Common thought dictates that if a muscle feels tight, we should be stretching it.
A number of common movement issues are blamed on muscle X or Y being tight. However, tight muscles are often just the scapegoat for a more complex issue. Muscles aren’t just tissue with two connecting points—they’re controlled by nerves. And those nerves can tell those muscles to contract and relax, sometimes in ways that may not be optimal. While it may not be the first thought we think of when a muscle feels “tight,” these nerves are more often the culprit than most people realize. Here’s why your constantly “tight” muscles could be the result of stability issues, and therefore can’t be corrected just by extra stretching.
Are Your Muscles Truly Tight?
When we feel tight, all we want to do is stretch. Because that’s what we’ve always done, and that’s what we’ve been taught. “Oh my hamstrings feel tight, so I should stretch them.” So what do you typically do? You put your leg on a step and reach for your foot, or you bend over and try to touch your toes. We do this because we’ve been programmed to do this. The traditional logic says that if we stretch tight muscles, we’ll feel better.
The truth is you will feel better. Temporarily. But at what detriment to long-term progress? So before you go stretching everything, you need to assess what the root of your problem is. Chances are we can fix it (and fix it in a more sustainable way) before you ever even attempt to stretch.
The first step to figuring out if your muscles are really tight is to test your passive range of motion. Testing your passive range of motion entails a second person seeing how far certain joints can extend without you actively trying to move them. This is where a physical therapist or licensed strength and conditioning expert can really help you out. If your passive range of motion seems good, then there’s a good chance your issues relate to the fact that you’re unable to control those ranges of motions—not that your muscles are tight.
The next step in the process is to see if you can move actively through your body’s range of motion. This is where most people feel “tight,” because they are unable to access certain movements or ranges. If that’s the case, then we need to look deeper as to why you’re unable to get into these positions.
Why Do You Feel Tight?
There are many reasons why a muscle may feel tight. These include:
Actual Tight or Short Muscles: Some people have structural reasons as to why they are short in a range of motion or present with tightness. In cases of ACL repairs where the hamstring tendon is used, or conditions like Cerebral Palsy, there is legitimate shortness in the muscle. The structure has been altered. Having a history of hamstring strains can also lead to perpetual shortness and tons of trigger points, as well. Trigger points will not only hinder your movement, but also the ability of the muscle to produce force.
Stress: We live in a sympathetic world. Not sympathetic meaning you’re compassionate or understanding, but sympathetic meaning the response our nervous system has when it comes to a “fight or flight” situation. The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight or flight instinct while the parasympathetic nervous system helps us “rest and digest.” Since we’re surrounded by stressors everywhere in our modern society, our sympathetic nervous system is almost always in action. Think about when you’re driving your car on a highway. What state is your body in? Is it relaxed, or are you on edge yelling at other drives with your shoulders rolled toward your ears? We want to put you in a more para-sympathetic state where your body isn’t always on edge. Being in a constant sympathetic state will cause disruptions throughout the body that can manifest as feelings of muscle “tightness.”
Protective Tension: The body is great at adapting to stressors, and your muscles are particularly good at this. This can be positive in cases where you want to get stronger and build more muscle. But where it becomes a problem is when a muscle needs to pick up the slack for another one who’s not doing its job. Soft tissue remodels itself along lines of stress. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your movement quality. If you’re moving like crap, your body will adapt to that crappy movement pattern. Over the long term, that’s not going to serve you well. In these cases, the body will tighten up to protect your joints. So you can stretch all day, but until you fix your movement patterns, you’re going to continue to feel tightness in your muscles for the foreseeable future.
How to Assess and Test Your Muscle Tightness
Since there are multiple issues that could be causing your perceived muscle tightness, you’re going to need to perform some tests to help you identify what may be causing it and eliminate what is not causing it.
