In my experience working with hundreds of people rehabbing chronic pain, faulty movement, and joint injury, I've identified a disturbing pervasive common denominator: most people experiencing pain and injury come to me with a stringent stretching protocol.
"Has it helped?" I always ask.
"Oh yes. I feel great after stretching."
"Ok, but do you feel lasting relief?"
"Oh yes. I always feel better after stretching."
"So is lasting relief consistent with feeling pain on a daily basis?"
Well-meaning as they are, most people come to me doing the exact wrong things to address their issues. Most of them have it completely wrong, because of pervasive fitness and rehab mythology, bad advice from insurance-based physical therapy, and a broken medical system; you probably do too.
So I'm just going to put this out there right now:
If you existentially identify with muscle tightness and really love your yoga practice*, I have three big bummer identity-shattering pieces of news for you:
Unless you spend your days sprinting from lions in the savannah or competitively hanging one-armed from helicopters, your muscles probably aren’t tight
Stretching doesn’t lengthen muscles
Stretching is more likely to cause injury than to prevent or heal it
Boom. I said it.
*Don't come at me, I actually have nothing against certain types of yoga. More on that later.
You will laugh, you will cry, you will learn. What we'll cover in this article:
Truth 1: Your muscles aren't tight (and why they feel like they are)
Neurological vs mechanical limitation
"Tight" muscles are actually long and weak Truth 2: Stretching alone doesn't lengthen muscle tissue for a lasting amount of time
Why it seems like you've gained flexibility with stretching
The 4 *new* deadly horsemen: Loose ligaments, torn muscles, stretch reflex tolerance, hypermobility
Truth 3: Stretching is actually dangerous
Neurological damage and loss of motor coordination due to stretching
Stretching doesn't prevent or repair injury Why stretching feels good even though it's injurious Why flexibility is an arbitrary goal What DO you actually need to live pain-free? Specific recommendations for strengthening and stabilizing
When is stretching actually ok? What if you rely on yoga for your mental health?
Let's get to work busting myths!
Myth 1: Your muscles are tight
Fact: It's very unlikely your muscles are actually tight
What's more likely going on is that whatever muscles feel tight are actually overstretched and weak. We have a tendency to equate "tightness" with overworked, shortened, or overstrong muscles, but this is rarely the case.
So why do my muscles feel tight, then?
We often assume that difficulty moving through a particular range of motion is due to an actual shortness of muscle tissue. But what you're more likely feeling is stiffness, not tightness. Semantics? No. The difference actually matters. Stiffness is a warning from the nervous system that a muscle does not want to move beyond a particular range of motion, not necessarily that it can't. It's a hesitation. What you're feeling is your body telling you a movement is not safe, not a physical lack of tissue length. To put it simply, stiffness should not be regarded as inflexibility.
The sensation of tightness with the initiation and deepening of a stretch is not a sign that you are lengthening the tissue, it is actually part of what is called the stretch reflex, which we'll get to in a moment.
So why might a muscle not want to move through a range of motion? There certainly are functional reasons a muscle's movement might be limited. There are basically two reasons this happens:
When I explain neurological limitation, it's probably going to blow your mind and make you angry with me. Neurological limitation actually occurs when a muscle is... wait for it... wait for it...
"Sacré bleu! You blasPHEEEMer!" How tightness can come from ze looseness?
I know, boo boo. I know. *shakes downcast head solemnly*
Bear with me.
To help you cope during this difficult time, let’s expand on the stretch reflex
The stretch reflex or myotatic reflex refers to the contraction of a muscle in response to its passive stretching. When a muscle is stretched, the stretch reflex regulates the length of the muscle automatically by increasing its contractility as long as the stretch is within the physiological limits1
When you stretch a muscle beyond what feels safe to the nervous system, in a fraction of a millisecond, neurons fire and cause the muscle spindle to contract (UN-stretch) to prevent tearing. Remember the knee-jerk reaction you have when the doctor bonks you with the little hammer? That's the stretch reflex of the quadriceps muscles in action.
Chronically over-stretched, weak, or over-lengthened muscles *feel* tight because they are constantly receiving input from the muscle spindle. In an effort to prevent tearing, your body reflexively contracts the muscle when you try to stretch it, so you perceive that it is tight.
