Imagine it is the weekend and you are just doing some simple, routine activity. All of the sudden, you move awkwardly and a sharp pain sets in through your back.
It does not matter if it is in the shoulder, hip, knee, etc. but it happens. The first question is usually: What the hell did I do?
More often than not the next move is to stretch out the area. This is where the flawed logic takes over.
I trust most people to figure out a stretch for a particular area that is bothering them. It is then concerning when I get asked for stretches after a few days of discomfort.
My answer is usually that you should not stretch an injured area. Way back people probably were just told to stretch out pain and continue on without fixing the problem. No one probably questioned this idea and now we are stuck with it.
Why do I not recommend stretching an area of pain?
I do not know any miracle stretches
Believe it or not most people know plenty of stretches. If they do not know them specifically, they can move around until they feel a stretch. Chances are that if you tried stretching it out and nothing changed, then I cannot help you.
I might know a different way to stretch the muscle, but that is not going to produce different results.
When stretching does not work and pain hangs around for a while, there are potentially two things happening.
1. The site of pain is usually not the cause
I will start with a few examples. Chronic knee pain can be a result of poor movement in the ankles, hips, or shoulders.
Back pain is usually not treated with direct back work. Restoring proper activation of the glutes, scapulae, obliques, and anterior core muscles is going to be very effective. I cringe every time someone mentions stretching their back.
The low back needs to be stable, not mobile. Stretching it may feel good for a couple of minutes but it is not solving the bigger picture.
Improper function in a joint it affects the joints above and/or below it.
When I hurt my back, I used a heavy dose of side planks and birddogs (thank you Dr. Stuart McGill). Beyond that, more core stabilization exercises have prevented the return of the injury.
An injured knee is not going to be fixed long term with knee extensions and hamstring curls. Loosen up the ankles and strengthen the hips for successful recovery.
Obviously the examples I am using refer to chronic pain or tightness. If you are in severe pain from a specific instance, you need to see a professional. If you tear an MCL, no amount of glute work is going to fix that.
This point leads directly into a realization that most have to make:
2. There is probably a bigger problem from chronic pain
Low back pain/stiffness is something that bothers everyone at some point. On one hand, you might just have to do glute activation drills in order to appease low back pain. If this fixes the problem, you should consider yourself very lucky.
If nothing seems to be working, it could be a structural issue. Pain from vertebral discs can be very painful and limits your function greatly. I have worked with adults with ruptured or bulging disks, and I would not wish that upon anyone. At any given time they are working with myself (strength coach), a chiropractor, and a Rolfer (a form of tissue work).
Stretching the back would not be cutting the mustard here and would absolutely stunt their progress.
Avoiding the bigger picture with one misconceived plan is no way to restore good function.
Another example is a father asked me about his daughter who was having shoulder pain. He pointed it out to be in the posterior deltoid or rotator cuff area. I did not give him any stretches for her and instead recommended working on her posture (shoulder blades back and down). I also asked about her softball pitching mechanics.
The next week he told me it was a strained rotator cuff. Stretching would have only added undue stress on an injured area.
These two examples are used to show you that pain is not usually something that comes and goes really quick. Any nagging injury usually needs to be looked at from a joint by joint approach to see what is really going on.
It is also irresponsible to stretch out an injured area if you do not know what the injury is or the pathology of it.
If you always have pain somewhere (stiff back, cranky shoulders, bum knees) find out where the source of the pain is. Sometimes all it takes is a few exercises done properly to reduce pain in a joint.
You cannot stretch a bad shoulder if your scapulae are a mess. If they are unable to stabilize the humerus, stretching is only going to pull on an already unstable joint.
Some lifestyle changes can also reduce the symptoms from these painful areas. Changing footwear can help with knee/foot injuries, less sitting can assist with back pain, and better posture will help the shoulders.
Mobility and stability work are also necessary but maybe that would be good for a post itself.
Improve your movement patterns and these nagging problems will start to disappear. Stretching on the other hand, is not going to help and may even hurt your progress.
Do not ask what stretches to do. Instead ask what exercises to do.