Static stretching — or long holds of a position — is a thing of the past when it comes to correcting tight muscles.
Over the last number of years research has suggested that static stretching doesn’t actually have as much long-term benefit as once thought. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, or harmful, but it is best used under the scope of short-term benefits, similar to massage and other “passive” therapies.
One of the reasons that it doesn’t have much long-term effect on tight muscle groups is because of a principle called “reciprocal inhibition.” This means that one muscle group releases when the opposing muscle group is activated. Most muscle imbalances and tightnesses are occurring because the nervous system has decided or predicted that a certain range of motion is not safe, usually because the appropriate muscle group to be stabilizing or engaging in a specific range of motion is not engaging as it should.
Therefore, holding a hip flexor or hamstring stretch is only as effective as you are able to engage the opposing muscle group when needed. Otherwise, that tight muscle will simply creep back into its tension pattern shortly after you perform your stretches.
Most of the time I prescribe active mobility movements to clients. These movements focus on engaging the opposing muscle group to the commonly tight muscle. For example, for tight hip flexors we work the opposing gluteal groups and for tight chest muscles we engage the scapular stabilizing groups on the opposite side of the body. Through this we achieve some effective, long-term releases.
Here are some things to try the next time you’re feeling tension:
- Chin Tucks — These are often very effective for neck tension and headaches. Keeping the eyes gazing straight ahead, retract the chin towards your neck (giving yourself a double chin). Hold for five seconds and then release. Repeat this six to 10 times, a few rounds through your day.
- Active Range of Motion — You can do this on any joint. All it takes is some conscious, concentrated movement. Using the shoulder as an example: moving slowly, and with focus, take one arm to the hip or behind the back (palm faces behind you), then slowly raise the same arm out to the side to reach straight out at 90 degrees (palm faces forwards), and then finally the same arm comes up so the hand can be behind the head. If you’re doing this slow and focused enough, you’ll feel some work happening through your upper back and arm. This shouldn’t be painful, though it may feel uncomfortable.
- Toe Spreading — Sufferers of plantar fasciitis will appreciate (or learn to love) this move. In a seated or standing position with your foot resting on the ground attempt to spread all your toes away from each other as wide as possible. You may get foot cramps but this is normal. Repeat six to 10 times, a few rounds per day, especially in the morning if that’s when your foot pain/tension is at its highest.