It’s a common topic of conversation in every gym and CrossFit box I’ve ever been around.
“Why do I stretch and stretch and never get any more flexible?”
In my experience there are 3 extremely common reasons this happens. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using chronically “tight” hamstrings as the running example throughout the explanation.
First, the body is neurologically up-regulating motor tone to those hamstrings to protect you from injury elsewhere. This can be thought of as compensation. You have to remember, the body is really marvelous, and much smarter than you…or me. So if your hip mobility stinks, or you have poor ankle range of motion (or a half a dozen other biomechanical faults), the body will reflexively stiffen things up to provide increased rigidity and protection to the area. This is sometimes referred to as muscle splinting. Though this is more commonly thought of as a reaction to acute trauma (for example, an ACL rupture), “tight” hamstrings can also be the body’s response to subacute mechanical dysfunction.
The muscle tissue itself may be totally normal and healthy. And actually, your body is responding appropriately to the given stressor. Unfortunately, all of the time spent rolling, stretching and massaging goes to waste because the underlying problem is somewhere else. (More about what to do instead at the end of this post).
2. Neural Tension
Most folks have heard of sciatica. Many others have had the misfortune of experiencing the debilitating pain of sciatica. That is the acute version of compression on nerves. But, you can also have subacute tension on nerve roots, or peripheral nerves. The net result of increased neural tension is reflexive “tightening” of the involved musculature. So if the nerve is compromised anywhere along its tract, the corresponding muscle will malfunction. Often times the end result is chronic up-regulated neuro-motor tone (aka “tightness”).
3. Soft Tissue Adhesions / Scar tissue
One of the main causes of neural tension is adhesions that build up around nerve tracts, causing the aforementioned tightness. But adhesions can also form directly in areas of repetitive stress and strain. Your tight hamstrings may actually be the result of unresolved scar tissue. The body doesn’t recognize this build up as problematic, and so it sits there “gunking” up your other healthy muscle tissue. It also reduces the relative elasticity and motion of the affected structure, thereby rendering stretching useless.
So, if stretching isn’t the answer…what is? I highly recommend reading my post called “Beyond Mobility: A Case for Performance Care”. It details my practice and treatment philosophy. Below are the crib notes.
Get an exam by a movement professional that addresses the root cause of the problem.
- A functional movement screen to determine underlying movement faults.
- A neural assessment to determine underlying neural tension, compromise and imbalance.
- A soft tissue screen to find and isolate adhesions.
Common effective treatments are:
- Nerve flossing to free up neural tension.
- Active Release Technique (or equivalent) to break up adhesions.
- Chiropractic adjustments to improving spinal mobility, relieving neural tension at the source.
- Corrective exercises to fix movement faults.
Once all of those problems are addressed, stretching can be an effective maintenance tool. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. For more detailed help, I’d also recommend you check out my Full Body Fix at home video program. I use a lot of these techniques in the videos to help get you on the right track.
Yours in Health,
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