Is it possible to increase flexibility without stretching?

Are all tight tissues a flexibility problem? It would make sense that if we feel tightness in a tissue that we should stretch it. The hamstrings and the low back are two common areas where people feel the need to stretch. The problem is that the tightness usually returns shortly after stretching. What gives? In this blog post we will discuss why the solution to all flexibility problems isn’t stretching and what can be done about those tight tissues. 

The problem with instantly stretching a tissue because it is tight is that it oversimplifies how the musculoskeletal system works. Tissues don’t become tight just for the sake of it, there has to be a reason for them to become tight (spasmed muscles are metabolically inefficient and a waste of resources). This is especially true when we constantly stretch an area, only for the tightness to come back. 

The joint by joint approach provides a way for assessing the primary role of each joint in the body. For example: 

  • The shoulders and hips are ball and socket joints which means they should be mobile.
  • The knees and elbows are hinging joints which means they should be stable.
  • In the spine, the low back should be stable while the mid-back should be mobile.

When there is a dysfunction in one of the areas, another area will compensate. 

One of the most common examples of this compensation is in the hamstrings. People will stretch and stretch but the tightness in their hamstrings always seems to come back. This is usually because the hamstrings are compensating for a dysfunctional core. The hamstrings tighten to provide stability for the low back. Without adding stability into the body, the hamstrings revert back to being tight.  

The way to determine if a core dysfunction is causing hamstring tightness is comparing the range of motion of an unassisted straight leg raise to a core activated straight leg raise. Start by lying face up on the ground. The first thing is to figure out how far you can raise your leg up while keeping your knee straight. Next, we can add some sort of core activation technique. You can either pull a band down by your side or push a band out to your side. Then repeat the leg raise that you did above. If you are able to go further with the core activation, then a core dysfunction is the reason for your hamstring tightness. 

Just because a tissue feels tight doesn't mean that stretching it is the solution. The body is a connected system and shouldn't be treated by reducing its parts to specific tissues. By using the joint by joint approach, you can assess which areas need mobility and which areas need stability. Sometimes the solution isn't where you think it is.