“My [insert the name of a muscle or body area] is tight. Can we do some extra stretches for it?”
Every trainer reading this knows we get some variation of this question often. It’s a logical direction: something is tight, stretching makes you less tight, therefore stretching is the solution to tightness. While it’s logical, it’s not necessarily accurate.
I have tight adductors (groin muscles). I always have. Recently, I decided to do try doing something about it, so I took a before shot, and then added three sets of about 60 second adductor stretches to my workout program, which I then did two to three times a week for six weeks, and then I took an after shot. Here they are:
Admittedly the photography isn’t the best, but amazing improvement, right? What? You don’t see it?
Me either. The photo on the bottom is the after, by the way. I think there’s a bit more range, but not much. Not only was there little to no improvement, but my hips didn’t feel good when I came out of each stretch. The discomfort wore off after a few steps, but was consistently present over the six weeks.
If adductor stretching is the answer to my adductor tightness, shouldn’t adductor stretching feel good and yield a positive outcome over time?
Works and doesn’t hurt seems like an obvious criterion for an exercise, doesn’t it?
Since it did neither of those things, I decided that adductor stretching is not for me and I’m not going to do it any more.
What do you think? Is that the right response, or does that sound like a drastic conclusion?
I suspect the reason stretching didn’t do much (good) is a combination of genetics and structure. This is a conclusion that I draw from my history (I’ve never been able to sit cross-legged well), my family (my brother has similar inflexibility), and the failure of my adductor stretching experiment.
There is a theory that lack of stability can signal the brain to limit mobility, and that in order to increase mobility, you must address that instability. I mention this to point out that lack of stability is another reason that I could have limited range of motion in my adductors. The reason I don’t think it’s that, is that I have done loads of core stability work over many years. If core stability was the key to unlocking my adductors, it would have happened long ago. And so I am sticking with the conclusion I mentioned above.
Which means, I’m suggesting that maybe there are situations where it is okay – normal even – to be tight.
We tend to carry this belief that we have to fix everything, but what if some things just are, and don’t need to be fixed? In my case, my adductor range of motion causes no pain, has no negative effect on my daily life, and does not limit my performance in either tennis or skiing, my two favourite sports. So is this really a problem?
I can see a counter argument: So you’re saying we should just accept who we are and never strive to be better.
That isn’t what I’m saying; but also, it sort of is.
What I’m actually saying is that we would all do well to accept the fact that as humans we are not built from one single mould. And since we’re not all built the same, striving to meet a generic standard is nonsensical. What if we strive to be better (the best even?) versions of ourselves and also recognize that we may not know what that looks like until we try.
Not sure if your limitation is fixable or not? Try fixing it. Can you? Great. Done. But what if after a month or two there’s little to no improvement? What if along the way your body gives you the “I don’t like this” signal? Maybe that means that for this outcome, you’re already at the best version of you.
Interested in the topic of whether or not to stretch? I wrote another post about a different scenario where stretching isn’t the answer.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who enjoys talking and writing about training concepts.
Hey Jess, I have heard of RPR, but I’m not familiar with it. I wonder how different it is from Z-health, which maybe is an older model of the voodoo? I think resetting is front and center in things like animal flow and original strength, too?
I’m a fan of the foam roll/self-myofascial release too, and in combination with stretching, although I can’t say that I have any scientifically valid reason.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Michelle. Definitely great to get your input – both as a physio and as someone who does have good ROM. And I love your random thoughts as they each are important. And – as I think you’re alluding – they also really just add questions. I’m not well-versed in endocrine or vascular issues relating to stiffness, but now that you mention it, it makes sense that there could be. I’ll get my part two up soon, which I think provides a practical approach but still not really an answer.
I’m intrigued by stuff like Original Strength and Animal Flow, but don’t have an official opinion on them. I like the concepts of natural movement, but I don’t know how much evidence there is to support it. I gather that anecdotally lots of people think it’s amazing – and even among my peers, lots of smart people whom I respect seem to think it’s amazing. That all is worth something, but I’m just not sure how much it’s worth. The challenge with new (or new old?) concepts of movement is that we tend to think something is cool so we try it and we “get great results”, although we don’t actually measure anything so we don’t know that we actually got results, and if we did, we don’t know if it’s the exercise of the excitement about the exercise (placebo is strong!). So that’s my long-winded way of saying I have no opinion yet, but if you’ve tried it and it’s had (or seemed to have had) a positive effect, then it’s probably worth doing it more.
Thanks for this article Elsbeth. It will help me relax about my own tightness.
I’ve noticed that static stretching doesn’t do much good in most cases other than alleviate pain in certain areas, but a combination of foam rolling/soft tissue techniques over time can help.
Have you heard of RPR technique. Check that out too, it seems to work amazingly well. Kinda of a voodoo technique I learned this last summer from JL Holdsworth and his crew, but it does amazing things at resetting the CNS for some people to get them moving in a ROM that’s far better than usual for most people.
Food for thought from a physio perspective:
I really liked your blog post about stretching, and agree with you. It made me think of many points. I am feeling very inclined to respond since I agree that there are many misconceptions of stretching, stiffness, and ROM. Sorry if this seems random….so many thoughts.
ie: – “stiffness” (resistance to movement) vs ROM, vs shortened muscles (loss of/reduced number of sarcomeres in the muscle itself)
– limitations in the skeletal system (which are individual)
– possible imbalances in the endocrine system (Mg? others?), vascular issues?
– the use of PNF stretching vs static stretching
– prolonged stretching vs not
– static vs dynamic
As an athlete with very good ROM, when I feel stiff, stretching does not seem to help (it seems my muscles resist the stretch). However, foam rolling, Dry Needling, or massage are very helpful. Stretching after an activity helps me to prevent DOMS and that feeling of “stiffness” later on.
I’m happy to chat more about it if you are interested.
I enjoyed this post as I’ve struggled with the same notion for years. I’ll go through “phases” where I will stretch diligently, and then give up out of sheer frustration. But somehow I’m always drawn back to it, usually after reading an article.
What do you think of methods like Original Strength, which uses “resets” to address mobility and flexibility issues?