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The Unstretchables

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This woman is wasting about 85% of her time. Do you know why?

The Unstretchables Eleven major muscles you cant stretch, no matter how hard you try
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The Unstretchables

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by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada BIO Stretching is over-rated!1 Stretching doesnt reduce injury rates, and it cant stop soreness after exercise (nothing does). It also isnt a good warm up (there are much better ways to warm up). And not only is stretching much less effective at increasing flexibility than people think (its actually difficult and fairly dangerous), flexibility itself is also over-rated (being inflexible isnt actually a problem for most people). And, although stretching does feel good, and can often take the edge off of muscle pain and stiffness it never works any miracles or cures for muscle knots and myofascial pain syndrome. There is considerable scientific controversy and mystery around some of these points, but there are just too many reasonable doubts to ignore: the science of stretching tends to underwhelm anyone who looks into it. But perhaps the most under-reported problem with stretching is so straightforward so practical and mechanical and logical in nature that there can really be no controversy, no debate. To observe it is to know it. Not everything has to be established by a scientific study! Some things are just a matter of logic. Once its pointed out, you cant go back it will be forever obvious that a lot of important muscles simply cant be stretched. I call them the unstretchables. But first, a bit about the strechables

Many muscles are stretchable, of course


Perhaps the most stretchable muscle group in the body is the hamstrings group on the back of the thigh: the biceps femoris, and the entertainingly named semis, semitendinosus and semimembranosus. We are built for hamstring stretching. Thanks to the arrangement of our parts, there is almost no limit to the amount of tensile force we can apply to the hamstrings far, far more than they can actually take. If you wanted to, you could fairly easily tear your hamstring muscles. You could literally rip them apart. Wow. There are a few other muscles like this in the body. But precisely the opposite is true of several other muscles groups in the body. Just as anatomy just happens to allow full elongation of the hamstrings with convenient and powerful leverage applicable simply by leaning foward, there are numerous muscles that just happen not
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The Unstretchables

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to allow full elongation and/or conveniently applicable and powerful leverage. There are several muscles that cannot even stretch, let alone tear, not matter how hard you try.

Biomechanical destiny how normal anatomy can completely block a stretch


The most straightforward example of an un-stretchable muscle is the thick shin muscle. Yes, your shin has a muscle the tibialis anterior (the meat in the meaty part of the shin). The tibialis anterior muscle lifts the foot. It is elongated by pointing the toe like a ballerina, technically called plantarflexion of the tibiocalcaneal (ankle) joint. However, the ankle joint only goes so far in that direction its range of motion is strictly limited by the shape and arrangement of the ankle bones. Theres minimal variation in this limit from person to person even a Cirque du Soleil contortionist can only plantarflex so much. Short of breaking your ankle, there is no way to plantarflex enough to stretch your tibialis anterior. At maximum plantarflexion, the tibialis anterior muscle is not really stretched it is simply elongated. It is longer than it is when it is contracted, but it is not powerfully elongated. It cannot be stretched! And what a damned shame, too, because the tibialis anterior muscle could probably use a good stretching. It is often stiff and painful, because it harbours one of the bodys classic trigger points perfect spot for massage #3! clinically significant in nearly every case of shin splints (regardless of which type of shin splints) and plantar fasciitis, two of the most common and annoying musculoskeletal problems in the world. Tough luck. You cant stretch your tibialis anterior. Its biomechanical destiny.

9 more muscles you can stop trying to stretch


There are about 300 skeletal muscles in the human body. Sort of. It depends on how you count them.2 Many of them are unstretchable, but many of those dont really matter much. Consider the humble coracobrachialis muscle from a

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The Unstretchables

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massage therapists perspective, its about as clinically ho hum as they come. A minor helper in shoulder flexion, overshadowed and overpowered by the famous biceps and the obscure but powerful brachialis muscles, the coracobrachialis is basically never clinically significant. Rarely injured in isolation, never even home to a terribly troublemaking trigger point, the coracobrachialis is not just unstretchable no one cares to even try. The Unstretchables with a capital U are the ten muscles in the body that we cant stretch but wish we could. The Unstretchables Why they cant be stretched Why its too bad Jaw tension is epidemic and trigger points in these muscles cause a wide array of strange face and head pains, including toothaches, headaches and earaches.

masseter and temporalis

The jaw can only open so far. Neck flexion stopped by the chin hitting the chest, limiting suboccipital stretch in many people. Although genuinely stretchable in some people, its impossible for others, and an awkward and limited stretch for most.

the suboccipitals

Trigger points in this muscle group are the primary cause of tension headaches.

supraspinatus

This muscle lifts the arm out to the side. Going the other way is impossible: the torso is in the way!