Stretching beyond what your nervous system deems safe is designed to feel uncomfortable so that you won't do it. This is why it feels "tight" when you stretch a muscle; unfortunately, it is this very feeling of tightness that affirms in your mind that you should continue to stretch, and why it feels even tighter when you aren't stretching. Thus begins a vicious feedback loop.
You are mistaking "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE STOP DOING THAT" for "tightness"
Let me give you a visual. Stretch a rubber band as long as you can, and it will feel... well... tight. This is exactly what happens to your muscles when you stretch them.
Still don't believe me? Ask this guy how loose his stretched-out rubber band feels.
Mechanical tightness, on the other hand, can happen when poor posture or faulty movement creates an imbalance, and actually does involve shortening of a muscle.
*Side-note, most neurological limitation does result as a consequence of mechanical limitation, but not all.
A great example is perceived hamstring tightness. If you sit for work much of the day or have poor posture otherwise, your hip flexors and low back are constantly working, as your glutes and hamstrings are in a lengthened, disabled position. With time, the pelvis becomes conditioned into an anterior tilt, thus lengthening the hamstrings even further2.
The problem isn't that your hamstrings are tight, it's that they are overly long, weak, and, (Gasp! Yes!!) stretched out, while your hip flexors are overly shortened and overworked. When you go to stretch, your hamstrings will give you immediate feedback that, NO, THANK YOU, because any amount of stretching an overly long muscle will prompt the muscle spindle to contract.
The answer is not to stretch the hamstrings, but to strengthen them, and mobilize the hip flexors. We'll cover what actually works later.
Let's move on with our myth-busting
Myth 2: Stretching lengthens tight muscles
Fact: Stretching alone cannot lengthen muscle tissue for any lasting period of time
Now, I know what you're thinking:
"This is bulldonkels! A year ago I couldn't touch my toes and now I can do the splits across two chairs with a baby cow in my lap! How can this be if I haven't gotten more flexible?!"
Ok, Juji. I had a feeling you'd go there. Of course, if you can move through ranges of motion that were previously limited or impossible, I'll give it to you: undeniably, something has changed.
But what, exactly?
You're loosening your ligaments, not your muscles
You are actually tearing your muscles, not lengthening them
You have built up a tolerance to the stretch reflex
You have become hyper-mobile, not flexible
Before we address what I call the *new* 4 deadly horsemen, let’s remember the stretch reflex
Muscle length is dictated by the nervous system alone, so it patently *cannot* be changed through stretching, pulling, or any other external means. All muscle tissue has a length-tension relationship that is firmly and automatically dictated by the nervous system, meaning the length of the muscle, whether at rest or while contracted, is set by what the nervous system deems safe from risk of tearing3.
Ok BUT why is it that, in the morning, you wake up and can't touch your toes, but after a few minutes of STRETCHING, you can?
Now let's be clear— muscle can't be lengthened for a lasting amount of time. You can temporarily stretch out your muscles, sure. But they go back to their resting length very quickly. When you wake up in the morning, they've returned to their normal length at rest, and the tight feeling will be just like it always is, again because of the stretch reflex. What you're actually doing with *gentle* stretch and easing into a movement is letting the nervous system know it is safe to do so, because you're proceeding slowly and intentionally. Another thing you're doing is increasing blood-flow to the muscles, and you could accomplish the same thing by going for a walk.
But I would also add, if you have a firm habit of stretching in the morning, you will likely feel more stiff when you wake up because of the feedback loop we discussed earlier. Since I've stopped stretching, I never encounter this dreaded morning stiffness anymore. When I wake up sore from working out, it dissipates by the time I walk around a bit, and even more when I start my workout.
Muscle tissue doesn't lengthen by stretching. Could you imagine trying to lengthen a steak by pulling on it?
Let's confront the *new* 4 deadly horsemen (no longer just for divorce!) head on
1. You're loosening your ligaments, not your muscles
Muscles cannot be externally stretched, but ligaments can. When your ligaments become loose, the joints they support become unstable. Unfortunately, once ligaments are stretched out, they can never return to their normal length. You can also be stretching literal nerve tissue, which is just ick, barf, cringe.
2. You are actually tearing your muscles, not lengthening them
Sadly, over-stretching your muscles actually does create tears in the fibers. To be clear, not all tears in muscle tissue are bad. In fact, this is how weight-lifting works; when you put a muscle under strain, such as in lifting, micro-tears occur as a result. When the muscle repairs itself, it utilizes protein to build itself back, bigger and stronger. But if you stretch a muscle that feels tight, you are creating more tearing than is healthy.
