Let’s paint a picture: an athlete reaches for their toes and can’t get anywhere past shin level. They are told they have “tight” hamstrings, and are told multiple times by various sources that they need to “stretch to loosen up.” This same athletes goes home every night after practice and training and does the basic sit-and-reach and touch-your-toes activities, or banded static stretches, yet comes back every day and has seen no notable changes. This is the same athlete who cannot seem to “activate” their hamstrings and glutes during any movements, but can still squat the house and perform athletic movements well enough to avoid any catastrophic injuries. This is fairly common in both athletic and non-athletic populations based on my experience (and I have experienced it myself personally as well). So what is the deal and what can we do to help influence positive changes in this person?
For starters, I would ditch static stretching altogether (in most cases). Static stretching with no intent is overrated! Holding an unloaded position for time without any other factors involved is not a strategy that is worthwhile in my opinion most of the time. I am not arguing that there are no applications or that it has no value, but in most circumstances, in my experience, I do not believe it to be overly necessary, specifically for reducing the sensation of “tight” muscles.
Let’s begin by understanding why muscles are tight most of the time in the first place. The hamstrings, for instance. Without going in-depth into anatomy and the various origins and insertions of the various hamstring musculature that I know for a fact most people couldn’t care less about, let’s just think about the hamstrings as a group that works together for the sake of simplicity and understanding. The hamstrings primarily act to flex the lower leg and extend the hips. Or in simpler terms, move the hips forward, and pull the lower leg towards the thigh. With this basic understanding, why would the hamstrings feel tight on so many individuals?
I would argue most times it is because the pelvis has a pronounced anterior tilt, which is normally due to some combination of: poor management of gravity while standing, sub-optimal breathing patterns, sitting too much, lack of strength and muscle tone in core, hamstring, and hip musculature, and overactive spinal erectors from an emphasis on barbell strength training and athletic movements. This, then, puts the hamstrings in a position that is not an optimal resting length, which puts excessive tension on an area that is not accustomed to it. It is essentially a neural response as a defense mechanism to prevent the anterior tilting pelvic position from exacerbating any more. In less complex terminology, the pelvis is tipped forward, which stretches the hamstrings beyond a point where they can adequately do their job due to poor positioning, and they feel tight to prevent this position from getting any more extreme than it already is. Think about pulling a rubber band apart. The further you pull, the more it stretches and gets “tight,” and that is essentially what is going on in simple terms.
Picture an individual who has a protruded ribcage with their butts sticking out behind them in the opposite direction. Now, if that rubber band is already being yanked on beyond what is comfortable, and by static stretching you are simply pulling them even further beyond this point, what do you think will result from doing this over time? I can almost guarantee the problem will not be solved, and may even eventually result in an injury if conditions get worse.
To sum this all up, maybe there are some instances where muscles feel “tight” because they are shorter than is optimal for them to function at a high level, but in most cases that tightness comes from an already lengthened position that is putting the musculature in a disadvantageous position. Just like the rubber band example. This is an incredibly simple way of describing the complex, ever dynamic processes that occur in the human body, but it does a decent job of at least painting a picture for basic understanding.
So, if static stretching is already pulling a muscle that is stretched into a more stretched position, what is a better alternative? I would start by learning, instead, to activate and contract that muscle to create a sustainable position, rather than trying to get it to stretch and loosen. My go-to methods for learning new patterns and activation sequences are:
End Range Pauses
Maximal Tension Isometrics
End Range Pauses
An end range pause is exactly what it sounds like: pick a movement pattern and pause close to end range before reversing directions and finishing the movement. For example, in a push-up, you would pause at the bottom before going back up to the starting position. Or in a hip bridge, you would pause with your hips at the top before controlling the movement back down. This can be applied for any movement and any amount of time as long as there is an appropriate thought process behind why you are doing what you are doing.
The idea behind it is that you can provide references as to where end range is, teach the individual how to activate and feel certain musculature, and spend more time in positions that are often either difficult to feel, or hard to control. This is a good starting point for teaching someone what they should be feeling when doing a certain movement, and should help to teach appropriate strategies for foundational movement patterns.
The application I would typically use for this method for someone who has a “tight” muscle is by putting certain activities in the warm-up that include end-range pauses, or even including some lower level drills in a strength training session, particularly during general preparation periods of training. This gives the individual references for the remainder of training sessions, then, and is a good starting point for getting more muscle tone in areas that are often lacking.
An example for that person with “tight” hamstrings would be a hip bridge variation with a hamstring emphasis, and I would have them pause at the top for anywhere between 1 and 5 seconds. My go-to for this is normally a feet-elevated hip bridge. For me, I cue the athlete to slightly flatten their lower back against the ground, push their heels into the box, and feel their hamstrings as they rise. I use other cues as well if the athlete is struggling to feel what I want them to feel, but the theme is all about feeling the core and hamstrings. This is where good coaching, creativity, and observation comes into play.