Supraspinatus, like all the infamous rotator cuff muscles, is prone to trigger point formation and injury, and is also the site of the common shoulder problems, supraspinatus tendinitis and/or supraspinatus impingement syndrome. Routinely a cause of significant feelings of tightness and pain in the chest and arm, and may also be a factor in thoracic outlet syndrome, impinges the brachial artery and impairing circulation to the arm.

pectoralis minor

Can only be stretched by lifting the scapula, which is limited by many other tissues and lack of leverage theres just no way to apply the stretch. Standard pectoralis stretches primarily effect the pectoralis major.

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The Unstretchables

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thoracic paraspinals

The thoracic spine is naturally flexed (thoracic kyphosis), and cant flex much further due to the presence of ribs and sternum in front i.e. you can only hunch your back and collapse your chest so far. This muscle rotates the forearm to turn the palm upward (supinating). Turning the other way (pronating) to stretch, the radius simply collides with the ulna. Too long and lanky to stretch no matter how far you move the arm, tension on the latissimus dorsi remains fairly low. Stretching of the surprisingly long gluteus maximus muscle is blocked by the limits on hip flexion: the belly hits the thigh long before the muscle is truly stretched (especially if youre overweight). The smaller gluteus medius and minimus, which lift the leg out to the side, can only be stretched awkwardly at best the other leg gets in the way! The most surprising of the unstretchables, because everyone has done a quadriceps stretch, and you probably think you know that they can be stretched. However, you were only stretching the rectus femoris muscle about 1015% of the mass of the group. It feels like a strong stretch, and it is of that tissue. But the other 8590% remains only mildly elongated. The quadriceps consists of four muscles, the skinny rectus femoris and the three

The big spine muscles in the upper back may be the single most common location in the entire body for minor but exasperating muscular tension and aching. Although an obscure muscle, the supinator is nevertheless a key player in lots of wrist pain (often including carpal tunnel syndrome), tennis elbow, and golfers elbow. With its broad attachments in the low back, it would be nice to be able to try stretching this muscle strongly as a part of low back pain self-treament.

supinator

latissimus dorsi

the gluteals

All of the gluteals commonly contain trigger points that are clinically significant in most cases of low back pain, hip pain, sciatica, and leg pain. It would be wonderful to have the option of stretching them!

the quadriceps (seriously)

Even more surprising is that stretching most of the quadriceps strongly is not only impossible, but clinically unimportant. It would probably feel great to stretch them, but the state of the quadriceps is not a major factor in any common problem.

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The Unstretchables

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huge vasti vastus lateralis/intermedius /medialis. The vasti are only elongated by knee flexion, which is limited to about 120 when the calf hits the hamstrings. They cannot be stretched strongly. tibialis anterior Limited ankle flexion. The connective tissues in the arch of the foot are shorter than the muscles. When you stretch the arch, the first thing you feel is the plantar fascia reaching the limits of its elasticity. The arch muscles are also elongating, but not strongly. Not a muscle, but: the iliotibial band (actually sort of a giant tendon for the tiny tensor fascia latae muscle) is one of the most stretched of all anatomical structures and the most uselessly. Supposedly IT band stretching is a treatment for IT band syndrome (runners knee). However, there is a perfect storm of unstretchability here: not only is the IT band unbelievably tough, but it cannot even slide or elongate because it is firmly attached to the thigh and femur. Its immunity to stretch has been quite well studied.3 Self-treatment for shin splints and plantar fasciitis. The arch gets tired and achey easily, and being able to stretch it would probably be a great pleasure, and a great help to plantar fasciitis sufferers.

the foot arch muscle

the IT band

If only you could actually stretch the IT band, perhaps it would be an effective treatment for a frustrating repetitive strain injury. This topic is analyzed in great detail in my IT band syndrome tutorial.

Some unstretchables are more unstretchable than others


Some of these muscles can, sort of, be stretched. But all of them are limited to a moderate intensity stretch at best (i.e. the gluteals), in most people, most of the time, using reasonably accessible methods.

