A Stretching Fallacy

The Hamstrings

It’s my goal today to prove to you that just because something is tight DOES NOT mean it should be stretched.  In an effort to do this, I’m going to give you not one, not two, but three examples of this.

The first case is our hamstrings.  I can’t tell you how many times people tell me their hamstrings are “tight”, and that they should stretch them.  But is this really the case?

Think about someone in anterior pelvic tilt.  In this case, the hamstrings may feel “tight”, but they are only this way because they are in a constant position of stretch!  So yes, your hamstrings may feel tight, but stretching them is only going to make things worse.  You may feel better initially, but it will not resolve the issue, and it will most likely exacerbate it in the long run!

The hamstrings are quite obvious, so let’s move on to two lesser known examples – the spinal erectors and levator scapulae.  Both of these muscles are associated with tension in the back/neck area, so it’s common knowledge you should stretch them, right?

In the case of the spinal erectors, we essentially have two sets of fibers – the superficial set (which promotes lumbar extension), and the deep fibers which promote posterior shear force.  Due to the lordotic curve in our lower back, our lumbar vertebrae are constantly in a position of anterior shear, as the superior vertebrae is essentially “slipping” forward on the one in front of it.  If we stretch our spinal erectors, we decrease the magnitude of our posterior shear force (along with our posterior longitudinal ligaments).  What does this mean?  Again, while it may provide temporary relief, we are essentially allowing our lumbar lordosis to increase in size.  Not good!

Tne final example is the levator scapulae.  Much like the lumbar spinal erectors they provide a posterior shear force on their associated vertebrae.  In the case of someone with forward head posture, the levator scapulae is already excessively stretched, thus feeling “tight.”  However, just like the previous examples, stretching it is only going to exacerbate the underlying issue.

If you’re serious about getting results, don’t rely on feeling – instead, focus on the underlying causes and trying to address them.  Treating the symptoms is a sure-fire way to achieving limited results.

If you’re interested in learning more about anatomy, assessments, etc., be sure to check out the Building the Efficient Athlete and indy Seminar Series DVD’s on our Products page.

Stay strong

MR

6 Comments

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  1. Mike:
    What about someone who is going into posterior tilt at the bottom position of a squat? I read your article on force couples at t-nation, and, from what I gathered, hamstring stretching was advised for this problem…did I decipher this correctly?
    If I squat too deep, this happens to me. However, I pass the functional movement screen in regards to hammy flexibility. Now, my frickin’ hip rotators and abductors are ridiculously tight, which, I imagine, is causing a big problem in regards to posterior tiliting in deep squat position…I just don’t know how exactly. Can you explain how tight hips contribute to my problem? If I do a seated 90/90 stretch I literally can only get my knee to about a 45 degree angle…even with additional pressure. Also, I have pain in the upper and lateral region of my patella on the left side…I can push on it and it hurts. I imagine my tight hips are screwing something up here as well. Doing something like a lateral lunge, if I’m not warmed up, kills me on my left side. Anyway, any advice?

  2. I'm addicted to your website. You have a surplus of information! My roommate is a PT student and she has told me I have a slight anterior pelivic tilt and forward head posture. I definitely want to correct that! Good to know stretching isn't always the answer! Thanks, Mike.

  3. Hey Mike Rob! Still a little unlear with the levator scapulae comment. I thought the levator musculature went along with the upper traps in an imblance between the scapular elevators and the depressers. Because of constant overuse from improper positioning of the body and general deconditioning (Pelvic tilt followed by kyphotic spine followed by scapular addcution followed by rounded shoulders etc etc), the scaplar elevatorys (upper trapezius and levator scapulae) are prone to this imbalance in which trigger points of pain develop from this overuse. It has been in my training that we use modalities of a) heat b) soft tissue mobilization c) stretching out of hte imbalance to normalize length relationships of the scapular depressors d) when pain is under control to strengthen the parascapular musculature. There is randomized controlled trials that support this approach. Any other thoughts to shape my thinking would be helpful!
    Chris Nahrwold MS, OTR.

  4. So my question is this. If stretching won’t improve anterior pelvic tilt, what will? I asked because I have anterior pelvic tilt (lordosis) and everything that I’ve read says to stretch the spinal erectors and the hip flexors. Can you please help me?

    • Read my article “Hips Don’t Lie – Fixing Your Force Couples.” I outline everything there, but the bottom line is you need to work BOTH sides of the equation – stretching AND strengthening.

  5. I recently bought your excellent Assess and Correct and have ‘assessed’ myself. I have suffered with LBP for about 10 years and have just been told over the years that I have a ‘flat back’ i.e. no lordosis. I feel like I’ve only begun to understand the reasons behind this recently. I have to admit, though, that the A&C DVD and your “Hips Don’t Lie” article have left me a little unsure of how to approach the ‘correction’ phase.

    Basically I failed the lordosis test – obviously. So generally the correction exercises in the manual (and in your article) call for glute stretching and psoas strengthening. OK. But I also failed the Thomas test and my hips feel tight as Hell: stretch psoas. Coupled with this is the fact that for a long time my right glute just wouldn’t fire and strengthening my glutes through bridges etc have helped overall and a massage therapist had to release my right psoas as it was so tight.

    Can you see where I’m getting confused? Should I just do ALL the corrective exercises suggested in A&C? One thing that’s been putting me off doing the walk marches etc is that if I pull my knees to my chest the front of my hips really cramp up. Could my psoas be tight AND weak?

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