain about lower back “tightness”. The common denominator (usually) is weakness, not tightness.


As Inigo Montoya says in the Princess Bride, “Let me explain.” “No, there is too much, let me sum up.”


The body moves towards paths of least resistance, and it also is more intuitive than you can possibly realize, seeking safety at the fundamental level. It wants to use the least amount of energy it can to accomplish something needed, and it also wants to avoid injury as deeply as possible (smart). What we see, almost always, is the body will rest at a position it feels safe in. For instance, nobody wants a shoulder injury, least of all your shoulder, so you’ll see that if you don’t move it, it will lose range of motion day after day, year after year, until something called a “frozen shoulder” is your plight. (You don’t want that.)


This is the body staying in a position it’s safe. The lack of mobility and movement “educates” your shoulder that lack of movement is safety. If your now frozen shoulder were to be forced to extend all the way out to grab a... I don’t know, falling cell phone, it is likely that it would injure itself. Therefore, it won’t.


Here’s the rub though. If you have a frozen shoulder, and you decide that you want to increase the range of motion of your shoulder, because you’re tired of breaking cell phones rather than catching them, and you force the arm to extend as far out as it can go before you find pain, you will find it a) won’t be very far, and b) it doesn’t really improve much, no matter how much you try to force it further out.


This is because you have to show the muscles and joints that these new extended positions are safe.


For instance, if we took the shoulder to the current end range of motion, and then forced it to do a slight bit of work there, maybe by using a band, maybe by using a weight, maybe just forcing it to hold itself there, what you will find is that it will become significantly easier to get to that range of motion the next time. This is showing the muscle or joint that it is safe at this new position. It just moved a weight for crying out loud.


So now your little ol’ muscle is gaining some confidence, like the high school driver who just got on the highway for the first time and safely exited. And if you continually coax it into more confidence, you’ll find it will become the Zlatan (a soccer player bursting with arrogance confidence) of muscles.


So next time you desire to stretch, think of this little personification of your muscles: they are scared of increasing range of motion as much as we should be of clowns, and they need to be told and shown that they are safe at the new ranges of motion. This isn’t an easy job, but if you really want your “tightness” to go away, this is the only way.


Proud of you all!


-Michael


(As always, seeking the advice of professionals is recommended, so that a proper diagnosis can be established and a plan can be implemented.)



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