Stretching is Overrated: Understanding Muscle Tightness and Joint Stability
By Dr. Andray Voronov, Gravity Osteopathy, Narre Warren
Hello and welcome back to our blog! I’m Dr. Andray Voronov, an osteopath with a keen interest in musculoskeletal health. Today, I want to challenge a deeply-rooted idea in fitness and healthcare—stretching. It's been hailed as a universal remedy for tight muscles, yet many of us stretch religiously only to find that our muscles are still tight. Why? To truly solve muscle tightness, we need to dig deeper and ask why our muscles are tight in the first place. Spoiler alert: stretching is rarely the answer!
What Happens When Muscles Tighten?
Firstly, let's understand what happens when muscles tighten. Essentially, the muscle shortens to provide additional stability to a joint (Page et al., 2012). If a muscle is tight, it's doing so as a protective mechanism. But the real question is, why does the joint need extra stability?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that muscle tightness is bad and stretching will correct it. Studies show that stretching may provide temporary relief, but it doesn't solve the root problem (Shrier, 1999).
The Role of Muscle Tightness in Joint Stability
Creating a Support System
Tight muscles are essentially compensating for a lack of joint stability. By creating tension, they are forming a support system that helps you maintain your posture and perform various activities without injuring the joint.
It's crucial to consider that muscle tightness may also arise from lifestyle factors. Sedentary lifestyles or specific sporting activities can create imbalances that cause the muscles to tighten as a protective mechanism (Smith et al., 2018).
Stretching Is Not the Ultimate Solution
Stretching is not the end-all solution because it addresses the symptom (tightness) rather than the root cause (lack of stability or lifestyle imbalance). Let’s delve into more effective solutions.
Functional Training for Joint Stability
Rather than stretching the tight muscle, focus on building stability around the joint. Exercises like deadlifts, squats, and certain mobility drills can help achieve this.
Ergonomics and Lifestyle Changes
If a sedentary lifestyle is causing muscle tightness, consider ergonomic adjustments like a standing desk or more frequent breaks to move around (McGill, 2007).
Case in point:
A common example that I see in the clinic every other day, is the hip flexors. The hip flexors are chronically tight in a lot of people. This can be due to the same two reasons as above. #1: You sit all day at work, watching TV, in the car, when eating meals, on the toilet etc. So, in order to conserve energy, your body recognises this position as one you spend a lot of time in and the muscles of hip flexion will become shorter. #2: The PSOAS major muscle (part of the hip flexors) attached to the transverse process (side parts) of each lumbar vertebrae (lower back bones. If you have any inherent instability here (previous history of back injury or poor mechanical control of the lower back), the PSOAS major is the closest muscle that can have a stablising effect on the lower back, hence why it gets tight. This is why you can stretch it all day, but eventually, that same tightness will come back. The real solution in this case is to figure out what needs strengthening in order to alleviate some load from the PSOAS.... the core and glutes!
Switch the butt and core muscles on and suddenly, your PSOAS tightness disappears with no need for stretching!
So, stretching might not be the ultimate answer to your muscle tightness woes. Instead, try focusing on the root causes and addressing them for more lasting relief. If you're struggling with chronic muscle tightness, book an appointment with us at Gravity Osteopathy in Narre Warren for a comprehensive assessment and tailored treatment plan.
Isn’t stretching good for warming up?
Stretching can be a part of a warm-up routine, but it shouldn’t be the only focus.
What are the best exercises for joint stability?
This depends on the joint in question. A professional assessment is the best approach.
Is it bad to stretch every day?
Not necessarily, but if you find you have to stretch constantly, it’s likely a sign of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
Page, P., Frank, C. C., & Lardner, R. (2012). Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance: The Janda Approach. Human Kinetics.
Shrier, I. (1999). Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 9(4), 221-227.
Smith, B. E., Hendrick, P., Smith, T. O., Bateman, M., Moffatt, F., Rathleff, M. S., ... & Logan, P. (2018). Should exercises be painful in the management of chronic musculoskeletal pain? A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(6), 1-8.
McGill, S. (2007). Low back disorders: Evidence-based prevention and rehabilitation. Human Kinetics Publishers.