Is stretching always the answer for tight muscles?

Try switching on your core to relieve muscle tension!

As a long distance runner and a Pilates instructor, I see people from all different backgrounds suffering similar issues in regard to tight hips, hamstrings and lower back, but after a conversation with a client, I realised that there are many misconceptions when it comes to flexibility.

Muscles have origins and insertions which simply put, describes the locations where muscle attaches to bone and each muscle has a specific role within the bodies biomechanics. Without going into too much detail, muscles either stabilise or mobilise a joint. Some do both.

Lets take hamstrings for example, these should mobilise the body during large movements (like running)! The deep gluteal muscles are the stabilisers, but in many people these deep gluteals are weak and ineffective so the hamstrings take on the role of stabilising the body, shortening and tightening and often creating low back pain. This is very common in runners especially.

Most people would head straight for the hamstring stretches, trying to lengthen the muscle to relieve the tension. Not only is it virtually impossible too actually lengthen the muscle (how can you lengthen something that is attached to bone); but stretching will simply maintain, not correct the problem.

The problem itself lies in misalignment of the pelvis. If the pelvis was in the ‘neutral’ position, the correct muscles would automatically activate during a specific movement.

Basically, you can stretch until the cows come home but you won’t relieve the tension.

In fact it may actually be hip flexors and lower back muscle that tight, encouraging anterior pelvic tilt.

Before you all rush to stretch the hip flexors however, stop! As mentioned above stretching will simply maintain the muscle but will not correct the issue. You need to realign the body before stretches will make any difference.

So what to do? Any exercises that encourage posterior pelvic tilt will be a good start.

As a Pilates instructor I am going to focus on Pilates exercises such as hip tilts, shoulder bridges, rolling like a ball and reverse crunches. These exercises place the pelvis into a posterior tilt, forcing the ‘core’ muscles to engage. The core muscles includes the rectus abdominals, transverse abdominals and the gluteals as well as a few others. They allow the hips to release, taking the pressure off the lower back and hamstrings whilst strengthening muscles to support the spine.

Try this: Stand tall with feet hip distance apart, trying to keep the body steady lift alternate knees up and down. Do you lean back wards as you lift? If yes, you are suffering with an increased anterior tilt.

Now try this: Sit on the floor and stretch your legs out in front of you. Can you sit up tall or are you leaning backwards or slouching? Again that indicates anterior tilt.

Now try them both holding a weight out in front of you. The increased weight will force the ‘core’ muscles to engage automatically tucking the pelvis under and taking the pressure off the lower back.

Lets try a plank position. I see many people doing this with their hips in the air (anterior tilt). If the hips were lowered and the body weight brought forwards, the hip flexors would release and the core muscles will switch on.

In each case we can relieve tight muscles simply by improving core strength, there is no actual stretching involved.

This is not to say I do not agree with stretching entirely, quite the opposite, I’m simply trying to explain that constant stretching will not always improve the situation until poor posture has been addressed. From there, we can begin to stretch the correct muscles which (in the case of tight hamstrings) are probably be the hip flexors and lower back.

Take a look at these two hip flexor stretches:

Wrong-Notice the increased anterior tilt. The hamstrings are having to stabilise as the gluteals are completely inactivate. This simply exacerbates the issue, however most trainers and gym bunnies will perform this religiously!

Right-Pelvis is tucked into posterior tilt, hip flexors are stretched and gluteals engage so the hamstrings are able to release.

So think before you stretch, strengthen those core muscles and approach a fitness professional who can help you perform the correct exercises too finally ease muscle tension once and for all!

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