I will admit that I have tight hamstrings and calf muscles. I will also admit to being terrible at stretching them. I also am guilty of telling my patients on a daily basis that they need to stretch so clearly there is something wrong with this picture.
When thinking about tight muscles, especially in the absence of a true musculoskeletal problem, why is stretching such a big deal? Why does flexibility matter? Should you really be doing a daily yoga program? And finally, why am I having such a difficult time stretching out muscles that I know need my attention, especially when I know better!
Let’s tackle the “ why” for flexibility first. Tight muscles create an imbalance with how your body and joints function. The bones and joints of your body have been fit together in a very precise way, they are also designed to move in a certain pattern. When tight muscles pull on your bones and shift this precision, it creates an abnormal movement pattern, which can, in very small doses, create abnormal wear and tear on a joint. Eventually, this abnormal wear and tear can create a problem that will need to be addressed by a medical professional. Ideally, you would prevent this as much as possible and stretching (and maintaining good posture and alignment!) will help keep your joint moving smoothly through daily activities.
Now, how often do you need to stretch? Principles of tissue lengthening teach us that consistency is key. Muscle lengthening can take 8-12 weeks for full elongation to take place and the only way this is possible is with consistent stretching on a daily basis. Ideally this would be performed 3 times per day for 1-2 minutes, for that particular muscle. If you think of a typical stretching routine, none of us are doing enough to target these tight areas of our body! Yoga is starting to sound a lot more necessary isn’t it?
So to recap, stretching tight muscles is necessary to allow your body to move properly. To be preventative, that you want to minimize any problems with your body as much as possible. In the world of fitness, cardio and strength training get a lot of attention. Flexibility and stretching aren’t as popular, but really need to be your friend. If you don’t have adequate flexibility, let’s say in your hamstrings, it will be very difficult to be able to properly perform a deadlift. If your form is compromised with a deadlift, that excess strain will need to be taken up somewhere else, and typically this will be in your low back. Perform those reps 10-20 times, 3 times per week and add 20# to the deal, and eventually your back is going to let you know it is not happy with this off balanced arrangement.
So, should you start doing daily yoga? Not necessarily. As I mentioned before, stretching your tight muscle only needs about 3 minutes per day. Maybe you have three muscles that really need your attention, that’s still less than 10 minutes total to address this muscle tightness. You could be creative about stretching. Maybe while your lunch is warming in the microwave for 2 minutes you get a hamstring or gastroc stretch in. While doing dishes, you get a standing hip flexor stretch in. If your mind is swimming thinking, how the heck do I even stretch my gastroc? Or even better, what is my gastroc? Don’t worry, I’ll include pictures of some simple stretches you can do. Now if you want to really level up and get that amazing feel good, full body stretch of yoga, then by all means, jump into it. I’d recommend seeking out the website: www.doyogawithme.com for a free profile and highly customizable options. Yoga also provides relaxation and breathing techniques that can provide additional full body benefits. So should you do more yoga? Probably. I do want to caution, that even something good can create a problem, so please listen to your body and don’t ever over stretch or force your body to move in a direction that doesn’t feel good. Stretching isn’t supposed to hurt.
So why am I so unmotivated to spend 10 minutes per day stretching? There are a lot of reasons for lack of motivation that are more than what I want to dig into right now. Most likely, I don’t see why it’s important for me. I am not yet experiencing, on a pain level, the impact my tight hamstrings and calf muscles are having on the rest of my body. I’m carving out time for a run and strength training session, but not giving my body the blessing of a good stretch. Here are some simple ways I can try to incorporate more stretching into my day:
There are other creative ways to incorporate stretching into your daily routine, whether it is linked with another activity, before, after or during, or you just make a stretching session part of your morning or afternoon routine. Stretching isn’t going to completely eliminate a future musculoskeletal problem, but it can make it easier for your body to recover from, less severe or less of a problem when it does arise.
So do your body a favor and stretch it out.
Katie works as a Physical Therapist in Alpena, MI. She enjoys running, biking, baking and hanging out with her husband and 3 kids!
I am a passionate, adventure-seeking, fitness entrepreneur who loves having fun, my family and friends, a challenge, and creating a positive impact (to name a few :))!