For a lot of people, getting into a solid stretching routine is difficult, even for people who have no problem consistently working out. If you’ve had a hard time getting into stretching and feel the consequences creeping up on you in the form of tight muscles and aching joints, you are in the right place. I want to go over the 4 main areas to stretch that I see most regularly negatively affecting my clients and the people around me. As you read through these 4 areas, I want you to think if any apply to you. When coming up with an effective stretching program, it is important to first have an understanding what your tight areas are. It’s hard to take time out of your day to stretch every muscle, so it is important to know what muscles need the most attention, and why, so you can be efficient and effective.
Hips, Hip Flexors, Quadriceps- One of the most common pain points I see my clients dealing with is low back pain, and by far the most common cause of back pain comes from tight hips, hip flexors, and quads. Having a properly aligned pelvis is important for a healthy pain-free back, and having tight hip flexors, hips and quads can pull the anterior (front) side of your pelvis down, tilting your pelvis forward. This can be caused by sitting, and because we as people sit so often, it has become very common. Because your spine connects to the bottom of your pelvis, when the pelvis is tilted in any direction, it puts pressure on the lumbar spine (lower back) and changes its natural curve. In this case, having an anterior pelvic tilt, extenuates the curve in the lower back (extension), making the whole structure not as effective at absorbing impact, moving functionally and creating a pull on your lower back. Much of the time, these muscles being tight do not always cause the pelvis to tilt. Tight hip flexor muscles can still pull at your lower back causing back pain, without any obvious signs. This puts wear and tear on the spine and discs, along with causing the spinal erector muscles to be overworked.
The best way to go about fixing back pain due to tight hips, hip flexors and quads is a mixture of stretching and strengthening exercises. When most people think about tight muscles they think the muscle must be too strong, but often it is because of the opposite, the muscles are weak. This is especially common in tight hip flexor muscles, which run from the bottom of the pelvis, connecting up into the lower back. If this is the case, it is important to strengthen them as well as stretch them. Overstretching a muscle that is weak can actually cause it to tighten even more. Here are some stretches and strengthening exercises I like to use.
Ankles- You may not think having tight ankles is a big problem, but it can be. Tight ankles can put stress on your knees, hips, and even your lower back. More often the lack of mobility seen is in the loss of dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion is the act of raising your toes up toward your shin bone (tibia), or if you are walking, the back knee’s ability to mover over the toes, right before it moves forward to step. When dorsiflexion is lost, to compensate, we externally rotate that foot outward to allow walking without having to bend too much at the ankle. With our foot externally rotated outward, this puts torque on our knee, hips, and even lower back.
Losing dorsiflexion or general mobility in one’s ankle is often the result of an ankle injury that was not properly rehabbed, or wearing shoes with a raised heal, over time shortening the Achilles tendon. It is common after an ankle injury to stay off the affected foot for a period of time. This can cause the muscles and tendons to shorten and lose flexibility. It is important at some point of an injured ankles recovery to perform stretching and even strengthening exercises to gain back that foots original mobility. Stretching exercises to combat ankle tightness is quite simple. Stretches that rehab both the joint capsule and the tendons and muscles in the calf are similar with only slight differences. Rolling out the calf muscle with either a hand roller or even a lacrosse ball is also effective at gaining ankle mobility. Here are a few stretching and rolling exercises I like.
Hamstrings- If you are not that familiar with stretching, I bet there is a good chance that you are still familiar with how to stretch your hamstrings, or at least seen someone stretch theirs at some point. I think hamstring stretches are the most commonly practiced stretches out there, and for good reason. Having tight hamstrings can negatively impact simple movements that we do on a day to day basis, causing strain on different parts of our body, particularly the lower back. One, tight hamstrings can actually pull at your pelvis and lower back, causing back pain, but also affect how we move, causing us to round our lower back in movements like picking something up off the floor. The lower back (lumbar spine) is meant to be the stiffer less mobile part of our spine, compared to the upper back (thoracic spine), and does not do well with constant bending, especially under load. Bending over with a rounded lumbar spine puts a lot of pressure on the discs and over time often causes them to bulge or become herniated. If you have ever heard the expression “lift with your legs”, this is why. Having tight hamstrings also puts you in much higher danger of getting a hamstring pull or tear.
If your hamstrings are particularly tight, it would be a good idea to perform any of the stretches where you are laying first, rather then standing, as laying hamstring stretches takes your lower back out of the equation. Standing and reaching for your toes to stretch your hamstrings should be saved for once your hamstrings have loosened up a to the point to where you are able to keep your lower back straight through the stretch. Here are a few hamstrings stretches that I use on myself, and clients regularly.
Shoulders- Shoulder pain is tricky. There are a lot of muscles that feed into our shoulders that when they get tight can cause our shoulders to round forward. When our shoulders round forward, the gap between our arm bone (humerus) and roof of our shoulder (acromion) gets smaller. Through this gap runs our bicep and supraspinatus rotator cuff tendon. When this gap gets smaller both the supraspinatus and bicep tendon can rub up against the roof of the shoulder, causing inflammation, tendonitis, and eventually a tear. Tight rotator cuff muscles can also cause our shoulders to round forward. You might think that tight rotator cuff muscles, particularly the infraspinatus and teres minor would cause our shoulders to get pulled back because those muscles run from the ridge of our scapula and connect onto the head of the humerus, but instead, they sinch our shoulders down and forward. Also, lats can be the cause of your shoulder rounding forward as well, along with affecting your ability to raise your arm directly over your head. But probably the most common cause of someones shoulders rounding forward is due to tight pectoral muscles. Like our hip flexors tightening when we sit, our chest can tighten for the same reason. Right now I am sitting at my computer desk, hunched over my laptop with my shoulders rounded forward. I am putting my pectoral muscles in a shortened state, and when we put any muscle in a shortened state for an extended amount of time, it can shorten permanently. Chest exercises are also one of the more popular exercises practiced in the gym, especially by men. If you regularly work your pectoral muscles out but you never stretch them, they can get tight, just like every muscle in your body, and unfortunately, many people do not.
If you are experiencing shoulder pain from a rounded forward shoulder posture, it is important to identify what exactly is causing the issue so you can address it directly. Here are a few exercises that I do regularly to keep my posture in line, and shoulder feeling good.