Do you have muscles that just won't loosen up no matter how much you stretch? Quite often, people think that in order to loosen up a tight muscle, they need to foam roll on it or to stretch it. However, that's not always the case and depends on why the muscle is tight in the first place. In fact, if you stretch a muscle that doesn't need any lengthening, it could become even tighter in response to the need to protect itself. Continue reading to see if you're stretching the right muscles!
Not all muscles that are tight need to be stretched. Muscles do not become tight due to a lack of stretching or inflexibility. Most of the time, there's an underlying cause or dysfunction in the body that creates these muscle imbalances. If you don't identify the real culprit, stretching will not get you anywhere. I'll use the hip flexors as an example as people love to stretch them out. The hip flexors often tighten up as a result of our sedentary lifestyle and sitting for long periods of time... but should we really be stretching them?
Our muscles generally tighten up for two reasons: 1) when it is working too hard and/or too long to compensate for another muscle that is too weak to do its job or 2) when it is itself too weak to do its job.
In the first case, when a muscle is working overtime to compensate for weakness of another muscle, it can be prevented from sufficiently relaxing. If you stretch out this muscle, you might get temporary relief. However, you won't get very far until you identify what it is compensating for and strengthen the deficient muscle. A common relationship is found between overactive/facilitated hip flexors and weak/inhibited glutes. You can stretch your hip flexors all you want, but if you don't strengthen your glutes, your hip flexors will forever be overworking for them (and remain chronically tight).
In the second scenario, when a muscle is too weak to do its job, it doesn't get a chance to relax because it needs to work harder in order to make up for its lack of strength. In our example, if you stretch your hip flexors because they are tight and weak, you're not doing yourself any favours. Weak muscles need to be strengthened, and when they are strong enough, they will let go and loosen up.
Stretching is not always the answer and can sometimes aggravate the problem if not done correctly. We've been so conditioned to think that the tightness itself is the problem when most of the time, the tightness is the result of the problem. The solution, therefore, is to figure out why a muscle is tight in the first place and to correct the issue. If you're interested in fixing the causes rather than treating the symptoms, read my previous posts here and here.