I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked, “do you know any stretches for your lower back?” Walk into any gym and you’ll see people twisting and turning to stretch their lower backs. It’s an inherent tendency for us to stretch when something feels “tight.”
Majority of the people that spend most of their time stretching do it in such an atrocious manner that all they’re doing is just increasing their tolerance for stretching. I should know because even in my earlier days as an aspiring fitness professional, I followed the norm. What I’m going to convey is why stretching isn’t always the answer for those tight nagging muscles. I feel obliged to break through the misconceptions of stretching, so here’s my take on it. Now, by no means am I against stretching—while there are certain advantages that stretching provides, I just think that it’s overused and abused.
1. Stability! Stability! Stability!
I just want to point out that the picture below is not what I mean by stability. Stop training for the circus! Humor aside, working on your mobility is critical when it comes to performance, but on the other end of the spectrum is where most people kind of put on the back burner—stability. Key point: Your muscles will create tension elsewhere when there is a lack of stability present. That tightness you’re experiencing in your hamstrings or lower back, for example, is your nervous system creating a barrier to prevent itself from tearing apart, therefore; the reason they are tight is because they are holding on for dear life and what ends up happening is an endless cycle of the same mundane stretching routine and nothing ever changes, they remain tight. To drive the point home, stretching really isn’t going to fix it. You’re just making matters worse.
That is where most people get confused between the aforementioned components—mobility and stability. In order to improve your ability to move in different ranges of motion, a foundation (stability) must be set. As the saying goes, “You can’t build a house without laying the foundation first.”
Over the years, I have cultivated a keen eye for subtle postural imbalances that people suffer from (an acquired hobby, if you will) and it has manifested into such an invaluable asset in my toolbox as a trainer and coach.
Pelvic positioning is of utmost importance when it comes to performing functional movements. If you strengthen in misalignment, you develop muscular imbalances. If you stretch in misalignment, you create instability. You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.
Most people walk around with a duck like posture —protruding belly, hyper-extended back, and their butt sticking out. Sound familiar? It looks like this…
Photo Credit: Ericcressey.com
This is the result of being stuck in one posture all day (being in front of a computer). The monotony of sitting at a desk for long hours on a daily basis destabilizes your deep abdominals and inhibits your glutes—NOT GOOD! Remember: Your muscles will create tension elsewhere when there is a lack of stability present. This, in turn will start the faulty movement pattern that your nervous system creates in an attempt to center your body. The inhibition of your abdominals and glutes will cause your hip flexors and lower back to act as your primary muscles, making them work harder than they actually have to.
Photo Credit: muscleimbalancesyndrome.com
Try this: Foam roll and stretch your hip flexors (this will release your lower back tension automatically). Afterwards, activate your glutes and abdominals by doing basic glute bridges, planks, and deadbugs. Doing this will allow your glutes and abdominals to function properly, which will prevent you from ever having a tight lower back.
It still boggles my mind how most people still have a tough time drinking water. The importance of hydration in relation to muscle length and flexibility could not be more evident. Your muscles are, after all, made up of 70% water. Put simply, if you are dehydrated your muscles will constrict and tighten up. What else is there to say? You have to stay hydrated. It’s essential that you drink half your body weight in ounces of water a day to not only flush out the garbage in your body, but to nourish and revitalize your muscles.
The bottom line…
Stretching is still a critical component to improving one’s functional capacity. It’s an old school way of thinking, if you’re one to believe that it isn’t a necessity when it comes to fitness. So, are you improving or are you making matters worse? Keep these three things in mind before you start your stretching routine again.