Have you ever noticed that anytime someone has a muscle that is tight or sore the first thought is to stretch it? Don’t get me wrong. Stretching can be great and flexibility is definitely a sign of healthy muscles. However, sometimes you have to stop and consider the reason the muscle is tight before you go and stretch the heck out of it.
Considering the source of tightness in postural muscles is especially important. Postural muscles in the neck, back and buttock are designed to hold you upright all day long. The muscle fibers are called slow twitch/white as opposed to fast twitch/red in the legs and arms. Postural muscles become tight under stress and strain or when they spasm. When muscles work too hard to hold you in a poor postural position, the muscle fibers shrink to try and gain leverage. Lengthening them alters the leverage and proliferates the problem. Let me explain with an analogy. Let’s say you have a boss who was working you hard 5 days a week 10 hour days. When he sees you are getting tired and burning out, he schedules you for 6 days the next week working 12 hour days so when you go back down to 5 days at 10 hours it is somehow easier. Think you will feel better? Unfortunately, we do the same thing with our postural muscles. We use poor posture which causes our muscles to have to work too hard to hold us up and then when they get tired and shorten up, we stretch them which causes them to work harder for a shorter period of time.
Muscle spasms are a protective measure. When muscles spasm there is something deeper that is either injured or dysfunctional. Stretching a muscle in spams is not only counterproductive but it can also cause more problems. At best what you accomplish is relaxing muscles that are protecting a very sensitive structure. At worst, you can tear muscle fibers and cause further damage to the injured structure.
The best thing to do in either case is to shorten the muscle and put it in a situation where it is under less strain. Generally, this means doing the opposite of what most people think you should do. If your neck is tight, bend it backwards looking up. For shoulders, pull your shoulder blades down and back away from the ears. For the low back, bend backwards. Movement is better than just being static so don’t hold the position but rather bend back and then it bring it back to neutral 10 repetitions at a time.
Remember that this mostly applies to postural muscles. Fast twitch red fiber muscles definitely need to be stretched on a regular basis. However, if you have a strained or torn muscle, stretching can prolong your recovery if you are not careful. Tearing a postural muscle with normal daily activity is difficult. So, the next time your postural muscles are feeling tight, don’t stretch them, shorten them.