I have been stretching for years, but I’m no more flexible than when I started

My hips and low back are always tight, and sometimes they hurt too. I think my back hurts because my hamstrings are tight. I’ve heard doctors and a lot of other people say tight hamstrings cause low back pain, but I have been stretching daily since I played high school sports, and I’m really not anymore flexible than when I started. It’s always been the traditional stretches – hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, but not much change. I wonder if I’m doing the wrong stretches. – Me in 2014

In 2015, I began physical therapy school and heard a lot of the same – stretch your hamstrings if your low back hurts. So I figured I had been doing the correct things, but I STILL didn’t notice much difference. Maybe soon I would learn the correct ways to stretch and then it would make my back feel better.

Nope, the same old stretches were done at most of my clinical rotations.

There’s the strap around the foot and pulling leg overhead – tried it.

Seated and reaching for my toes – tried it.

Standing and reaching for my toes – tried it.

Still not seeing the results I wanted…Back still hurts…

Then, we tried what physical therapists often refer to as a “contract-relax” stretch. That worked REALLY well at first. Not only did I stretch, but I added a hamstring squeeze in the stretch position. It felt like I really got them to loosen up.

The effects did not last though. I felt loose for a few hours, but the relief was only temporary. Still, it was better than just holding a stretch so I felt closer.

As I experimented and learned more and more I shifted my focus away from stretching and flexibility, instead focusing on MOBILITY.

Now, those terms may not seem very different from one another, but that subtle difference would be what made the difference between chronic back pain and getting back to deadlifting significant weights.

So, what is flexibility?

Flexibility is simply the ability for something to move through a range of motion.

You would see this in how far someone can pull a limb into a certain direction. For example, lie on your back and use a strap to pull your foot as far overhead as you can.

Then, what is mobility?

Mobility is the ease of moving through a range of motion.

You would see this by how someone can put their own limb into a position without using an external force. For example, if standing and raising the toes toward the sky with your knee straight, how far can you go?

Someone with great mobility can perform a squat or deadlift with perfect form. Or a dancer that can balance on one toe with her other leg straight in the air (by the way, if you didn’t know, dancers are CRAZY STRONG and incredibly mobile)

Flexibility does not have much determination on our function because it has nothing to do with control and strength. Mobility has an incredible role in our function as dynamic, moving human beings. Not only do we need to be able to put our limbs into a position, but we need to be able to control them.

When I finally learned and practiced all of this, my back had stopped hurting. I also became much more flexible as a result. I can put my hands on the ground bending forward with no problem. I could never do this even at the height of all my stretching.

Not only that, but I could pass this on to all my future clients. Several times I have worked with someone who reminded me of my younger self. The high school athlete with low back pain and “tight hamstrings.” I am forever glad that their back won’t have to hurt for 7 years before they learn the lessons I did.

Here’s to MOBILITY! (and Mobility Fit!)

Side note: There is an incredibly large amount of research that says flexibility has nothing to do with decreasing injury risks. Do you know what does? – Properly executed strength training!