Pain Free Athlete: Should You Stretch A Tight Muscle?

Pain Free Athlete:

Should You Stretch A Tight Muscle?

Seems like a silly question with an obvious answer, right? Wrong! 

When we stretch a tight muscle we make the assumption that the muscle is tight because it is shortened and needs to be lengthened, but this is not always the case. A muscle can also be tight because it is too long. To illustrate this idea we’ll need to review our muscle anatomy.

Muscle contraction is achieved when muscle filaments slide over each other, increasing their overlap and shortening the muscle. You may recall the sliding filament theory from high school biology class. Anyway, these muscle filaments are named actin and myosin. The thick filaments are myosin depicted in red in the figure to the right. Myosin lies between the thinner purple actin filaments.

Figure a shows a contracted/shortened muscle with lots of overlap between the actin and myosin filaments. Figure b is a muscle in a relaxed state where there is less overlap. And figure c is an elongated muscle with no overlap between the filaments.

Both the muscles in figure a and c can feel tight. Stretching the muscle in figure a that is shortened is appropriate and should bring about relief of the tightness. However, stretching the muscle in figure c which is lengthened isn’t going to help. You’d be trying to further elongate an already over stretched muscle, which could lead to injury. Yes, it is possible to over stretch and tear your muscles, I know this from experience, OUCH!

So, what do you do about a muscle that is tight because it is too long?

Determine WHY it is being held in a lengthened position and release the opposing force, which may be on the other side of the body. Let’s take the example of the hamstrings, the muscle that many of my clients complain about.

Images borrowed from maximum training solutions.

In the images to the left you can see the relationship between the hamstrings, pelvic position and hip flexors. The hamstrings are attached to the back of the pelvis. If the pelvis deviates from neutral and rotates forward this will lengthen the hamstrings.

Often this forward rotation of the pelvis, called anterior pelvic tilt, can be caused by short, tight hip flexors. The hip flexors attach to the pelvis on the front of the body and work in opposition to the hamstrings to hold the pelvis in neutral.

In this scenario the hamstrings don’t need to be stretched, they are over lengthened already. To release the strain on the hamstrings here, the pelvic position needs to return to neutral. Releasing the tension in the hip flexors will allow the pelvis to rotate backwards to neutral, thereby relieving the constant strain on the hamstrings. Learn more, read the blog: 5 Exercises to Reduce Anterior Pelvic Tilt.

When you have a chronically tight muscle don’t automatically assume that it’s short and needs to be lengthened. Rather, consider your whole structure and what needs to change to relieve the tightness.

Jessica Kisiel is a local wellness professional specializing in injury recovery and pain management through posture alignment. She is an Advanced Exercise Therapist certified by Egoscue University®. Stay connected and receive free posture exercises for your favorite sport by signing up for her newsletter,


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