Forget Stretching: Alignment Is the Key
Setting your body into alignment can solve everything you’ve been told stretching will fix—and more.
After a long day at work or an extra hard workout, you probably stand up at some point to realize your legs, your back, your shoulders have become quite stiff. The solution you’ve been hearing for years? You need to stretch more. After all, it will help alleviate sore muscles, prevent injury during a workout, and help us move better—right?
Actually, you’re much better off re-aligning your body than stretching, says Pete Egoscue, Co-Founder of Elev8d Fitness.
There’s more to it than just putting your shoulders back and sitting up straight. We’re talking about a daily practice of micro-movements and mini workouts that activate the key muscles, set your body into alignment, and, most importantly, increasing your range of motion.
Why range of motion is key
“People love to say their hamstrings are naturally tight. And, to some extent, they might be. But far outside your DNA helix, if your hamstrings are tight, that’s your body trying to tell you that the joints above and below this muscle—your pelvis, knee, and lower leg—aren’t able to run through their full range of motion,” Egoscue explains. “Your body, in its infinite wisdom, understands your joint mobility is limited because of other compensation reasons.”
“Instead of stretching a tight muscle, we’d rather ask why is the muscle tight,” agrees Brian Bradley, fitness director of Elev8d. Sure, stretching may help relieve that tightness temporarily. But needing to stretch is actually a sign you have limited range of motion.
Your ability to scratch your back or reach up high—the range of motion in your shoulder—is dependent on your range of motion in your hips, knees, and ankles. “Bones do what muscles tell them to, and our muscles are all connected. Everything talks to one another,” Egoscue explains.
When your core is activated, it tells your lower back to relax. When your hip flexors are engaged, it lets your glutes and hamstrings off the hook. But if your hips are out of alignment, it leaves your core and hip flexors sleeping, initiating a chain reaction: other muscles pick up the slack and peripheral muscles tighten. “Tight muscles are essentially doing what the non-activated muscle group should be doing,” Bradley says.
“If you stretch today, you come back tomorrow and you have to stretch again. But if you set your body into alignment and allow the range of motion in your body to come back—like magic, your hamstring tightness disappears—forever,” Egoscue says.
Why alignment is the best workout warm-up
Skip the typical pre-run quad stretch or the lunge-and-hold when you’re at the gym. Static stretching does nothing before a workout, says Egoscue. In fact, a meta-analysis in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found stretching before a workout hasn’t been shown to reduce likelihood of injury, while other studies suggest static stretching before a workout may actually hurt performance, making you slightly slower and weaker temporarily after the workout.
“Your body is designed to warm to the task naturally—walking warms your muscles for running, running warms you up for jumping,” Egoscue explains.
But if you go into that run with your load-bearing joints off-kilter and your major muscle groups asleep, you’re asking for trouble. “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,” agrees Theodore Shybut, MD, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.
Take Iliotibial band friction syndrome (better known as IT band syndrome) in runners. Your IT band is indeed sore because it’s tight, but the muscle stiffens up because you have deficiencies in the core or hip muscular endurance, he says. These weaknesses result in poor running form, causing you to drop your pelvis which puts an abnormal strain on the IT band at the knee. “The treatment is not simply to stretch the IT band out—stretching alone will generally not be successful. A program of core strengthening that addresses the underlying deficiency and corrects running posture and mechanics will be much more successful,” Shybut says.
Setting your alignment before a strength session is just as important, says Bradley: “Your core firing is dependent on where your shoulder position is during the exercise. If the shoulder takes over, the core never fires correctly. Using Elev8d Fitness as an activated pre-workout force-feeds alignment into the body so everything will automatically fire and activate properly right from the start. When you do a deadlift, for example, your thoracic is off the hook and your hips are powering the move instead, which maximizes range of motion and prevents injury.”
How to fix it
“If you have full range of motion, these joints are talking to each other and we have full muscle activation as we go through the day—we walk with symmetry, our feet point straight ahead, we have symmetrical arm swing—then we don’t have these aches and stiffness during our normal activity,” Egoscue says.
A meta-analysis in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)—essentially a low-key contract, relax, repeat approach to stretching or strengthening—is the most effective rehab method for immediately increasing range of motion.
And that’s the basis of Elev8d exercises.
“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. “When you bend to touch your toes, it’s not your hamstrings that are keeping you from getting there; it’s the lack of pelvic movement.”
One of the best go-tos after a long day or before a good sweat session is the GLAM sequence, which focuses on engaging 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.
Give it a try and see what you think!