As a physiotherapist I have clients come in all the time and tell me things like:
“I stretch ALL of the time and it doesn’t help” or “I always feel tight, no matter how much I stretch” or “I know I should be stretching more to feel better”.
So what gives? Why does stretching always feel like the answer, even when it is clearly not working? And why do most consider it the ultimate fix for all that ails them?
Stretching absolutely has its time and place. In fact, for some it can be hugely beneficial (though not always for the reasons you think!) and help to improve flexibility, pain, discomfort, and overall mobility. However, this is not true of everyone and it all comes down to the level of mobility of your joints.
You see, when it comes to our joints, they are either inherently mobile or inherently stable. And this mobility or stability runs on a continuum – you can’t have an entirely mobile AND stable joint, instead it lands somewhere along that continuum.
For those of you who have more mobile joints (hypermobility) this means that it’s much harder for your body to find stability around a joint. Because of this your joints will move into much larger ranges of motion (think of the people you know that dance or do gymnastics, or who love yoga – they tend to be on the more mobile side of things). This excessive range of motion can lead to you being in vulnerable positions where your body could get hurt. Now, our brain is pretty savvy and will do anything to protect us from injury so what then happens is the body attempts to stabilize these hypermobile joints by tightening and engaging the bigger muscles of our body (think hamstrings, quads, calves, pecs, etc.) to limit the range of motion at the joint.
Enter why you may always feel “tight” and why you can stretch until the cows come home to no improvement or even to worsening pain and symptoms.
This is because the actual length of the muscle tissue isn’t short, it’s just that the brain won’t allow it to lengthen fully in order to protect you. In fact, your body can and will even throw down some trigger points protectively to find some of this stability where they otherwise lack it, yet another reason you constantly need to stretch.
What does this mean in terms of actually stretching?
If you are someone who has more mobile joints than the next person, what this means is that you may have to adjust how and if you are stretching and focus instead on training strength and stability in your smaller, stabilizing muscles. In other words: you will need to drop most of your stretching routine and adopt a much more strength-based rehab plan. Not only this, it will be important for you to train this strength and stability throughout the range that you have, not just in one stationary range of motion.
Though it may seem backwards and strange to you, strengthening and stabilizing will give your body the stability and support it needs and allow it to stop pulling the “parking brake” and tightening up muscles to protect you.
Where do you go from here?
Best thing to do would be to work with a physiotherapist and a qualified strength coach who can guide you on your next best steps. Finding good exercises that are safe are so critical. Resistance training through nearly full range of motion as well as using the Pilates reformer are two of my personal favourite options when it comes to training stability when someone is hypermobile and I would be happy to answer any questions regarding either of these modalities – if you have any, feel free to reach out!