Do you suffer from chronic muscle tension or back stiffness and you sometimes wonder … why are my stretches not working? You may have Googled every route under the sun and filmed it on YouTube, but still – you haven’t gained an ounce of mobility.
There are a couple of reasons why all of your stretching efforts may not be doing anything for you. It could be your technique, it could be the wrong stretch, or it could be that you just shouldn’t be stretching at all!
Let’s go over the various reasons why your stretching routine might fail you – and most importantly – what you can do about it.
You’re doing it wrong
Although research studies are inconclusive on how long you should hold a particular stretch, most people feel good when they hold a stretch for 30-60 seconds. When it comes to technology, I see one of the biggest problems with not relaxing enough. If you are tense or gripping your muscles at the same time as you stretch, it won’t work very well. It is important to breathe and move easily in every stretch you do. Trying to force it or overcome pain will likely make you cramp up. Now let’s say you are doing everything right (no tensing or grasping), but your stretches still don’t seem to be working. Some people (including myself) respond better to “moving stretches”. Instead of holding a static position for an extended period of time, here you move repeatedly through one or more end-of-range stretches. Movable bolsters are a good example of this. If you’ve been stretching diligently and are not seeing the results you want, try adjusting your technique. Moving stretches might be a better strategy than static holding. I know it is like that for me.
You’re doing the wrong kind of stretch
This might be a little harder to figure out for yourself. There is a difference between corrective stretching and stretching to be comfortable. For example, let’s say your back is cramping because you have had a lot of stress or have just done a lot of activities that stiffen your back. General back stretches, like bringing your knees up against your chest or keeping your child posture, can be all you need to quickly get rid of the general stiffness you are experiencing. But let’s say you have back pain or pain and numbness running down your leg. In these cases, generic back stretches won’t work or may even make you worse. You will likely need corrective stretches like the ones we prescribe for our patients in our practice. Corrective stretches are specifically prescribed to manage symptoms and are very different from general stretches, which are designed to feel good and relieve tension.
You shouldn’t be stretching at all
Did you know that chronic muscle tension can be a sign of weakness? This is a very common problem that I see. I’ve seen many people over the years with chronic tension and discomfort in the neck, back, hips, etc. – and no matter how often they stretch or massage, it doesn’t get better. How does this happen? Well, muscle groups are connected through this substance called fascia. If one muscle group of the “fascia line” does not do its job, another muscle group has to compensate for the slackening. When muscles are given more work than they are supposed to, they can cramp. For example, when your deep core isn’t working properly, your neck will often bang in trying to help. If your neck is always sore or tight after a good abs workout, this could happen. Stretching your neck won’t help in the slightest in this case – because what you need to do instead is strengthen your core. I see the same pattern with tight hip flexors. Once people start properly strengthening their core, the chronic tension magically melts away.
Remember, if we attack the right problem and do the right thing, our body will respond. If you’ve stretched and stretched and you’re not seeing any results – something is missing. Talk to a mobility expert who can help you find out what you’re missing – so that you can get back to your favorite tasks with more flexibility.
Dr. Carrie Jose, physical therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To contact her or to request a copy of her free guide to back pain, email her at [email protected] or call 603-380-7902.