Are your hamstring really tight?


Are your hamstring really tight?

Up until a few years ago, the answer to everything was “just stretch it”.  Something feels tight? Stretch it. Something hurts? Stretch it. Need to warm up? Stretch. Need to Cool down? Stretch. Training today? Stretch. Resting today? Stretch. Unsure what to do with your life? Just stretch!

Literally it seemed like the best thing to do was to “always be stretching”. And the more obsessive among us took the advice to heart.

After all that stretching, why do we still “feel” tightness in the typical places, upper traps, hamstrings, low back? No matter how hard or long we pull those things just don't budge.

If you’ve ever stopped to ask why you’re doing all that stretching anyway, you've probably been told either the muscles are “short”, or they have “adhesions” that need to be broken up. Stretching lengthens short muscles and bursts those nasty little adhesions. Problem Solved!

It turns out that muscles that feel tight, often don't have limited length. If that doesn't make sense ask a gymnast who can do the splits and she still might say her hamstrings feel tight all the time. Tightness is relative but we’ll get to that in a second. 

Stretching actually does not lengthen muscles in any measurable ways and the evidence is all over the board on that. We do know it temporarily desensitizes the muscle to tension in the stretched position, improving “stretch tolerance”.  The way we know to really increase muscle length (by adding fibers in series), is through strength training at those end range positions. 

Adhesions have been well studied, and they aren't the little muscle gremlins they were made out to be. Changes in collagen structures are present in normal tissue, painful tissue isn't any harder than non painful tissue, and sometimes it's actually softer. The way a muscle feels has much more to do with its contractile activity than the quality of the connective tissue, which isn't a good predictor of pain anyway.

And we know the amount of force we need to put through a muscle to “break an adhesion” is huge, way more than we could ever hope to do through a hurdlers stretch.

A better way of thinking about Tightness is that its a feeling! Stretching isn't about short muscles or adhesion gremlins, it's just a sensation we get when a muscle is irritated, working hard, or it (or the royal we) need a break. It's a signal- to move, relax, to sleep more, to back off training a bit.

Tightness isn't a sign of disease or dysfunction, it's a feeling we all get that in itself isn't a bad thing. Taken with the other internal and external signals, tightness actually protects against harm and like all feelings it drives growth

Maybe tightness is actually not the enemy.

They’re not Short!

They don't have adhesions

They just feel tight!

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