Stretching Myth

Typical “quad stretch”

A great question was posed in our blog this week, which we think deserves a full post dedication.  “Is it true that you can’t stretch your quads?”  The surprising answer is mostly TRUE.  When you perform a typical quadriceps stretch, it is the rectus femoris (approximately 15% of the quadriceps muscle mass) that is being stretched – and “yes” you will feel a strong stretch sensation through the front of your leg.  The other muscles (vastus lateralis/medialis/intermedius  – “vasti” meaning “large”) make up the “vast” majority of the quads and can only be stretched with knee flexion.

Anatomically impossible to stretch the “vasti” group

The problem is: knee flexion is limited by your calf muscle hitting your hamstrings behind your leg at about 120 degrees.  This is only enough to create a mild stretch if any at all.  So there you have it:  your anatomy actually limits your flexibility!  This is where we also find a bit of a “stretch myth”, because we can guarantee you that you can go into the local book store and find many health and fitness books on how to stretch your quads.

In fact, many healthcare practitioners are trained that “any muscle in the body can be stretched”.  But it’s hard to argue with science, and stretching the vast majority of your quads is just anatomically impossible.  And the quadriceps are not alone – there are several other muscles in the body which Paul Inghram, clinician and health journalist, has fondly termed as the “Unstretchables”:


Unstretchable: Why:
Masseter & Temporalis The jaw can only open so far.
Suboccipitals Neck flexion limited by chin hitting chest in many people.
Supraspinatus Arm adduction is limited by the torso.
Pectoralis minor The scapula needs to lift to stretch this muscle, and is limited by leverage.
Thoracic paraspinals Spine flexion in this area is limited by the rib-cage.  You can really only “hunch” this area.
Latissimus dorsi The enormous length of this muscle requires great distance to truly stretch.  No matter how far you lift the arm to stretch, stretch tension remains very low.
Gluteals Stretching is blocked by the limit of hip flexion.  The length of the muscle requires a greater flexion to truly stretch the tissue than can ever be anatomically created.
Tibialis anterior Limited by ankle flexion.

Massage of the “unstretchable” suboccipital muscle.

Don’t believe us?  Give it your best try!  If you think you are feeling a stretch, it is probably another tissue you are actually feeling.  The one exception may be if there is a
significant injury, in which very little tension may be required for the muscle to begin a stretch when under a protective spasm.  For many people, this information is like learning about an “itch” that just can’t be scratched.  There is a solution: Massage Therapy.  The muscle may not be able to be stretched, but it can be massaged.  Massage can help restore a normal tone to the muscle, and help restore function.  If you have an injury to one of the “Unstretchables”, think Massage Therapy, and seek out a trained and licensed professional.

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