A common reaction to feeling tension in a group of muscles is to stretch with the obvious goal to relieve this tissue resistance. But is stretching out tension always the best remedy? In some cases, no!
Muscle tension can occur in two forms: closed locked and open locked. Closed locked tension occurs when the muscle is chronically shortened, and muscle fibers develop adhesions and resistance. Open locked tension stems from muscles being chronically elongated while also having to contract and support in this expanded state. Where do we see these types of locked states? An example of closed locked is the hip flexors becoming tense due to excessive sitting. An open locked example is the back and neck muscles that also readily develop tension during sitting – the head falls into Forward Head syndrome causing multiple muscles running from the shoulder blades and thoracic vertebrae to the cervical vertebrae to become pulled open while they work to keep the head elevated.
With the example of the neck and upper back being in an open locked state, it is common for teachers and participants to want to dissolve the muscular tension with a variety of seemingly appropriate stretches: forward head flexion stretches, shoulder stand, plow. But, all too often, jumping into deep flexion stretches exacerbates the chronic forward head position and adds further strain to these posterior tissues.
An updated approach to acquiring relief is to, instead, target the problem versus the symptoms. In this situation, simply restoring proper head placement and cervical spine curvature (as a habitual posture pattern) could greatly elevate the open locked tension arising from the upper back and neck. Coupled with awareness of corrective posture, light strengthening exercises like neck retractions could further enhance rebalancing. When the body falls back into balance and the strained tissues have had time to recover and adapt, we then can explore stretches to enhance general mobility.
Take home message: understand the root of tissue tension and the type of tension with special attention on postural imbalances. Strive to correct these imbalances first before assuming that isolated stretches are the answer.