Why You Shouldn’t Stretch Tight Muscles

Categories: Blog, Pressing RESET, Muscle Tightness, Fear, Breathing, Pain Feb 26, 2023

The body is full of wisdom, wisdom we don’t always understand. It is designed to move and function optimally, it is designed to survive times of threat, and it is designed to thrive in times of peace. Your body knows what to do, and more importantly, your body knows what it is doing. 

But often, we don’t. 

Too often, we use modern logic to approach the body instead of wisdom. For example, if the body hurts, we may take NSAIDs to ease and rid the pain we are feeling instead of asking the body why it is hurting. Most people agree that pain is a signal from the body to get our attention. It’s the body trying to tell us something (usually, it’s trying to tell us to stop whatever we are doing). The body may give pain signals to keep us safe from creating further harm or to prevent damage from happening. When the body is giving us pain, it is not asking us for Advil. It is telling us we need to change something, or at the very least, it is telling us to listen to it so we can learn from it. 

Likewise, when the body is tight, it is trying to protect us. Logically, many of us assume that tight muscles need to be stretched. After all, that is how we can loosen them and remove the tension (though rarely, that actually works, which should be a natural indicator of faulty logic). But in the body’s wisdom, tight muscles mean protection. It’s trying to protect you and preserve itself.

Remember, the body is designed to survive times of threat. Tension and tight muscles are the body’s ways of guarding or inhibiting its ability to move in order to protect itself. Basically, when the body (the brain) does not feel safe, it places restrictions on the body by tensioning the muscles so that it doesn’t move into dangerous territory. Tight muscles are a protective mechanism. If your muscles are tight, your brain is trying to protect your body because there is something that is making your brain feel unsafe. 

When your hamstrings are tight, your body is not asking you to stretch them. It’s telling you that you’re not safe; there is a danger somewhere that needs addressing. To stretch tight hamstrings in order to loosen them is like trying to override the body’s safety protocols to keep you from injuring yourself. The tension, the tight muscles, are there for a reason. Your brain is trying to both protect you and get your attention. 

Not only that but in a way, stretching tight muscles is an aggressive approach; it’s forceful. No one likes to be pushed or forced into anything, your body is no exception. Force doesn’t make the brain feel safe; gentleness does. 

Often, when you have tight muscles, it is because the brain feels unsafe because it is not getting the information it is looking for, or the information it is getting is telling the brain there is danger. For example, if a person is breathing up in their chest and not down in their bellies, they are using their emergency breathing muscles instead of their diaphragms. Breathing up in the chest tells the brain, “I’m in danger.” When the brain is in danger, it battens down the hatches of the body, placing tension (fear) and tightness in the parts of the body that it deems to need more tension (like the hamstrings). This is the body’s wisdom. We have a chance to exercise wisdom ourselves by listening to this message and addressing it through a gentle action, like breathing properly with our diaphragms in this example. 

The point is, reacting forcefully to the warning signals of the body, like pain and tension, may not be the best course of action, and it could actually lead the body into more danger. Better would be to try to listen and understand the body’s wisdom to try to determine what it is that is making it feel unsafe. Once that is determined, gentleness is the way. 

Even if you can’t determine the reason the body feels unsafe, gentleness is still the way. Breathing like a child and moving like a child are often all it takes to gently give the brain the information it is looking for and needs to feel safe. Movements like rocking back and forth help to soothe the brain and also let the brain know where every single joint, muscle, and tissue in the body is located. When the brain can see where everything is, the brain feels safe enough to let go of fear and allow the body to move optimally. 

Anyway, tension is not your body asking you to stretch and force it to become loose. It’s your body trying to protect you from injuring it. Before you stretch your tight muscles, maybe try a gentler, wiser approach. 




Comments (3)

  1. Matt:
    Mar 03, 2023 at 02:25 PM

    Hi Tim,

    I have noticed this effect throughout my years of training as well, and have since adjusted my mobility work to strengthening those end ranges, rather then lengthening them.

    Do you have any tips on which muscles to work on to improve a pancake stretch though? My groin holds me back so much in this stretch, that it's like someone with a rope behind me holding me back.


    1. Tim Anderson:
      Mar 03, 2023 at 02:59 PM

      Hey Matt,

      I guess my question would be “do you need to do a pancake stretch?” Or, “is that good for your body?”

      If you just need to do it, or you just want to do it, you may have to override the body’s safety mechanisms. Pavel Tsatsouline has some great material on doing this: Relax into Stretch.

      If we are trying to get there without overriding the safety mechanisms, it may be that we have to move the safety barriers further away from where they currently are. Getting up to the edge of discomfort and breathing and gently moving may tell the brain it’s safe to be on the outer rim and it could relax the barriers.

      If nothing works, anesthesia will! But you’ll need a medical staff and a video because you won’t remember doing the pancake split while you’re out.


      1. Matt:
        Mar 03, 2023 at 03:45 PM

        Thanks for the response Tim,

        I don't really need to do a pancake stretch well, it's just one that I suck at, while I'm quite mobile in all other areas. I guess it's more of a personal challenge at this point, but not one that I want to invest too much time in (maybe that's why it's lagging, haha). I'll try your suggestions though, well maybe not the anesthesia one, I've heard those guys are expensive ;)



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