Written By: Morgan Vasiliu, ATC, SPT
In this article, we are going to discuss what muscle tightness is, what causes it, and some possible strategies that you can start implementing today to relieve it.
It is a common misbelief that when we experience muscle tightness, it’s because our muscles have shortened. However, the shortening of muscles is actually physiologically impossible. Our muscles have two attachment points: the point of origin and the insertion point. We cannot change this, no matter how hard we may try with stretching. Rather than altering their physical length, stretching causes our muscles to experience a change in muscle extensibility, meaning there are changes in their resistance and elastic properties. This is so they can lengthen more efficiently without pain.
So, then what really is muscle tightness?
When the brain senses a threat, one of the ways it communicates is through physical sensation. For example, if we put our hand on a hot stove, our brain sends a pain output to our hand to alert us so that we avoid burning ourselves. Muscle tightness is actually an output from the brain, much like pain.
The sensation of “tightness” is ultimately the result of our brains trying to protect itself by perceiving something in the muscle as a “threat.” Our brain sends out sensory signals that we experience as a feeling of tightness. Our instinct is to reduce the movement of that muscle as much as possible to protect it from further damage.
Inflammation, an acute illness, or a heavy day of training can all result in our muscles becoming less extensible and tighter, again to restrict movement and to ultimately protect the tissue from further damage— we’ll call this acute tightness.
However, this sensation of stiffness can also occur if our muscles are weak or overstretched as a way to make the muscle artificially more stable—we’ll call this chronic tightness. While acute tightness stems from our brains’ efforts to protect our muscles, chronic tightness stems from our brains’ efforts to compensate for muscular inefficiency.
How do I tell the difference between acute and chronic tightness?
The simplest way to differentiate between tightness resulting from an acute or chronic stimulus is to focus on when the tightness began. Acute tightness generally onsets within the 72 hours of experiencing a stimulus (i.e., heavy training or illness), and should resolve in about a week, depending on age, nutrition, sleep, and/or fitness level.
Chronic tightness, by contrast, would generally describe any period after which the acute feeling of tightness should have subsided naturally. For example, if you continue to feel muscle tightness nearing one month or more of experiencing a stimulus, then we may begin to infer that the continual sensation of muscle tightness is chronic.
What strategies can we use to decrease muscle stiffness?
- Stretch, but only if it’s helping
Stretching can help provide short term pain relief, especially when feeling that excessive stiffness immediately after heavy training or during an illness, and it’s fine to continue to incorporate as part of your warm-up or cool-down.
However, if you keep stretching to try to loosen up, yet experience the same sensation of tightness after many days or weeks, consider easing off the stretching. While it may provide temporary relief, stretching a muscle that has adaptively shortened secondary to weakness (more chronic tightness), can actually make the problem worse by irritating an already cranky muscle.
- Strength training
When muscles are weak, they often tighten up to become more stable when we move. Strength training will ensure that muscles are strong and stable so that the body does not have to create artificial stability by tightening the muscle. We can also train the muscle to make it stronger through its whole range of motion. Studies have shown this will also significantly increase muscle flexibility following a given period of strength training .
- Change your posture
Staying in one position throughout the day can lead to muscles adaptively decreasing in extensibility and feeling tight. It’s crucial to change your posture throughout the day by getting up and moving around. Not only does this help keep muscles from getting stiff, but it will also help with getting in some extra movement and keeping your energy high.
Muscle tightness is something that we all experience, whether due to a heavy day of training, an acute illness, or even chronically weak muscles. Although the strategies we choose to remedy it will differ depending on the underlying cause, the goal with relieving muscular tightness is always the same—to decrease the brain’s output that is causing it.
- Kong et al. Effect of Post-Exercise Massage on Passive Muscle Stiffness Measured Using Myotonometry – A Double-Blind Study. J Sports Sci Med. 2018; 17(4): 599-606.
Written by: Morgan Vasiliu, ATC, SPT