Stretching has been around a long time, and it is a well-established way of helping us move more and feel better, but another way to do this is with muscle releases.
Stretching (the classic, ‘pull and hold’) often makes us feel good, it helps us move and get into positions that we wouldn’t normally get into throughout the day, and it can form an important part of rehab from some tendon overuse injuries. There have been lots of studies done that show stretching can increase your flexibility as well, especially when performed after physical activity. However, it is most effective if you have a muscle that is tight throughout its length, if you have specific ‘knots’ in a muscle, stretching will not get rid of these, and if you have nerve tightness or irritation, stretching can actually aggravate your symptoms.
Muscle releases however, target those specific muscle knots and can help them to, you guessed it, release. Now, I should be clear, the term 'Knots' is misleading; there is no evidence to suggest that our muscles somehow detach themselves and tie themselves into bows as the term implies. What does happen, is muscles develop focal areas that are especially painful when pressure is applied to them. We know that when this happens muscles do not function as well (produce as much force) and if they persist, then they can affect other muscles or joints, as well as cause nerve irritation. Okay, rant over, but seriously, why do they occur? They usually develop in hard working muscle; normal healthy muscle that gets used a lot (work or the gym), and over-worked muscles due to weakness in other areas, or mal-adaptive compensation patterns.
How do I release muscles? Once you have identified a muscle that needs releasing, you can use either a trigger point ball (lacrosse ball or tennis ball) or foam roller. If the muscle is too painful to apply direct pressure to it, you can work around the area, but otherwise you want to apply pressure right on the painful spot. This should be uncomfortable, but not unbearable, and you need to hold it for at least 90 seconds for it to have a long term effect; then repeat 2-3 more times.
So, to summarize, stretching muscles and moving our joints (safely) to their limits, is great for maintaining (or gaining) flexibility and function, and muscle releases are great for maintaining our hard working muscles and keeping them functioning at a high level.
Both are excellent tools, and neither are wrong, but you should be employing them for what they are best at. If you have any questions about which muscles you should be working on, or if you may have some nerve irritation, it's best to book in with a physiotherapist, and we can help you develop a 'maintenance' plan (for lack of a better term).