3. You have built up a tolerance to the stretch reflex
Now, if this doesn't scare you, I don't know what will. Your body has ways of talking to you, and if you don't listen, you can create catastrophic injury. You should not become accustomed to the sensation of tearing a muscle, but that is exactly what you do when you ease into an uncomfortable stretch, ignoring the signals that it isn't safe4. When you override your body's pain alert systems, you're looking for trouble. Your nervous system is waaaaay smarter than you, and you can't outrun its rules forever.
4. You have become hyper-mobile, not flexible
Mobility is not flexibility. You create mobility when you stretch out your joints. Hyper-mobility, if you're not careful. Mobility is the range of motion through which a joint system is able to move. Like most things in life, you want just enough of it, and not more. Too much mobility, or hyper-mobility, is when a joint moves beyond a healthy range of motion, and injuries such as tearing, hyperextension, or dislocation become more likely. Loosening of the ligaments is a key facet of hyper-mobility.
After looking at the 4 key points above, you hopefully came away with the conclusion, "Huh, so maybe stretching can, in fact, be dangerous." If that slipped past you, that's ok. Let's move on to our next topic.
Stretching can, in fact, be dangerous
When the body engages in static stretching, your somatic nervous system, the part you have control over, is trying to override the autonomic nervous system, the automatic part that keeps you from doing dumb shit. With time, we upset the critical neuromuscular connection that helps us move safely through space. In other words, we damage our coordination by impairing muscles' ability to receive direction from the nervous system. How does this translate?
Stretching doesn't warm you up or prevent injury, but makes you more prone to it
Contrary to popular belief, stretching does not prevent injury. There's a significant amount of evidence showing that stretching impairs joint stability and decreases muscle coordination, strength, and power4,5,6,7. In fact, stretching before a workout can increase the likelihood of injury by way of initiating autogenic inhibition; put simply, your nervous system partially disables motor function9. Now imagine partially debilitating your hamstrings and then trying to perform a deadlift. You've sent mixed messages to the muscles, so they don't know if they should relax or contract. And when they do try to contract, their capacity has been impaired. This decreases not only your performance, but also your stability, thus creating a higher risk for dislocation or hyperextension as you can't control your movement within a precise, weighted range of motion.
Stretching does the opposite of warming up your muscles—it makes them lazy
Neither does stretching assist in recovery from injury
Whether an injury is rooted in muscle, tendon, or joint damage, the brain will almost always impose a movement limitation on the area to avoid further injury. If a pulled muscle feels tight, it's because your body is trying to protect a specific range of motion. This limitation exists to STOP you from stretching, not to encourage it. Instead of continuing to damage already pulled muscles (or even your tendons, creating tendinopathy) by stretching them even further, you need to accept that the fibers need to stitch back together, not be pulled apart. Unfortunately, structures just need time to heal and be left alone a lot of the time.
Additionally, like the hamstring and hip flexor from the mechanical limitation example, you're likely tackling the issue from the wrong angle. You could be doing exactly the opposite, in fact, of what you need to actually rehabilitate the injury. Stretching does nothing to change the faulty joint movement or posture that got you into this pickle in the first place, nor does it do anything to re-educate the nervous system on a more healthy length-tension relationship. (Don't worry, I'll cover how you CAN work on repairs toward the end of the article.)
But why does it feel good when I stretch an injured muscle? Hmm? HMM??
This is a valuable question, and I'm glad you asked.
The difference between muscle tears resulting from over-stretching and muscle tears resulting from over-contracting are imperceptible. Regardless of how you tore your muscle, it's torn. And it feels tight for reasons we've covered above. But the bottom line is, when you stretch, you’re trading overall muscle health for a very short-lived feeling of relief.
Flexibility just isn't where it's at
You probably don't need as much flexibility as you think you do.
Most people don't have a good answer for why they want to be flexible, other than fitness propaganda that is shoved down our throats day and night. Sadly, I hear this almost every time I interview a new client.
*Literally the transcript of every new client intake*
“My hamstrings are soo stiff, I need to stretch them more” *while sitting in splits* “I wish I had more flexible hamstrings” “POP” (sound of hamstring tearing)
Adapted with permission from Monika Volkmar Bodywork and Movement Education
The truth is, though, flexibility for the sake of flexibility is an arbitrary goal. While not entirely void of utility, not THAT much flexibility is required to perform the necessary functions of daily life, or even to pursue the hobbies you enjoy.
