Therapy 101: Is Your Stretching Routine Making You Weaker?

Very often in the health and fitness industry; fitness trainers, coaches and therapists will say to clients

“You’re really stiff in your hips/lower back/upper back, you should try to stretch out after sessions”.

The reported benefits of regular flexibility work are widely documented and include the following benefits:

  • Improves Posture
  • Improves Joint range of motion
  • Reduce the severity of muscle soreness after training
  • Decreases the risk of injury

However, what if I told you that you’re stretching routine was actually making you WORSE?!

One of the most frequent phrases I will hear patients say will be:

“I’ve been stretching LOADS but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to my pain/tightness.”

I can recall one patient in clinic who was a Yoga Instructor complaining of hamstring tightness – her flexibility on assessment was so good that I could touch her foot to her ear! It actually turned out that her hip was quite weak and some of the smaller, stabilising muscles in her hip were clinging on for dear life…a few sessions later and she was pain free and the pseudo tightness was totally gone!

Moral of the story – Tightness doesn’t always mean stretching is the best remedy.

The upper fibres of trapezius will upwardly rotate the shoulder blade.

Another common area to see this sort of problem is in the upper traps. I see lots of patients that have “tight” Upper Traps and sometimes shoulder/neck pain to go with it. What a lot of people don’t realise is how important some of these muscles are. In the case of the upper traps they will help with elevation of the scapula (i.e. swoop the shoulder blade out of the way to lift your arm overhead), and to support the head on the neck. To this end if these important muscles don’t do their job properly the body will scream out for more support this will be in the form of:

  • Pain
  • Tightness
  • Stiffness in a region above/below the affected area
  • Incorrect movement patterns

Therefore, when you stretch a painful, tight AND weak muscle. You aren’t addressing the issue, all you are doing is promoting that weak muscle to become inhibited even further. What follows is the start of a vicious cycle, leading to being worse off for your determined efforts to self manage your symptoms.

To remedy this, the best course of action is to promote muscle activity – get someone with weak upper traps to do some form of rowing/shrugging type exercise, or getting someone with weak glutes to perform some form of bridge or clam-shell exercise will no doubt improve their symptoms long term, over getting them to hold a stretch for several minutes.

Seated Row with Theraband

Having said that – this isn’t to say that someone with reduced flexibility won’t benefit from stretching or foam rolling. There is a good percentage of people that get seriously positive results from flexibility routines such as Yoga. I even promote flexibility work to my patients where it’s required, it’s just what is relevant to that individual’s symptoms…we’re all unique after all!

So if you have good range of movement, have been stretching for a while and find that tightness you’ve been struggling with just isn’t settling down. Try and strengthen it, you might be surprised with the results! Failing that, talk to your Gym PT, or even get in touch with us here at YST, we are more than happy to help.