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The Unstretchables

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Inevitably, some smarty-pants kinesiologist or therapist will be writing to me to complain about this list, claiming that they know how to stretch those muscles, and just because I dont know my stuff I shouldnt be yada yada yada. (This kind of reaction seems to be par for the course with the subject of stretching, which inspires bizarre emotions and strange loyalties in people.) So let me address that inevitable complaint about this list off right now and say, Yes, but. Yes, Im sure there are miracle methods that can get a certain amount of stretch out of some of these muscles: but not much, and not easily. If you have an urge to bitterly complain about my list, start by suppressing it, and then consider the possibility that you are taking this way too seriously. To quibble over the individual muscles and stretches is to miss the point. Which is

Clinical implications of muscles you cant stretch


The unstretchables are a problem for stretching. But what about the almost unstretchables? For every more or less completely unstretchable muscle in the body, there are a half dozen more than are at best rather awkward to stretch. Thus, stretching as a self-treatment suffers from a major practical limitation, and can really only be used with the handful of major muscles/groups that just happen to be conveniently stretchable. We dont stretch what we need to stretch we stretch what we can stretch. Which isnt all that much. The neck and low back. The hamstrings and calves. The tiny rectus femoris part of the quadriceps. The abdominals and iliopsoas. The pectoralis major. Some of these are indeed pleasant to stretch and may have therapeutic value. But there are just so many important muscles left out If muscles cannot be stretched due to straightforward mechanical limitations, then they are simply immune to all of the rest of scientific controversy about stretching. If a lot of important muscles cant be stretched, then theres a lot less point in debating the effects of stretching. Its just another thing that makes the stretching debate seem over-rated to me.

Social implications of muscles you cant stretch

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The Unstretchables

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Er social implications? Yep. As noted earlier, the subject of stretching tends to get people a little bent out of shape, so to speak. Ive never really understood why, but thats how it is. Now that you understand the concept of unstretchable muscles, I have cursed you with a heavy burden of secret and unpopular knowledge, and you are on an ideological collision course with devoted fans of pointless stretches. For instance, lets say youre a runner (and a great many of my readers are). From now on, youll never, ever be able to stretch your quadriceps with other runners without wanting to say something about it. But just try it. Youll find out what I mean. It gets awkward and weird, fast. People do not like their stretches to be criticized. Im so sorry Ive done this to you. Good luck out there.

Further Reading
Other interesting reading: Quite a Stretch Stretching research clearly shows that a stretching habit isnt good for much of anything that people think it is Stretching for Trigger Points Is muscle knot release a good reason to stretch?

Notes

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1. For more detail, see another article on SaveYourself.ca, Quite a Stretch: Stretching research clearly shows that a stretching habit isnt good for much of anything that people think it is. Stretching just doesnt have the effects that most runners hope it does, and probably cannot physically change muscles. In particular, plentiful recent stretching research has shown that it doesnt (1) warm you up, (2) prevent soreness or injury, or (3) enhance peformance. No other measurable and significant benefit to stretching has ever been proven. Regardless of efficacy, stretching is inefficient, proper technique is controversial at best, and many key muscles are actually biomechanically impossible to stretch like most of the quadriceps group (which runners never believe without diagrams). If theres any hope for stretching, it might be a therapeutic effect on muscle knots (myofascial trigger points), but even that theory is full of problems. 2. See How Many Muscles? A (slightly tongue-in-cheek) tally of the bodys many muscles. 3. Falvey et al . Iliotibial band syndrome: an examination of the evidence behind a number of treatment options. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2010. PubMed #19706004. Comments: Researchers examined the anatomy of the IT band on 20 cadavers and testing different IT band stretching methods. They confirmed that the IT band really is uniformly and firmly attached to the thigh bone, from greater trochanter up to and including the lateral femoral condyle in other words, the full length of the thigh. They also carefully measured the mechanical effect of a basic IT band stretch, plus a more sophisticated stretch, and found that even an ideal IT band stretch resulted in almost no elongation of the IT band: only about 2 millimeters an overall change in length of less than half a percent, which means that the IT band is definitely one of the unstretchables. They concluded: Our results challenge the reasoning behind a number of accepted means of treating ITBS.

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