In this post we discuss why tight muscles aren’t the problem and what you should focus on instead.
Take a look at the image above, what do you see? A duck or a rabbit?
Although the picture is the same, some of you will see one thing, whilst others will see something different.
Neither is wrong, they’re just different interpretations of the same drawing.
When we feel muscle tightness we instinctively interpret it as something bad that needs to be stretched or massaged.
If we see it as something else however, we can use this information to make improvements to our bodies.
Improvements that will not only make us stronger, but will reduce the chances of the tightness returning.
What is muscle tightness?
In terms of unwanted sensations, muscle tightness must be up there with indigestion as something most people would like to avoid.
Ask people what feelings they associate with tight muscles and you’ll hear negative emotions like stress, fear and vulnerability.
It’s one of the symptoms people who come to see me complain about. And it invariably forms part of any diagnosis you’ll be given if you visit a rehab professional.
Tension in your muscular system is not a bad thing however.
It’s what keeps us upright and enables us to move. If you were unable to generate tension in your muscles you wouldn’t be able to get up off the floor.
It’s unfortunate that it’s been pathologised into something abnormal that needs to be treated.
This view is so embedded within the exercise and rehab world, I have to sometimes assure people the tension they feel during an exercise is just muscles doing their job.
This is particular true in areas of the body that seem more liable to cause issues. Most notably around the neck, shoulders and lower back.
Of course there are times when there seems to be more tension in certain muscles than usual.
If this is accompanied by a reduction in range of motion, you can assume some muscles are being held in a shortened position.
A bit like your shoe laces being a bit tighter on one side compared to the other.
More on the potential reasons for this in a moment.
How to measure muscle tightness
Most people are aware of muscle tension as a sensation. ‘My hamstrings feel tight’ is such a common refrain that it’s almost meaningless.
Sensations by themselves are unreliable indicators to make decisions from. What feels tight to you may feel perfectly fine to another person.
There’s rarely an objective measure if you visit a rehab professional either. You will simply be prodded whilst on the treatment table and told something feels tight.
You can’t tell if a muscle is tight by simply touching it. Just as you can’t tell what’s wrong with a car by looking at it.
Fortunately for us we have two sides of our body. If there’s a sensation of tightness coming from your left shoulder, we have a right shoulder to compare it to.
Should we find a difference in range of motion we now have an objective measure.
The question then becomes, what does this represent?
Tension in your muscular system is not a mistake
Tension in your muscular system is regulated by your central nervous system (CNS). It’s not a mistake.
If your CNS decides you should only lift your left arm to shoulder height, whilst your right can go up to your ear, there’s a good reason for it.
A common cause is instability as your CNS will only give you motion you can control.
This is a crucial point because it fundamentally changes how we should approach restrictions in range of motion.
Why stretching doesn’t work in the long term
Whilst stretching, massage or foam rolling might help you manage your symptoms, it’s important to understand that nobody has ever stretched themselves better.
Applying these techniques usually results in temporary relief, followed by a return of the tightness sooner or later.
This is because none of these approaches improve stability. In some cases they may actually reduce it.
Increasing stability comes from improving the function of your muscular system.
How to use restrictions to find muscle weakness
Take a look at the image below. It’s a side view of a shoulder showing the muscles of the rotator cuff. These muscles are responsible for keeping the head of your humerus (upper arm bone) centred in the shoulder joint as you move your arm.
Imagine muscle 4 was being held in a state of increased tension. This would result in a restriction in external rotation. You would be unable to externally rotate this shoulder as far as the other.
By focusing on the external rotators of the joint (muscles 2 and 3) you would not only reduce tension in muscle 4, you would also have a stronger, more stable shoulder as a result.
The next time you feel an increase in muscle tension around a joint, don’t simply stretch it. Try to work out which direction your CNS is preventing you from moving in.
Slowly move in that direction against a very light resistance and see what happens. You might find those feelings of tightness begin to reduce.
Applying this logic in the long term will lead to more stability around your joints and less pain.