Many of us feel the need to stretch muscles that we perceive as being tight. Muscles can be either be short and tight or long and tight. A muscle that is long and tight is usually compensating for some instability. This is where our body will create tension to provide a sense of stability.
Stretching a short muscle is often appropriate in the context of a prescriptive exercise program based on one’s specific needs.
Stretching a muscle that is long could result in destabilizing a joint and/or your core and lead to pain and injury.
This example by Dr. Geoff Lecovin explains it perfectly.
“Functional low back pain is a good example illustrating the joint and muscle concepts outlined above.
It is common for the hips to lack mobility in people with chronic low back pain. Consequently, the lumbar spine becomes unstable. To provide stability, the nervous system steps in and creates a dysfunctional muscle imbalance, i.e. the hamstrings and superficial back muscles neurologically tighten (“lock long”).
In low back pain, the core stabilization muscles are often delayed or “weak” (e.g. transverse abdominus, internal oblique, gluteus maximus and gluteus medius).
Should you stretch your hamstrings and low back muscles? That depends. Are you tight, or just neurologically out of control- Unstable?
Instability signals the brain and nervous system to put the brakes on because it feels threatened. It does this by borrowing stability from somewhere else to provide a sense of security. This is called compensation.
The tendency is to want to stretch a muscle that “feels” tight, to provide relief. If you stretch a muscle that has become neurologically tightened to provide stability, this will destabilize the area.”
A thorough assessment is needed to determine to best approach to stretching or stabilizing a region. Creating stability and strength will often decrease the risk of a neurologically tight muscle. Stretching through it to provide short term relief could have long term consequences.