Feeling Stiff? Why stretching may not be the best solution
We all feel stiff and achy from time to time, and the feeling is most often transient. You may have feelings of tightness in your joints and muscles when you first roll out of bed in the morning, or after you have been sitting at the computer for a prolonged period of time. And of course, after an extra tough workout, you can expect to feel tight and achy the next day as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) sets in. But in most cases, once you get up and get moving, the feeling of stiffness abates as your blood begins to circulate to the tight-feeling areas.
Oftentimes, feelings of bodily stiffness and even pain are just that — feelings — with no real structural or mechanical basis behind them. They are your brain’s interpretation of some type of stimulus in a particular area of your body, even when there is nothing fundamentally wrong. This phenomenon is born out in clinical studies, where some people report feelings of muscle tightness, when in fact the muscles are relaxed, and others may report no feelings of tightness, even when the muscles are tense.
Many factors can play into feelings of pain and stiffness, including past injuries, emotional arousal, stress, inadequate sleep, poor nutrition, and inadequate blood flow to nervous tissues.
In some instances, stretching may alleviate feelings of tightness, but stretching more frequently or at higher intensities is not necessarily the solution to eliminating chronic pain and stiffness.
Common Myths About Stretching
There is no shortage of hype in the media about the importance of stretching for improved mobility and performance. Endless debates about when to stretch, how to stretch, and how often to stretch are ubiquitous in media outlets for runners, bodybuilders, athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
For decades, the consensus has dictated that static stretching is best, with the muscle held at its longest length for 60 seconds or more. But do the benefits of stretching, especially static stretching, actually live up to the hype?
There are several common myths about stretching that have been more or less debunked by research:
- Stretching before running or exercise improves performance: While static stretching was once considered the gold standard for pre-exercise warmup, new research shows that the slow and controlled nature of static stretching fails to increase muscle temperature and blood flow, which are necessary to prepare the body for exercise, and some studies suggest it can decrease performance. In fact, in a total reversal of policy, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the preeminent body for establishing exercise guidelines, now advises against static stretching prior to exercise.
- Stretching promotes flexibility: The idea that static stretching promotes long-term gains in flexibility and joint range of motion is currently being challenged. One of the properties of muscle tissue is elasticity, meaning the fibers can be stretched, but then return to their original length. When you think about it, permanent elongation of muscle fibers would be a bad thing, creating lax muscles that do not support your joints or generate adequate force. A 2014 study published in the journal Clinical Biomechanics found no differences in participants’ muscle and tendon flexibility after a six-week static stretching regimen.
- Stretching improves muscle function: We have been led to believe that holding your muscles at their longest length for an extended period of time Is somehow beneficial for improving performance and decreasing muscle stiffness. But new research shows that static stretching can decrease blood flow within your muscle tissues, causing localized ischemia (inadequate blood supply) and buildup of lactic acid. This can irritate or even injure muscle, tendon, nerve and lymphatic tissue.
- Stretching is the same as yoga: While yoga poses often incorporate stretching, there is much more to yoga than stretching. Yoga is a centuries-old practice that incorporates meditation, breathing, strength, balance and alignment. As a practice, yoga strives to increase individual self-awareness.
- Resistance training is the opposite of stretching: Many people mistakenly believe that strength training causes muscle tissue to become shortened and tight, inhibiting flexibility. However, when performed correctly, with joints and muscles moving through their full functional range of motion, resistance training exercises actually increase flexibility while promoting tissue health by increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to muscle fibers.
Understanding Eccentric Muscle Function
Most people think of muscle contraction as a shortening of muscle fibers during the concentric phase, when the muscles are working in the direction opposite to the force of gravity. But what goes up must come down, and as you lower a weight in the direction of gravity, your muscles work as a sort of “braking” mechanism to control the weight against the force of gravity, preventing it from crashing to the floor, and protecting your joints from damage.
In another example, when you run, your anterior tibialis, (shin) muscles shorten to flex your foot upward during heel strike, but they lengthen eccentrically as you continue through the gait cycle, preventing your foot from slapping against the pavement. Similarly, when you climb a hill or a set of stairs, your powerful quadriceps extend your knees to propel you upwards. But as you descend, the quadriceps work eccentrically to control your rate of knee flexion, to keep it from collapsing too much, or too quickly.
Eccentric exercise is becoming increasingly used in therapy to rehabilitate sports overuse injuries like tendinitis and tendonopathies. When compared to many other treatment methods, eccentric exercise has been shown to significantly reduce pain symptoms and shorten recovery time to return to play.
How to Increase Flexibility and Reduce Stiffness
Static stretching is a passive activity that is rapidly losing credence as an effective antidote to feelings of muscle tightness. If you want to enjoy full fluid unrestricted range of motion without feelings of stiffness or pain, here are a few options:
- DNS (dynamic neuromuscular stabilization): The site of pain and stiffness is not always the same as the source. DNS helps eliminate pain and improve function by tapping into your central nervous system’s innate developmental motor patterns, to reset your body’s ability to move and function properly. DNS is highly effective for rehabbing sports injuries, including low back pain, knee, hip and shoulder pain, and neck pain, for peak athlete performance.
- AIM (anatomy in motion): A treatment approach developed by Gary Ward, AIM focuses on assessment of gait and posture to identify specific movement patterns that are at the root of your problems. The premise behind AIM is that muscles lengthen eccentrically before they contract. AIM therapy retrains you to move in ways that optimize muscle function to promote pain-free movement and healing.
- Yoga: When performed properly, yoga can increase your fluidity and range of motion to eliminate pain and stiffness. During your yoga practice, move in a controlled way, especially when lowering your body toward the floor (eccentric contraction), and be sure to incorporate correct breathing.
- Therapy: Work with a trainer or therapist to develop a functional exercise program that promotes optimal alignment, balanced strength and functional range of motion. For eccentric exercise therapy, it is recommended you work with a trained professional who can teach you correct technique, provide supervision and give constructive feedback.
In addition to the above strategies for reducing chronic pain and achieving optimal movement, be sure to get enough sleep, manage stress and learn to relax. Changing your nutrition can help to reduce inflammation and improve muscle function. Drink plenty of pure water, eat your veggies, and banish sugar and chemicals from your diet. And be sure to give your muscles adequate time to recover between exercise sessions.
If you enjoy stretching and it helps you relax, by all means continue to stretch. But balance it out with a well-rounded exercise program and healthy lifestyle choices.