To stretch or not to stretch

Does this sound familiar? You stretch and stretch a muscle or muscle group and it never seems to get any more flexible. In fact, sometimes it even seems to get tighter as a result. This is an extremely common phenomenon. In many cases, stretching is the LAST thing such muscles need. I’ll use the hamstrings as an example.

Hamstrings are a frequently impaired muscle group for a number of reasons. Due to a pervasive postural distortion often referred to as lower-crossed syndrome, the hamstrings are chronically put in a lengthened position. Keeping a muscle in a lengthened position decreases the brain’s ability to engage it due to reciprocal innervation, while also decreasing it’s ability to produce strength due to insufficient actin/myosin cross-bridging. The net result is an impaired, weakened muscle.

Now stretch that weakened, impaired muscle. You’ve just succeeded in impairing the muscle even MORE! The body’s usual response when a weak, unstable muscle is stretched is to attempt to shorten the elongated muscle which, in the case of the hamstring, it can’t due to the lower-crossed syndrome. This causes an increase in muscle tension and reduced extensibility. Not exactly what you had in mind, was it?

The answer in such situations is to get the hamstring strong again. The first step is to begin to correct the lower-crossed syndrome through corrective stretching of such usual suspects as the hip flexors and the lower back. Then you have to begin a focused strength-training regimen for the impaired muscles such as the gluteals, lower abdominals and yes, the hamstrings. Once your posture has improved and your hamstrings actually have the ability to function correctly you’ll likely notice improved flexibility AND function. If you still require additional range of motion, your body will be much more responsive to those good-old hamstring stretches.

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