Hamstrings are one muscle group which are frequently reported as tight, and the most common solution is performing Lying Hamstring Stretches. But that approach isn’t always going to get the results you’d like. The first step to finding an alternative approach is to test the range of motion for your hamstrings. The easiest way to do this is the straight leg raise. You should be able to get to 90 degrees. If you can, you’re likely OK and should be able to achieve good results through stretching. If you can’t, it’s time to administer some tests and see what could be causing that limited range of motion. You’re going to have to be a detective.
Perform both of these tactics before re-testing your single-leg raise range of motion.
Just Breathe: Let’s get you into a more parasympathetic state. Solid breathing drills can help relax your nerves and let go of some of that tension. This doesn’t mean shallow breathing or hyperventilating. Full breaths where your stomach moves first and the chest moves second. After taking several deep breaths for a couple minutes (box breathing can be a good way to slow down your breathing) and really trying to get into a more relaxed state, retest that single-leg raise. If you see significant improvement, you know that being in a constant sympathetic state could be why your hamstrings always feel tight. But even if you do see improvement, you should still utilize this next step to see if it provides additional improvement. Muscle tightness can often be attributed to various factors.
Core Activation: The hamstrings often get stuck making up for a lack of core strength. That can manifest as a limited range of motion. To see if a weak or unstable core is a culprit behind your persistent hamstring tightness, try performing several 10- to 20-second Planks. This should wake up your core. After you’ve performed a few Planks, retest the single-leg raise. If you see significant improvement, you know a weak, inactive core may be to blame for your constantly tight hamstrings.
If you do realize your core is negatively impacting the mobility of your hamstrings, you should try to perform more exercises that create core tension while maintaining a stretch on the hamstrings. Band Leg Lowering is perfect for this. This exercise forces core contraction to stabilize the pelvis while the leg is stretched, thus killing two birds with one stone.
Beyond seeing if your nervous system or core strength are causing tight muscles, you can also see if soft tissue manipulation or various muscle activations make a difference.
Soft tissue manipulation entails using different tools like lacrosse balls or foam rollers to try to work out some latent trigger points that may be giving you trouble. If you have access to a Licensed Massage Therapist, they’ll be able to do this more effectively than you can. The best bet is to try out some soft tissue manipulation and monitoring your results. If you see progress in the single leg raise test, for example, you know the soft tissue manipulation is improving the mobility of your hamstrings.
In terms of muscle activations, sometimes certain muscles don’t perform up to their potential. This forces other muscles to pick up their slack. This can result in some nasty imbalances, think hamstrings over glutes or upper trapezius over Latissimus Dorsi. Doing some isolated activation exercises can help alleviate some of these issues, especially when used congruently with soft tissue manipulation.
We’ve focused on the hamstrings, but the principles remain the same for perceived tightness in other muscle groups. We often feel tension in the upper back and shoulders because those muscles are desperately hanging on to maintain stability. In that case, the upper back is “tight” because it needs to be, otherwise there could be some adverse affects on the joint. That’s an example of protective tension.
The Functional Movement Screening includes several tests (or “screens”) that you can consistently utilize to track the progress of different tight muscle groups. It’s important to use tests, otherwise you’ll just end up frustrated by a lack of progress or confused as to what is and what’s not actually working.
Are You Even Stretching The Right Way?
All manual therapists, whether it’s LMT’s, chiropractors, or physical therapists, were taught what the end feel of a muscle feels like while you’re stretching. Typically, when you see people stretching, they are going till they feel pain. That’s not what we want. We ONLY want slight discomfort. Not pain. Pain means fibers are breaking apart. When you experience pain, your body will activate other muscles in the area to alleviate the tension in the pained muscle. So your relaxing stretch just became muscular dysfunction. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what we want.
If you just stretch to stretch without focusing on stability, you’re setting yourself up for a never ending merry go-round of tension. You end up cranking on joint capsules and pissing off soft tissues, which in turn can cause more defensive tension. If you’ve ever sprained an ankle, you don’t need your ligaments any laxer then they already are. That just leads to a myriad of stability issues.
In an ideal world the hierarchy of alleviating tension or shortened musculature would start with SMR combined with activations, and then dynamic and static stretching.
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