Why don't my tight muscles ever let go?
“My hamstrings are so tight, but I stretch them all the time! I don’t understand why they won’t loosen up.”
As a physical therapist, I hear statements like these a LOT!
When it comes to fitness, most people equate taut muscles with strength and fitness. However, the reality may be quite different. Chronically tight muscles can actually indicate weakness. In this blog post, we'll explore the reasons why tight muscles might be a sign of weakness, and what you can do to improve your overall strength and flexibility.
First, let's talk about what we mean by "tight muscles." Tight muscles are muscles that are constantly shortened, contracted, or in a state of tension. They may often feel a bit sore, achy, or stiff, and can limit your range of motion. Tight muscles can be caused by several factors, including poor posture, overuse, injury, stress, and as we will learn here, weakness.
So why might tight muscles indicate weakness? When a muscle is tight, it is in a shortened position, which means it is not able to generate as much force as a muscle that is in a relaxed or more neutral position.
We’ll take a brief moment to geek out on this concept. Your muscles are made of fibers called actin and myosin. These fibers overlap within the muscle to produce a contraction. There’s a sweet spot regarding this overlapping. If there’s too much overlap, the contraction is not optimal. The same can be said if the fibers are too far apart. We want to work in the Goldilocks range as much as possible (though this is not feasible 100% of the time).
But chronically tight or shortened muscles are not in this optimal range of overlap. This means that they may not be as strong as they appear. Being in this shortened position also means they can fatigue more easily and “give out” at times, especially when demands are greater than what they can keep up with. This is another sign that those tight muscles aren’t tight because they’re strong; they’re tight because they’re weak.
Tight muscles can be a sign of muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances occur when one muscle or muscle group is stronger than its opposing muscle or muscle group. This can lead to compensations in movement patterns and ultimately result in tight muscles. For example, if your chest muscles are stronger than your upper back muscles, you may develop tight chest muscles and weak upper back muscles. This can lead to poor posture and even pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
So, how can you improve your overall strength and flexibility if you have chronically tight muscles? As everyone is a little bit different, the truth isn’t so black and white. It probably includes a blend of strengthening and lengthening. Strengthening exercises can help address muscle imbalances, improve your overall strength, and reduce the likelihood of developing tight muscles in the future. Lengthening can help elongate tight muscles, improve your range of motion, and reduce the risk of injury.
So what do I mean by lengthening?
(Hint: it’s not stretching)
Lengthening includes things like soft tissue mobilization and massage, trigger point therapy, dry needling, and use of a foam roller, small ball, or massage gun. This can start to address the knots and trigger points we sometimes feel in tight muscles. Stretching alone will not eliminate trigger points. Said a different way, you cannot stretch your knots away. You must address them first (perhaps using a method listed above), and then you can stretch to maintain the new length (please see prior blog posts for information on different types of stretching). A muscle without knots and trigger points can also contract more uniformly, which leads to greater efficiency and stronger muscle contractions. That’s a win-win for all involved.
In terms of strengthening exercises, it's important to focus on exercises that address muscle imbalances. For example, if you have tight chest muscles and weak upper back muscles, you may want to focus on exercises like rows, pull-ups, and face pulls to strengthen your upper back muscles. It's also important to focus on compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once, such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges.
And remember, you can’t address an asymmetrical problem with symmetry. For example, if your glutes are weaker on one side than the other, you cannot do the same number of reps on both sides and expect your weaker glute to catch up. Your weaker side needs more reps.
Still confused about whether you should be strengthening or lengthening? Set up an appointment with Restorative PT. We can easily determine where your weaknesses and muscle imbalances lie and formulate an exercise program that’s individualized and tailored exactly to your needs. Call or email us today.