When you feel tight, you stretch — right?
well, Not necessarily.
Let’s break down some misconceptions here and set the record straight on what’s really going on when you’re experiencing tightness.
First off, we need to come to the understanding that feeling tight doesn’t necessarily mean there is excess tension, shortness, nor stiffness. Tightness is a feeling, an experience. And it is not always an accurate reflection of the state of the tension or hardness of the muscle, nor the existence of “knots.”
what causes a muscle to feel tight then?
The body experiences tightness, similarly to the way it experiences pain. As a warning sign or alarm to indicate that the muscle has the potential to experience “threatening conditions”. What kind of conditions are threatening to a muscle? Certainly increased tension is not threatening, considering the function of a muscle is to create tension.
Factors such as inadequate rest or blood flow are seen as threats to the muscle tissues — these circumstances have the potential to cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors.
Nociceptors are sensory nerve cells that respond to damaging or potentially damaging stimuli and communicate this information to the CNS (central nervous system) which then determines if the threat is credible, and if so, creates the sensation of pain to direct attention to that body part
So the real issue, that we are being warned about through the experience of tightness, is not the existence of tension, but rather the frequency of tension or lack of blood flow.
What’s the solution?
It depends, of course.
Let’s dive deeper into some of the commonly practiced solutions to healing tightness and decode what works for which issues.
When to try: If you’re feeling tight from being stuck in a position for a long period of time, a simple stretch should do the trick. Situations like riding in a car, flying or working at your desk should be remedied by a simple stretch.
If this doesn’t work: Don’t assume the underlying issue. Many people run into trouble here because after trying, and failing to find relief through stretching, the assumption is made that the tissues must be shortened or adhered and soft tissue work is prescribed. In reality, there is still a chance that the reason the stretching wasn’t effective was because of increased sensitivity — in which case stretching and soft tissue would would make the problem worse.
Findings conclude: If it feels good and you get relief, keep going with stretching. If you try this and it doesn’t work for you, move on.
Soft tissue Work:
When to try: You’re in need of some short-term relief through a release technique. Options and variations include deep tissue massage, SMR (self-myofascial release) like foam rolling, and ART (active release therapy).
If this doesn’t work: Consider these techniques an option for a temporary, feel-good fix. Keep in mind that these solutions have been known to cause both increased and decreased sensitivity of tissue, depending on many variables, unique to each situation — so remain mindful and observant when working with these modalities.
Findings conclude: Again, if these techniques work for you, continue with them as you see fit. If not, move on.
exercise + Resistance Training:
When to try: When you’re not actively training the muscle or muscle group you’re experiencing a sensation of tightness. It’s a common misconception to associate strength training with the creation of tighter muscles; actually full range of motion strength training can increase flexibility.
Why it should work: Resistance training calls for adaptations in the muscle tissue that result in improved endurance, decreasing the likelihood of suffering from metabolic distress. Exercise also has the ability to receive stress and lower levels of inflammation that cause nervous system sensitivity.
If this doesn’t work: Consider your training schedule and allotted rest time between workouts. Of course, if you’re overtraining, injuring yourself, or preventing full recovery; you will create sensitive, stiff, and sore muscles.
Findings conclude: Based on these recent findings, a protective perceptual construct is responsible for feelings of stiffness, rather than the stiffness being a reflection of the biomechanics of the area affected. Simply put, functional strength and capacity have the ability to decrease the perception of threat related to lengthening said tissue; which should reduce, if not eliminate, the sensation of tightness.
Based on my experience with clients, I would recommend taking the time to consider the potential lifestyle and circumstantial causes of the tightness you’re experiencing, before attempting any form of correction. Then, proceed with isolated strength training exercises targeting the affected muscle or muscle group; always minding form and minimizing potential risk for injury. Use stretching and soft-tissue methods as you see fit, and consult with a physical therapist if you’re experiencing pain or are unsure how to proceed.