Unless, of course, you are pursuing competitive prowess in the art of back-spring fist fighting (if this exists please sign me up actually)
Sadly, I don't think this sport exists, so I hold that, much like botox, more is definitely not always better. (But seriously, if you guys want to START this sport, you know where to find me.)
So what DO you need?
"Athletes usually don’t require extreme ranges of motion, but rather extreme control at the end of relatively normal ranges of motion.”
-Todd Hargrove, author of "A Guide to Better Movement: The Science and Practice of Moving with More Skill and Less Pain"
1. Strength is the antidote to weak, stretched out, over-lengthened muscles.
2. Stability. What Hargrove is describing above is basically stability. You need joint stability, or the ability to coordinate your muscles at reasonable ranges of motion to prevent injury.
3. Re-education of the nervous system to improve limiting length-tension relationships between muscles and brain.
4. Rehabilitation of the faulty movement patterns and postures that cause the underlying issues from with you suffer.
Obviously, there are more components to fitness than these 4 things, but if you start here, these are the heftiest chunk that will mitigate the damage done prior to and as a result of stretching.
How to work toward pain-free movement
First and foremost, begin a strength training protocol.
Look at me, already getting sidetracked. Before diving into it, I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of proper movement when lifting weights. I would *highly* recommend finding somebody qualified in movement rehabilitation to ensure you aren't just injuring yourself in the other direction. Movements people often think they are doing well—like planks, pushups, bodyweight squats—look like a complete dumpster fire when they show off their DIY fitness skills, and have often contributed to even more dysfunction. Lest I seem like a privileged jerk, I realize that the cost of a trainer can be prohibitive. But I can't tell you how many working-class patrons have come to me banged up, after spending a trivial amount of money on an online video training, and subsequently a large amount of money on chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, "Jesus Christ I've tried everything and now I'm desperate," only to realize hiring a qualified trainer would've in fact been the faster AND cheaper way. Expensive injuries are gonna pop up if you don't prevent them, you pay for it either way.
"If you do not invest in your wellness, you will be forced to pay for your illness"
- author unknown but if you find them I would love to buy them a beer
Ok back to the story.
You don't need to get right into heavy lifting, but you do need to encourage the muscles to overcome resistance in order to grow stronger. Building functional strength throughout your body helps weak, long muscles to carry their weight and alleviate poor postures. It also helps overworked muscles to create more meaningful, less staticky contractions when it's needed, instead of just in the background all the time.
Specific training recommendations
When warming up, focus on movements that mimic the main lift. Many of us who coach general strength training or even competitive powerlifting have ditched the complicated mobility warmups we prescribed in the decade past. A squat is the best warmup for a squat. A lighter, slower version of the lift you're about to complete helps you move the joints through an adequate range of motion prior to loading the movement, and actually does warm up muscles to prevent them from over-stretching.
Focus on the eccentric, or "lowering" portion of every lift. For example, if you do a bicep curl, when "unbending" the elbow, think about resisting gravity as much as possible. If you resist the lowering phase of a loaded movement, that does seem to teach the nervous system that this lengthening is ok, and actually does promote a less limited length-tension relationship. This is just about the best way you can actually lengthen muscle tissue.
Whatever muscles feel tight to you, work on making them stronger while making the oppositional muscles more mobile. If your hamstrings feel tight, work on, for example, Romanian deadlifts with emphasis on a slow, controlled eccentric phase. Even if you don't get around to mobilizing your hip flexors, they will be less over-worked all day and will likely lengthen as a result of your hamstrings pulling their own weight.
Instead of static stretching, work on a contract-relax movement to reset muscle tension. This is known as autogenic inhibition, a key principle in Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)10,11. Let's say my hamstring feels really tight. Instead of stretching it, I'll flex it as hard as I can by bending my knee and pulling my foot toward my butt, holding this position for about 6 seconds and holding my breath or hyperventilating. I will slowly release the bend while exhaling, and my nervous system will now have a new frame of reference for what "tense" is. When I relax, it will actually feel relaxed.
Work on engaging the antagonist muscle to force the bothersome muscle to relax. Here you are engaging in reciprocal inhibition, another component of PNF10,11. If my quad feels tight, instead of doing a passive quad stretch, I will hold that pose but then kick back against my hand, engaging the glute, which is an antagonist muscle. You can also do this by standing in this position with the bottom of your foot against a wall, and press against the wall until your glute is on fire. Because the glutes and quads have oppositional functions, they cannot fully engage at the same time. By creating a strong contraction in my glute, I force my quad to relax.
