Many of us are familiar with the sensation of “tightness,” but do you really know what to do about it? It might seem straightforward: when your body feels tight, you stretch. In a practical sense, however, that is not always the case. In this post I will discuss the different types of “tight,” what it means in the body, and what to do about it to feel better.
Tight vs Short
Muscles can feel tight for many reasons: overuse, underuse, staying in one position for a long time, or dysfunction in the tissue itself, to name a few. Healthy muscle tissue is made up of many small fibers that run parallel to each other.
When we injure a muscle, we can develop “knots,” or gnarled areas where the fibers no longer run parallel. You can feel this when foam rolling or getting a massage. That “OH MY GOD” place is usually the site of a knot. Scar tissue from a prior injury can cause this, or a current strain or tear injury where the body tries to protect itself in some way. Whatever the cause, the knot, for lack of a better term, impairs the muscle from stretching and contracting the way it should. When you stretch a knotted muscle, you often feel resistance against the stretch, and just pulling at the attachments. Instead of the pleasant stretching sensation, you feel tightness. The best way to deal with this sort of tight is to Foam roll and/or get a massage. Stretching in this case often leads to more injury. Because the muscle won’t elongate properly, stretching will just pull at the attachments and not get to the source of the problem.
Speaking of elongate, the other type of tight is when the muscle is short and contracted. While each muscle has fixed end points at the joints and bones, the ability to move through a small or large range of motion has to do with how far the muscle can stretch. For example, if you have shortened hamstrings, you might not be able to touch your toes by folding forward. Lengthening the hamstrings by stretching will improve your range of motion over time. You can improve this type of tight by stretching, and over time, you might, in fact, get to touch your toes. Repetitive exercise, like running or biking, also causes tight muscles, since we contract our muscles over and over for the activity. Static stretching after exercise helps more than before. Warm up with dynamic stretching or foam rolling (or both), then stretch after.
Contracted vs Strained
Sometimes when our muscles feel tight they are actually in a state of prolonged elongation. Take “Tech Neck” for example. This is the condition caused by constantly looking at our phones or devices, causing a forward head/rounded upper back posture. While we tighten the muscles in the chest and front of the neck, we often feel the pain in the back of the neck and upper back. We feel “tightness” caused by muscle strain.
Extending our muscles for long periods of time causes strain because they over-stretch. It’s like having a weight on the end of a spring: the weight pulls the spring to lengthen it, but over time, if the weight stays there, the spring can’t bounce back to its original shape. What we need to do here is contract the spring to shorten it the other way. In terms of your neck, you need to move the head and neck in the opposite direction, strengthening the muscles in the back of the neck and upper back so that they can go back to neutral and feel better. Contracting the posterior muscles in this case will relieve the problem, whereas stretching them will only make things worse. Stretching the chest and front neck muscles may help.
What do we do?
- Pay attention. When do you feel tight? What were you doing prior? Which part of your body feels tight?
- Once you understand the possible source of your tightness, move your body in the opposite direction. That might be stretching, that might be contracting or strengthening, that could also mean foam rolling.
- Work for balance. With repetitive exercises, like running or biking, you’ll want to balance your exercise with some sort of cross training. Because you move in only one plane with these activities, you’ll want to do something that moves you through the other planes of movement. Yoga, pilates, and weight training are activities that stretch and strengthen your body, while moving you through multiple planes. Cross training helps your body feel stronger, more mobile and better over all.
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