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Should I stretch what’s tight?

Stretching tight hamstring

I often hear my patients tell me “I have tightness in my [insert body part here]. I should do more yoga.” As a physical therapist, dancer, and practitioner of yoga for the past 20 years, this makes me chuckle and also gives me an opportunity to educate my patients on what it means to be flexible and how they can best achieve flexibility.

There is a misconception that what feels tight should be stretched. A muscle can feel tight for a number of reasons, some of which may not benefit from muscle stretching: 

1. It could be overworked and shortened. 

Stretching an overworked, shortened muscle is appropriate and may relieve tension and pain; however, the underlying problem may be a poor movement pattern that needs to be retrained in order to make sure the correct muscles are doing their job. The classic example of this is tight hamstrings due to sleepy gluteal muscles. Stretching the hamstrings may provide temporary relief; however, we can tap into the root of the problem by integrating the entire posterior chain. 

tight upper traps

2. It could be locked long due to an asymmetry or muscle balance.

Muscles are attached to bones. If our bones are not optimally aligned due to muscle weakness, pain, or suboptimal neuromuscular recruitment, our muscles can be locked in a lengthened position giving us the sensation of tightness. This is common in those with desk jobs - poor posture and prolonged computer work can cause our head to sit forward and shoulder girdle to become depressed causing tension in our upper trapezius muscles due to excessive length. In this instance, stretching a muscle would worsen the problem. 

3. It could be neural or fascial tension.

What feels like muscle tension may actually be pulling or irritation of the nerves due to fascia that is not gliding well. Fascia is connective tissue that envelops our muscles and embeds nerves, arteries, veins, and a variety of specialized sensing organs. Researchers are learning new things about fascia all the time and its importance to our health and mobility, as well as its relationship to pain. The deep fascial system is intended to glide over the muscles to allow for easy movement using hyaluronic acid for lubrication. However, the latest research suggests that hyaluronic acid can clump together causing "stickiness" that reduces this gliding mechanism. This can feel to us like pain, tension, and decreased mobility. Moreover, the source of the issue may be at a distance from where it actually hurts or feels tight. In this situation, the fascial adhesion needs to be located and treated. This can be done through a variety of techniques, including myofascial release, dry needling, muscle energy techniques, or nerve glide exercises. 

male ballet dancer

4. It could be the culprit in a gripping pattern due to poor stabilization. 

Yogis and dancers are able to accomplish gravity-defying feats by stabilizing through their core and standing side in order to achieve freedom of motion as they float the extended leg. When our bodies lack stability due to sleepy core muscles or ligamentous hyperlaxity, they will try to stabilize with muscles that were not designed for this job. Overtime, this can result in pain, tightness, and limited range of motion. We can unwind these gripping patterns by tapping into the inner core muscles in order to eliminate compensatory patterns. A common example of this is glute pain caused by gripping of the muscles of the buttock due to weak abdominal muscles.

Overstretched and overworked muscles can also feel tight. It's natural to want to stretch what feels tight, and it may feel good in the moment. However, if you find that no matter how much stretching you do, the tightness is unrelenting or that it returns with a vengeance, the source of the problem may be elsewhere and warrants further investigation.

Angel Young, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist and owner of Bodylove Physiotherapy & Pilates, specializing in 1-on-1 physical therapy in Bastrop, Texas using Clinical Pilates, Dry Needling, Stecco Fascial Manipulation, Manual Therapy, and Redcord. She is a certified Pilates instructor through Polestar Pilates, which has been a leader in Pilates for Rehabilitation education for the past 30 years. She is passionate about helping people feel strong, capable, and wonderful in their bodies.

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