Why Do You Feel Tight Even Though You Stretch?

I was a high jumper in high school.

And not a good one at the start.

This was before the rise of the “Fosbury Flop”.  We used something called the “Straddle” where you lead with the front leg and then rolled the body over the bar.

High jump straddle

The Straddle

I as a freshman in high school. My first track meet, the bar was set at the starting regulation height, at the time, of 48 inches. I waited, pacing back and forth, for my turn. I had practiced and knew I could clear 48 inches with no problem.

Finally, the judge called my name.

I studied the bar intently, visualized the steps in my mind seeing myself leap over the bar clearing it with several inches to spare.

I took off bounding toward the bar, leapt off the ground and…

Landed squarely on the metal bar, straddling it in the worst way. I bent the bar a few inches, rolled off in agony into the pit.

I crawled out of the pit and laid on ground moaning. I’m pretty sure I heard laughing from the crowd gathered around the event.

My coach thought I wasn’t flexible enough. I would be able to jump better if was more flexible. I know better now but then, hey, he was the coach.

And, so I stretched and stretched and stretched and achieved a Gumby quality of flexibility. I stretched for 30 minutes after every practice and 30 minutes in the morning. Hamstrings, hip flexors, hips, back, arms, everything.

My high jumping didn’t improve much until the next year when my muscles caught up with my body. My flexibility had nothing to do with my high jumping.1)Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jun 8. I enjoyed the feeling of being flexible though and sometimes wish I still had it.

Well, the truth is I could be if I wanted to put in the time needed to change my nervous system’s “stretch setting”.

Stretching doesn’t change the muscle length. 2)Law, R. Y., Harvey, L. A., Nicholas, M. K., Tonkin, L., De Sousa, M., & Finniss, D. G. (2009). Stretch exercises increase tolerance to stretch in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain: a randomized controlled trial. Phys Ther, 89(10), 1016-1026. My hamstring muscle length, back in the day when I was inflexible before I started stretching, was the same as when I became the human Gumby.

The length of the muscle is fixed (except in unusual circumstances where a limb is immobilized for a long time) from where the muscle originates to where it inserts.

Here’s another example. I can do this kind of stretch placing my feet about 4 feet apart before I feel like something is going to rip in my adductor muscles (inside of the thigh).

Wide leg stance

But in a pool, standing roughly chest deep in water, I can move my feet apart another 2 feet with no problem. It’s a comfortable position.

So, what changed?

Did my muscles get longer?

What changed was my tolerance to the stretch from the reduced load, from the buoyancy of the water, on the muscles. If you think about it from a practical standpoint, take the hamstrings, if you increased the length of the muscle from stretching then at rest, in a standing position, your hamstrings would look wavy, floppy.

Here’s what’s going on.

You have tiny receptors In the muscles and tendons. Think of them as messengers to your brain and spinal cord. The receptors are sensitive to stretch, both the rate of change and the intensity.

You’re probably familiar with the knee reflex doctor’s sometime use to check your nervous system where he taps your knee and your lower leg jerks. That’s an example of one of the receptors at work.

When I get in the pool and move my feet apart, the rate of stretch and intensity is low because the load on the muscles is low. The receptors are quieter, less active which means I can “stretch” more easily.

To make stretching work, and whether you need to stretch or not is another subject, you have to teach your body the skill by doing it a lot.

Unless someone is moving the body area you want to stretch, say your hamstrings where another person lifts your leg up in the air, all stretching you do is active. It involves movement and therefore is a learned or acquired skill just like every other movement.

So, if you think of “stretching” as a skill and you need to learn how to do it, you have to do it a lot. If any of you play golf you know what I mean about acquiring or learning a skill. You have to spend hundreds of hours to develop a consistent, good golf swing.

Same thing with stretching.

To improve your hamstring flexibility, for example, here’s an option:

  • Find a stretch position where I can control the degree of force, in this case lying down on my back.
  • I anchor an elastic band in the top of a door and connect the other end to the ankle of the stretching leg.
  • I move out from the door, the band will lift my leg up, until I feel a light stretch in the muscles. The elastic band is providing the stretching force.
  • I breathe in and out slowly, focusing on relaxing the muscles.
  • Rotate the leg in and out, move it a tiny amount up and down a few times then relax.
  • As the muscles relax, the band will gently pull the leg up. I can now the scoot out an inch or two but the stretch must be mild, not painful.
  • I would do this for 5-10 minutes a couple of times a day on each leg.
  • After about a month of this everyday, I can expect an improvement of ~ 20%.

The reason routine stretching doesn’t seem to work is that the stretching is too aggressive and too short. You have to lighten up the force and increase the duration of the stretch and repetitions to teach your body the new movement.

That’s all I have for now.

Well, not quite. If you want to see the exercise routines I use, go to the WORKOUTS tab (top right of the page) on the main menu of the website. I post routines as I have the time. Visit often for updates.

Thanks for reading.

References   [ + ]

1. Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jun 8.
2. Law, R. Y., Harvey, L. A., Nicholas, M. K., Tonkin, L., De Sousa, M., & Finniss, D. G. (2009). Stretch exercises increase tolerance to stretch in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain: a randomized controlled trial. Phys Ther, 89(10), 1016-1026.

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