As you age, your body starts talking to you. Sometimes loudly. Those daily aches, pains, and stiffness can be due to many things, like poor posture or overuse during sports and activities. But do you know if you should stretch or strengthen to feel better? Which matters more?
In a word: both.
The daily stiffness that happens more as you age is due to a few things:
- Poor Posture
- Sports or activities that move your body unevenly, like golf or tennis
- Whether you use your body through the day
- How much you move move your body
- How well you sleep
- Your food choices
There are lots of factors to consider, but when it comes to stretching or strengthening, they are both important for different reasons. Knowing which to focus on helps.
Tight vs short
Many of us are familiar with the sensation of “tightness,” but do you really know what to do about it? It might seem straightforward: when your body feels tight, you stretch. In a practical sense, however, that is not always the case.
Your body can feel tight for many reasons: overuse, underuse, staying in one position for a long time, or dysfunction in the tissue itself, to name a few. Healthy muscle tissue is made up of many small fibers that run parallel to each other.
When we injure a muscle, we can develop “knots,” or gnarled areas where the fibers no longer run parallel. You can feel this when foam rolling or getting a massage. That “OH MY GOD” place is usually the site of gnarled tissue. Causes can be scar tissue from a prior injury, or a current strain or tear injury where the body tries to protect itself in some way.
The knot, for lack of a better term, impairs the muscle from stretching and contracting the way it should. When you stretch a knotted muscle, you feel pulling at the attachments, not the muscle itself. Instead of the pleasant stretching sensation, you feel resistance. You’ll feel the sensation at the joints instead of the belly of the muscle.
In this case, you want to Foam roll and/or get a massage to relieve the tightness. Stretching may lead to more injury. Because the muscle won’t elongate properly, stretching pulls at the attachments and won’t get to the source of the problem. Once the fibers realign, you can stretch them safely.
Speaking of elongate, the other type of “tight” is when the muscle is short and contracted. While each muscle has fixed end points at the joints and bones, the ability to move through a small or large range of motion has to do with how far the muscle can stretch.
For example, if you have shortened hamstrings, you might not be able to touch your toes by folding forward. Lengthening the hamstrings by stretching will improve your range of motion over time. You can improve this type of tight by stretching, and over time, you might, in fact, get to touch your toes.
Repetitive exercise, like running or biking, also causes tight muscles, since we contract our muscles over and over during the activity. Static stretching after exercise helps more than before. Warm up with dynamic stretching or foam rolling (or both), then stretch after.
Contracted vs Strained
Sometimes when your muscles feel tight, they are actually in a state of prolonged elongation. Take “Tech Neck” for example. This is the condition caused by constantly looking at your phone or devices. It causes a forward head/rounded upper back posture. The muscles in the chest and front of the neck tighten, causing pain in the back of the neck and upper back. This “tightness” is actually muscle strain.
Over-stretching feels tight, but will actually improve with strengthening, rather than stretching. It’s like having a weight on the end of a spring: the weight pulls the spring to lengthen it, but over time, if the weight stays there, the spring can’t bounce back to its original shape. What we need to do here is contract the spring to shorten it the other way.
In terms of your neck, you need to move the head and neck in the opposite direction. Strengthening the muscles in the back of the neck and upper back will bring them back to neutral and they will feel better. Contracting the posterior muscles in this case will relieve the problem, whereas stretching them will only make things worse. Stretching the chest and front neck muscles may help.
What do you do?
- Pay attention. When do you feel tight? What were you doing prior? Which part of your body feels tight?
- Once you understand the possible source of your tightness, move your body in the opposite direction. That might be stretching, that might be contracting or strengthening, that could also mean foam rolling.
- Work to achieve for balance. With repetitive exercises, like running or biking, you’ll want to balance your exercise with some sort of cross training. Because you move in only one plane with these activities, you’ll want to do something that moves you through the other planes of movement. Yoga, pilates, and weight training are activities that stretch and strengthen your body, while moving you through multiple planes. Cross training helps your body feel stronger, more mobile, and better over all.
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