Day in and day out, I help people overcome several myths that keep them in a vicious pain cycle, but not often before a lot of resistance and tantrum throwing. I get that this article probably challenges a lot of deep-seated, perhaps experiential beliefs you might hold. And I get that for some people this actually stirs up a lot of feelings! Much as a snark around, I don't think that's silly. BUT.
If you still distrust every word I say, let's at least agree on one thing:
That if—despite all the stretching, contorting, deep breathing, foam rolling, placing yourself on medieval torture devices—you still haven't escaped your pain... what you're doing isn't working.
What have you got to lose by trying something different? Something that's been proven to reduce pain, improve stability, neuromuscular coordination, strength, and self-image? And just generally make you feel more like a badass?
When you're ready to join the force, we'll be here.
In the meantime...
Is there any time when stretching is ok?
Yes. When you first wake up and have that impulse to do a gently almost vibratey stretch of your limbs, almost the way a cat does, that's fine. This type of stretching is referred to as pandiculation, and can be defined as:
The involuntary stretching of the soft tissues, which occurs in most animal species and is associated with transitions between cyclic biological behaviors, especially the sleep-wake rhythm12
Stretcheh kitteh says "I work too hard all day to care about all this sciencey stuff. Let me stretch in peace, damn you."
What if I use yoga to heal trauma, practice mindfulness, or generally improve my mental health?
Finding mindful movement that you enjoy is incredibly important. I'm a firm believer that embodied movement can help with healing trauma, practicing mindfulness, and improving mental health, among other things. If you've found yoga or stretching to help you with any of these things, power to you, and I'm not necessarily advocating that you remove it entirely. If you absolutely must practice yoga, I'd recommend finding a format that focuses more on strength and doesn't rely on passive, resisted or assisted static stretching in any way. When moving into a pose, focus on tightening the muscles that actually move you into that pose, instead of stretching passively.
You may also find that you can practice embodied movement in the context of strength training, tai chi, qigong, and other low-impact martial arts.
1. Bhattacharyya KB. The stretch reflex and the contributions of C David Marsden. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2017 Jan-Mar;20(1):1-4. doi: 10.4103/0972-2327.199906. PMID: 28298835; PMCID: PMC5341261.
2. Magill, R. (2007). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (9th ed.), McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. Medical Dictionary: Medline Plus. (n.d). August 19, 2014.
3. Dan Robbins,Chapter 7 - Muscle biomechanics, Editor(s): Bernardo Innocenti, Fabio Galbusera,
Human Orthopaedic Biomechanics, Academic Press, 2022, Pages 121-135.
4. Nordez A, Gross R, Andrade R, et al. Non-Muscular Structures Can Limit the Maximal Joint Range of Motion during Stretching. Sports Med. 2017;47(10):1925-1929. doi:10.1007/s40279-017-0703-5.
5. Morais de Oliveira AL, Greco CC, Molina R, Denadai BS. The rate of force development obtained at early contraction phase is not influenced by active static stretching. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(8):2174-2179. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823b0546.
6. Young, Warren & Behm, David. (2002). Should Static Stretching Be Used During a Warm-Up for Strength and Power Activities?. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 24. 33-37. 10.1519/00126548-200212000-00006.
7. Behm, D.G., D.C. Button, and J.C. Butt. Factors affecting force loss with prolonged stretching. Can. J. Appl. Physiol. 26(3):262–272. 2001.
8. Church, B.J., M.S. Wiggins, F.M. Moode, and R. Crist. Effect of warm-up and ﬂexibility treatments on vertical jump performance. J. StrengthCond. Res. 15(3):332–336. 2001.
9. Spinal Reflexes and Descending Motor Pathways
10. Carter, A., Kinzey, S., Chitwood, L., & Cole, J. (2000). Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation decreases muscle activity during the stretch reflex in selected posterior thigh muscles. Journal of Sports Rehabilitation, 9(4), 269-278.
11. Knott, M., & Voss, D. (1968). Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (2nd ed.). Harper & Row: Philadelphia.
12. Bertolucci LF. Pandiculation: nature's way of maintaining the functional integrity of the myofascial system?. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2011;15(3):268-280. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2010.12.006.