Short Muscles vs. Tight Muscles

Should I be stretching more?As a physical therapist, this is a question that I am asked quite frequently.

In the past, you would find a quick response and easy answer from most healthcare professionals or trainers – Yes!After all, isnt routine stretching part of a healthy lifestyle and good for our flexibility?

The answer to this question is not that simple.

As time goes by and knowledge evolves it becomes appropriate to challenge conventional wisdom. This is what I have found in the case of stretching. It is not so black and white – and this is why

Lets meet a muscle that is somehow involved in pain or is limiting your daily functioning. This specific muscle may fall under one of two muscle categories: shortor tight. These terms may sound similar but may refer to two very different conditions which can determine whether stretching will be helpful or harmful.

The differentiation between the two includes how relaxed a muscle is.

Shortrefers to the inability of a relaxed muscle to lengthen during movement and is more of a structural property of the muscle preventing overall flexibility. On the other hand, Tightrefers to a muscle that is having difficulty relaxing due to excessive tension which limits functioning and possibly causes pain – there is a good chance that this tight muscle is overworked for a number of reasons.

SoWhat does all of this mean to you?

Lets look at the hamstrings as a good example. It may be a good idea to stretch short hamstrings, as they may limit your flexibility during functional activities such as bending and reaching to the ground. A short muscle that is relaxed may benefit from stretching to help gain some length.

On the other hand, tight hamstrings may not be short, but may still be restricted and limiting your ability to bend. Stretching tight hamstrings is likely not a good idea as this muscle is unable to relax and is experiencing a lot of tension. Therefore, stretching a tight muscle is adding further stress to it, causing more work, and in the long run, even more tightness. 

It may feel good in the moment to stretch a tight muscle – but this relief is only temporary. You will soon have that feeling that you need to stretch again. In my experience, I have found many of my patients experiencing years of back pain have also been avid hamstring stretchers. The next time you bend and reach to touch your toes to stretch your hamstrings you should ask yourself this: Am I doing the right thing?

The answer of what to do if you are dealing with a tightmuscle is much more involved. Relaxation of the muscle is needed in these cases. Reaching this goal may be accomplished in a variety of ways, but the approach is more complicated than developing a stretching program.

The traditional model of physical therapy usually involves a lot of stretching, both of tight and short structures. From reading above, you can determine that this is not a universal method and many patients will not benefit from this type of treatment.

At MOVE Physical Therapy, we see a lot of tight, overactive muscles in our patients. As such, you will not see too much traditional stretching performed here. We design our treatment plans unique to the patients needs based on a thorough evaluation process and utilize techniques with a goal of providing permanent relief. So, dont worry if you cant determine if your muscles are short or tight and whether or not to stretch them – Thats our job!

Dr. John De Noyelles, PT, DPT, CSCS

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