Durational isometrics are classified as a specific movement pattern and joint angle, and holding that position for a specific duration of time. Other coaches and trainers have often called these long-duration isometrics, extreme-slow isometrics, or yielding isometrics, as originally popularized by Jay Schroeder. Though I am sure many people have utilized this method well before strength and conditioning was even a recognized field, and every coach who uses them probably has their own way of coaching the movements. This is simply my way of incorporating these methods with myself and those I work with. I call them durational isometrics simply because I feel the name is self-explanatory and simple, and gives me a classification system with proper nomenclature.
An example of a durational isometric would be holding a lunge position at the bottom position while maintaining proper joint angles. I typically look for matching front-side shin and torso angles, 90 degree knee and hip positions, and the back knee hovering slightly above the ground without losing position. Another popular example would be traditional planks and side plank variations that almost everyone has done at some point in their life. There is no specific amount of time that is required to hold each position, but the idea is picking a movement that is safe and effective and fighting against gravity for as long as you can without getting out of position.
The purpose of this method is to get stronger in disadvantageous positions (i.e. end ranges where the muscles are typically lengthened), and get your body to understand how to activate specific muscles that are often overly lengthened and “tight” as a result. In short, it teaches good positions and safe loading patterns.
So let’s take that same person who has “tight” hamstrings and think about how we could apply this strategy to that person. I would start with teaching them to activate hamstring and core muscles to try to get the pelvis and ribcage to face each other a little more, and theoretically reduce the amount of anterior pelvic tilt and ribcage flare. In English, I would use plank variations (specifically a push-up position plank) to address ribcage positions, and hip up variations to teach pelvic positioning. I would start with short durations, somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds, and build over time until somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes. By getting the core and hamstrings to have a little more muscle tone, ideally the individual would reduce the excessive anterior pelvic tilt and, as a result, not have such tight hamstrings anymore. These are often multi-factorial problems, so it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but this is the starting point I would use for most individuals with “tight” hamstrings.
Maximal Tension Isometrics
Maximal tension isometrics, similar to the two methods above, are fairly self-explanatory based on the name. Rather than simply fighting against gravity for a specific amount of time like in the durational isometrics, during these you simply activate specific muscles with maximal intent while holding a position. I originally heard of this method from Dr. Tommy John, and have also heard this is the method that Jay Schroeder uses with his athletes when doing long-duration or extreme-slow isometrics, as opposed to the durational strategy written above. But, again, I am sure they have been used for a very long time by intelligent movement practitioners and athletes; I just want to give appropriate credit where credit is due. I simply call them maximal tension isometrics, again, because the name is simple and self-explanatory, and it gives me an organizational system.
An example of how I use this strategy would be holding a push-up position plank and thinking about a few cues: push the ground away, squeeze your glutes, brace like someone is punching you in the stomach, think about pulling your hands towards your feet, and think about pushing your feet towards your hands. This creates tension in specific areas, with an emphasis on proper hip and torso positions to minimize anterior pelvic tilt, and maximize hip and core activation strategies. Similar to as I said above, for someone with “tight” hamstrings, I would use movements to reduce the amount of anterior pelvic tilt and reliance on spinal extensors to stabilize the spine, pelvis, and ribcage. In simple terms, I would use movements that emphasize hamstrings, hips, and core activation such as plank and hip bridge variations. I would use short durations initially, probably between 10 and 15 seconds, and try to build up to somewhere between 1 and 3 minutes depending on a variety of factors.
For a hip bridge variation, I would instruct the individual to: exhale first, slightly push the lower back into the ground, pretend like you are about to be punched in the stomach, drive the hips up, and think about pulling your heels towards your body. This, again, creates tension in hamstring, core, and hip musculature that encourages positive movement strategies. The idea is to increase tone of hamstrings and core, while reducing tone of spinal erectors and other compensatory strategies that are commonly seen in those who use barbell strength training regularly.
To wrap it all up, those are three strategies I believe to be more effective than static stretching in most cases to reduce the amount of “tightness” in specific muscles. Every tool has its place and I am not saying static stretching has no role in health or performance, I am simply offering alternatives for those who do not find static stretching to be helpful in alleviating “tight” muscles. I learned through trial and error that too much static stretching ends up just creating more “tight” muscles than it reduces, and without increasing tone in the antagonist, the agonist will never find its optimal resting length. In simple terms, if you do not strengthen an area that is weak and underactive, the tightness will never permanently resolve itself, and it will be a never-ending cycle of stretching without any long-term relief.
Ultimately, it all comes down to creating positional awareness, and exposing yourself to a wide variety of activities and movements. I went down the path of static stretching every muscle in my body previously myself, and now can say that I almost never static stretch unless I am implementing a breathing component or looking to relax after a challenging training session. The theme here is really just learning to move efficiently and proficiently through basic patterns. So next time you have a “tight” muscle, try to learn to activate it instead of stretching it. Keep it simple, and repeat that over and over until you become proficient.