Nowadays, the fitness and physiotherapy world have oversimplified the reason for any and every musculoskeletal pain we experience.
“Your muscles are tight because you don’t stretch enough.”
It is true that a lack of flexibility can be a cause of injury and pain, but so can too much flexibility. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that a tight muscle is over engaged and an excessively stretched out muscle is overly disengaged. That’s why like Goldilocks, we need to have an amount of flexibility that is “just right”!
To do this well, we need to identify why a given muscle is tight or a given movement is limited in the first place. As an example, let’s use the hamstrings (back of the thigh) as the muscle and touching your toes as the movement to help illustrate this. First, let’s break down why some people cannot touch their toes. I see many cases of this every week, with people naturally blaming those pesky hamstrings for restricting their movement, since that’s what they’ve heard from family, friends, yoga instructors, or someone at the gym. This is not to say that the hamstrings can never be the issue. However, they are not the issue half the time. When you bend to touch your toes, you can be limited by your calf muscles, your back muscles, or even the nerves that run down your spine towards your feet. Therefore, it is important to have the full body assessed to determine the reason you can’t get to your toes.
Ignoring this and stretching only your hamstrings can lead to hamstrings that are too stretched out. Remember from earlier: a muscle that is too stretched is too disengaged and is no longer supporting your body properly. This will make you more likely to get injured; thus came the inspiration to write this blog post. I often treat people who have restrictions in the pelvis, hips or upper back who should not be able to touch their toes, yet they can palm the floor. These people certainly have overstretched hamstrings that are no longer supporting any of those structures mentioned. Needless to say, a lack of support from a big muscle can cause pain and movement dysfunction. “But my hamstrings feel tight” is what I often hear when I ask people to stop stretching. They tend to think the muscle is tight because they push it to its very limit and feel a strong stretching sensation. However, no amount of stretching will stop that. You will always feel a stretch when you push any muscle to its limit, which is why you cannot rely on that feeling alone to figure out if you should stretch or not. Rather, you need a professional to look at the whole body and identify where the restrictions are, otherwise you could be doing more harm than good.
With all that said, is it even important to be able to touch your toes? Yes, because being able to do it means that the muscles in your body are in good balance between engaged and relaxed. However, let’s not oversimplify this to mean that those who can do it are healthier or less likely to be hurt compared to those who can’t. As a simple recommendation, if you cannot touch your toes (especially if you have some sort of pain going on), don’t panic but consider having your full body movements assessed. If you can touch your toes, you should not stretch your hamstrings any further. If you can palm the floor, you really should not stretch your hamstrings any further.
Remember, more is not better; it has to be “just right.”
By: Mike Wadie, M.Sc. PT