When your shoulders get tight from constantly sitting hunched over your computer or phone, you might do a quick stretch for a little relief. When your hips get sore from sitting too much—or the opposite, moving too much—you might spend some quality time with a foam roller. These are common responses to soothing so-called “tight muscles”.
But here’s the thing: These aches or knots often give you insight into other areas of your body (not just that specific muscle) and your overall alignment. For instance, tight hamstrings could mean you have a limited range of motion in the joints above and below the muscle, or your pelvis, knee, or lower leg, says Pete Egoscue, co-founder of Elev8d Fitness, a total-body eight-minute workout program developed by the experts of Sonima.
Of course, massaging the area—or spending some time stretching—might help temporarily, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem. Here’s how to get to the bottom of poor flexibility and muscle tension.
Activating One Muscle to Stretch Another
“Instead of stretching a tight muscle, we’d rather ask why is the muscle tight,” says Brian Bradley, fitness director of Elev8d Fitness. Typically speaking, “tight muscles are essentially doing what the non-activated muscle group should be doing,” he explains.
In other words, if you have tight hamstrings, that could mean they’re working in overdrive to make up for the lack of effort from your hip flexors. Or if your lower back is feeling uncomfortable, that might reveal your core is putting in zero work. That’s why stretching that hamstring or your low back might feel good for a little while, but without addressing the opposing muscle group, it’ll just keep going back to its uncomfortable state.
Let’s focus on the core for a second and how weakness in your midsection can lead to discomfort and tightness in other areas. This is particularly true of your back. Research actually says there’s a strong tie between back pain in runners and weak core muscles. But strengthen your middle, and you could relieve those aches.
Taking that even further, many runners also often experience IT band syndrome. Often times, they’ll spend days on a foam roller trying to work it out and loosen it up. But really, they should look to their core. “Stretching alone will generally not be successful,” says Theodore Shybut, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. “Many people don’t realize that tightness or contracture [shortening and hardening of the muscles] is usually secondary to a core weakness or muscle imbalance. A program of core strengthening that addresses the underlying deficiency and corrects running posture and mechanics will be much more successful.”
This same principle holds true in strength training. Take the deadlift, for instance. If you teach your core to fire properly, then you take the movement out of your back into your hamstrings and glutes where it belongs, Bradley says.
Why It’s Time for More Active Stretching
The debate about stretching—whether static works better before or after a workout or whether you should do more dynamic movements—has been going on in research for some time. But experts have come to a pretty agreeable conclusion: To get your body to move most efficiently during your workout, warming up with movement is key. In fact, one review concluded that static stretching pre-workout could hinder your performance, while another said it doesn’t reduce your risk of injury anyway.
“Your body is designed to warm to the task naturally. Walking warms your muscles for running, and running warms you up for jumping,” Egoscue explains.
The Best Way to Increase Range of Motion
Besides simply warming up the body with light movements, another solid way to get started in improving range of motion is with proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), or a contract, relax, repeat approach to stretching or strengthening, according to research.
This is the exact approach Elev8d Fitness takes in their GLAM sequence, a workout to help improve your body alignment and range of motion. “Elev8d exercises go after balancing mechanics, which allow your body to become driven by, say, the hips, which are a load-bearing joint, rather than driven by the peripheral, tight muscles,” Bradley explains.
GLAM specifically fires up your glutes and hamstrings. “The GLAM sequence is great because it helps activate your balancing mechanism by using your big leg muscles, so your hip flexors can turn back on and your lower back and glutes won’t be firing all day or all workout,” Bradley says.