We’ve all seen it. Maybe at the races or at the gym, or most any place muscles and supportive tissues meet: active or even static stretching to warm up or stave off soreness or injury. Perhaps we’re even guilty ourselves of trying to force greater range of motion in part of the body meant to provide us with stability.
Research continues to mount about stretching’s lack of effectiveness as a ‘warm up’ or preventative for injury or soreness. In fact, much of the stretching dogma we learned in high school gym class has been debunked over the years with countless studies on professional and Olympic athletes, weekend warriors and the military. Stretching can increase flexibility, but in muscle groups designed to keep us upright, like those in the lower back, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The body self prescribes a “normal” range of motion for a reason; most notably to prevent injury. This normal range allows us to complete most tasks and make most reaches safely and effectively. The tightness or tension we feel while trying to go beyond that set range is the central nervous system’s way of letting us know the body may be reaching beyond what it considers a safe limit. Try reaching down to touch your toes. At some point, often very early in the movement, the lower back counter-reacts to prevent you from going too far. Pain along what is considered a normal range of motion is most often an indication of some underlying weakness or imbalance. This is particularly true of the stabilizing muscles of the lower back, which are often called upon to compensate for weak or inactive muscles in the hips and buttocks.
Most common stretches either don’t target the area they’re attempting to isolate, are done in such a way as to cause greater harm, or fail to address the root of the problem. Think sciatica: that pain, tingling or numbness in the lower back or buttocks which is often misinterpreted as tightened or strained hamstrings. Attempts to stretch the hamstrings will provide no relief, and can only result in continued irritation of the sciatic nerve.
Stretching may be part of a more comprehensive treatment protocol, most often times combined with other functional strength training to protect the area of weakness and provide for greater overall balance and future injury prevention. The key is to know and understand which stretches are useful, and for what purpose they serve. A thorough gait analysis is one tool the doctors at Greenapple Sports and Wellness use to determine where the imbalance lies, which muscles are carrying the load to compensate, and how best to reestablish proper muscular balance.