If a muscle feels tight, does it need to be stretched?

Rubber bands - Colors - Studio photo 2011 by Bill Ebbesen

These aren’t the only things around the office that need stretching.

One of the most challenging and confusing parts of training a person (or yourself) to be able to move better is understanding what to do with muscles that feel tight. For most people, the answer to a tight muscle is quite straightforward: stretch it and massage it (and/or foam roll) it. But, is this always the right approach?

In some cases, it absolutely is. It probably wouldn’t be such a common answer if it weren’t the right answer at least some of the time. When your chest / pecs feel tight from bench pressing or a lot of push ups you’ll probably be well-served by some stretching and massage. When your calves or hamstrings feel horrific the day after a tough workout, some stretching and massage will do your body good so that you’ll be able to recover quicker and get back to your next big workout.

But what if the tightness is chronic? What if you haven’t been working out? What if you’ve been laying off exercise for months or years? What if you’ve been stretching and massaging your tight hamstrings or low back for months or years and have seen no improvement? Does it make sense to continue stretching and massaging those tight muscles?

Let’s ask Albert Einstein:

Albert Einstein

Forget String Theory. Let’s talk about Stretch Theory.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So the answer is probably no, and the probability that the answer is “no” is higher the less you regularly exercise.

Anyone who’s been in any office environment with a computer around knows that shoulder “tightness” is a common concern, and that most everyone around the office has “knots” in their shoulders. And at least some percentage of those knot-sufferers gets a massage fairly regularly in an attempt to keep those knots at bay.

As many massage therapists will tell you, those knots often keep coming back, and it’s the thing you end up working on session after session after session.

What’s that, Albert? What’s that about insanity? You’re saying there must be some other way to approach the problem? I think you’re right!

Let’s look at two examples of people I’ve worked with in the last year and see what they can teach us about “tightness.” First we’ll look at Mark, an example of someone with chronic tightness all over the place with a high training volume (he’s a triathlete), and then we’ll look at Steve, someone who’s spent years sitting for work and who has had a very, very, very low volume of any kind of exercise for at least the last 30 years.

So here’s our case #1: Mark is a triathlete. He’s training for an Ironman race. He’s in his mid 30s and is a teacher. He bikes, swims, and/or runs 5-6 days a week for long distances and at high intensity. After a few months of this training volume, he starts developing tightness in his inner thighs and up into his abdomen that prevents him from training. Reduced training volume and just plain rest don’t seem to help his problem. Exams from sports docs yield the same answer over and over: “rest.” His issue does not improve. He comes in to see me, and we put him on a stretching routine paired with some exercises to kick in the right muscles to keep his hips balanced. He continues training, and within about a month, he’s back to feeling pretty good.

Mark’s sense of tightness was accurate. His muscles were tightening up as he trained, negatively affecting the range of motion in various joints and his ability to consistently generate enough power for his training. By judiciously applying stretches to the right muscle groups, and forcing other muscles to do their jobs properly, he was able to complete his first Ironman. Easy-peasy.

Contrast that with Steve who’s been more or less sedentary for the last thirty years. He sits at a computer all day. His calves and feet feel tight from morning till night, and his hamstrings feel like they need to be stretched. Recent improvements in his hamstring flexibility have made no difference to the sense of tightness. Visually, his calves appear underdeveloped and his hamstrings also look weak and flaccid. When I apply myofascial release techniques, I encounter very little muscle mass and very little tension. Steve reports no lasting relief from any hands-on intervention from me or from anyone else. But the hamstrings still feel tight, tight, tight. So what’s going on?

This is a case where the sense of “tightness” is misleading. In Mark’s case, the sense of tightness was from muscles getting overused and shortening up. By stretching and massaging those muscles, he was able to restore mobility and proper muscle tension/resting length to keep training.

For Steve, this just isn’t the case. If it were, Steve would be getting some relief from stretching and massage. But he isn’t! So what’s actually happening?

Steve is weak! He’s experiencing stiffness from his nervous system recognizing that there is a problem. The muscles of his lower body are not within an acceptable range of strength and extensibility, so his brain says, “Yo! Fix this.” It feels pretty much the same as Mark’s tightness, but the way Steve needs to address it is totally different.

In Steve’s case, we need to zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture. We already know his hamstrings are not in great shape, but what else is going on? Are his quads extremely tight (if they are, they may be neurologically short-circuiting his hamstrings)? Are his butt muscles working (if not, his hamstrings may have simply stiffened up to stabilize the pelvis and the rest of the body)? Are his abdominals sufficiently engaged? How does his body respond to simple tests of his posterior and lateral chains (e.g. bodyweight single leg deadlifts, bridges, squats)?

Like most people who have a rather sedentary lifestyle, Steve had issues on several of these tests, though he was able to squat and bridge pretty well. But his quads were definitely inhibiting proper function of his hamstrings, and his single leg balance was obviously not great. With proper training of his posterior chain and myofascial release and stretching of his quads, he was able to regain a sense of relaxation and balance in his hamstrings, and he was pretty happy about it!

This is your hamstrings being crushed in a seat and your shoulders atrophying. Any questions? Do people still remember that PSA about drugs and eggs in a pan?

So at this point you are probably asking: “how do you tell the difference between these kinds of tightness?” Let’s say you have some area that feels tight on your body and you want to get it not tight again. A noble goal!

The easiest way to do it is to experiment with stretching and massage first. If it helps, then you were tight from muscles getting too short and bound up. If it doesn’t help, then you need to take the opposite approach and look at what muscles do the opposite of that muscle, what muscles this muscle may be compensating for, and what you can do to build up the whole chain that that muscle is a part of.

Earlier we talked about constant shoulder tension and the ever-present knots (in the trapezius and supraspinatus, in case you want to clutter your mind with the Greekly-derived names) for people stuck in office environments. Albert Einstein opened up the argument that constant massage to that area probably isn’t going to fix up those knots. So what can you do about those knots? I gave you the answer in the last paragraph!

When you start training your shoulders properly and in a balanced fashion, they stop hurting. For a lot of people, even doing something as low-key and simple shrugs  and scapular retractions without any weight is enough to make things feel better when done multiple times per day. Three to five times a day of 30 reps will often relax the tightness and restore better joint mechanics to boot.

When you think about how little people actually use their shoulder joints and scapulae in a regular day, it becomes very clear why even just a minor amount of exercise can have such a major impact. Most of us live with our hands in front of us on the steering wheel, shoveling food into our mouths, and typing. A shrug and a retraction are exceedingly rare in our daily lives. So get moving! Instructions for the exercises are here: Standing Shoulder Shrugs and Standing Scapular Retractions

Now, doing simple shrugs and retractions is not the end-all be-all of fitness and health, but they often go a long way toward relieving tension in the shoulders and neck (and relieving headaches), so if you’re one of the afflicted, give it a shot and see what happens!

For those of you with other stubborn areas of tightness, start investigating the related muscles as talked about above and see what results you get yourself!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.