Stretching is not the solution
Updated: Dec 3, 2021
"What's the best stretch for [insert muscle here]?"
I get variations on that question very often. In fact, I would say those are the most frequent types of questions I've been asked since beginning this journey in 2009. For a while I'd give the same tired old answers that people could just look up on the interwebs.
The thing is, I never actually had an answer to that question. And I still don't. Why?
It's not the right question.
We have a problem with our current approach to movement.
The problem with the current popular approach, as I see it, is this: it's a muscles-first approach. And it's completely backwards.
You see, our current understanding of how the human body works is based largely on dead people. Don't get me wrong, Grey's Anatomy (the book, not the TV show) was a critical shift in our understanding of the human body back when it was published--in1858.
Yes, since then there have been updates and revisions, and our knowledge has grown some.
But it's still largely based on dead people. And an approach based on dead people leaves out two crucial missing components: 1) the nervous system; and 2) gravity.
Muscles don’t just stretch out like taffy. They're a series of interconnected tissues that follow instructions from the nervous system, mostly subconsciously.
Sure, a muscle X connects at one end and the other, but as soon as you move, those connection points also move. And you have other muscles at either end of muscle X that perform other functions, so as soon as you move muscle X, it affects what muscles Y, and Z, and Q do. And their connection points also move. All to win the battle against gravity (i.e. not faceplant). And this occurs every single minute of every single day until you breathe your last breath.
Quick, raise your right hand. Ok, bring it back down.
You need not think of any muscles to do that. Your brain interpreted the words on the screen, then sent a signal to the muscles responsible for moving the joints involved in raising your entire arm, since I'm guessing most of you didn't take that literally by simply extending your wrist to lift only your hand. Some of you didn't raise your hand (or arm) at all, which is a conscious reaction nonetheless. My point is that your brain took in information, and your muscles reacted, creating movement (or not).
Because we need to rethink our current "muscles-first" approach.
Here's a better general approach:
1a) External environment
1b) Nervous system
3) Connective tissues (i.e. ligaments, fascia)
You may be wondering why I included external environment in that list, particularly first.
That's simple: because we don't live in a vacuum.
Much of what we see, feel, think, say, and the ways we move, at least in the immediate moment, is driven by a "perceive-react" relationship. And that, my friends, lies in our brain's recall of past events.
In other words, much of what we do in the present moment is determined by how we've responded to things in the past--a "knee-jerk" reaction, of sorts.
It's why, even though you may be older, you never miss a beat with good friends you haven't seen in years.
It's why you still remember how to play the piano (although you may be rusty) even though you haven't touched one in a decade.
It's why you still get pissed when you get cut off in traffic, even though you really have no idea of the other driver's intent. (It's also why right now you're thinking of the times you got cut off, maybe even today, and are probably getting a little agitated... even though you're just sitting there reading this...)
This is a bit over-simplified, but it speaks to my point.
Those chronically "tight" muscles you're feeling? The ones you stretch and foam roll and stretch and foam roll some more, but they're STILL just as tight as they ever were? They didn't just get that way overnight.
They're tight for a reason. They're tight because of a series of events that led you to now. They're tight because of your habits. The way you sit, stand, walk, look at your phone, work out, breathe--these habits that are all encoded and recalled by that glorious organ between your ears. Most of the time you don't even realize it until something feels off.
The need to constantly stretch everything is arguably one of the biggest myths pushed onto us from a very young age. It‘s so firmly entrenched in our culture that the words "tight" and "stretch“ have become opposites.
But they’re not. In fact, they’re not really even related. Think about it for a second: if stretching was actually the solution--if it were truly that simple--then why doesn’t it work? I’m guessing most of you reading this have said or thought something like this: “I stretch my hips/calves/thighs/back every day but I still feel tight.”
And no, yoga is NOT stretching.
Here's a before (left) and after (right) photo of a client trying to touch her toes. Notice in the after that she's clearly closer to her toes.
The photos were taken less than 1 minute apart.
No foam rolling.
No complicated positioning.
So, how was she able to improve so quickly?
A plastic knife, held between her left molars.
Pretty weird, huh. My client thought so. Yet she experienced it. Did it "fix" her? No. That wasn’t the objective.
But it opened doors and allowed us to train in a better state than she was at the beginning of the session. Also, her left hip pain disappeared during the session and has yet to come back. Did the knife do that too? I don't know.
So what the heck happened? I have my suspicions, which led me to try this in the first place, but I can’t be sure. Maybe it started a cascade of events that helped her get better. Maybe it distracted her from her pain and gave her some relief, which created a snowball effect that then reinforced better movement qualities.
I know this example brings up more questions than answers (to which I say again: good), but don‘t get hung up on the specifics. I chose this intervention specifically for her based on a series of tests and questions, and how it worked is beyond the scope of this article.
My point is to get you to rethink the idea of stretching muscles to improve flexibility or mobility. Movement can and very often does change quickly without any traditional stretching, as long as the brain has a reason to allow change to happen. In the example above, my interpretation is that it was a new sensory input that her brain deemed safe, so it took the brakes off and allowed her more range of motion. Her experience of direct results changed her belief in what was possible ("I haven't been able to get that close to my toes in probably 30 years"), perhaps further magnifying the effect. Belief is a powerful tool for change... or stagnation.
So blindly stretching a muscle just because it feels tight may, more likely, actually be reinforcing that tension. And if you've spent years stretching the same muscles, thinking that that's just what you'll have to do for the rest of your life--well, reinforcing that tension just may be what you've been doing all these years.
If you've trained with me, you might be thinking, "but Chris, you give me stretches all the time!" To that I'd say, "I give you new positions to get into that your brain is unfamiliar with, so a stretch you feel may just be those 'tight' muscles contracting in a place they don't know." The desired effect is to make the unfamiliar familiar, thereby expanding your movement possibilities.
We don't get better staying in that familiar place all the time. Don't get me wrong, familiarity is nice every once in a while. It makes us feel warm and cozy. But that’s not where growth lives. There's a reason why there's a saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt." That “contempt“ may be your brain protesting against stagnation. That contempt may be your brain trying to tell you, "I need something different, dammit!"
The brain evolved to deal with its environment.
The body evolved around the brain.
Muscles developed as a means to move the brain and body (or the "organism") through its environment.
Yet somehow we think that by focusing on those "tight" muscles, we're going to make a lasting global change.
Now, you may be thinking, what about massage, or chiropractic manipulation, or acupuncture?
This is not to disparage manual therapy, not in the least. Manual therapies have been successful for a long time, and I know many fantastic manual therapists who work wonders with people.
It's just that they're not treating muscles, they're treating human beings, and any good therapist will be the first to tell you that. Nor is manual therapy a fix in and of itself. It’s a collection of tools in a large toolbox geared towards system-wide health. It may or may not be necessary. It all depends on the individual. But ultimately, the goal is better movement.
So, the question is, are you still going to live up to the definition of insanity by doing the same stretches and foam rolling/smashing the same muscles over and over, desperately hoping that something will change?
Or are you going to try something different (and not even radically different, really) and begin to build confidence in your ability to learn to move in ways that your body may not be habitually used to? The first step is to recognize your habits (awareness). The second step is consciously changing those habits (action).
It's important to note that I am not saying that muscles aren't important. What I am proposing, however, is that once we understand that the brain and nervous system calls the shots, it frees up a broader understanding of how the entire human organism functions to literally shape itself and its environment within its environment, and that muscles are a means to an end.