Your Tight Muscles Are Not Actually Tight or Short

Your Tight Muscles Are Not Actually Tight or Short

I’m on a mission to bring newer lessons from scientific research into how we practice yoga and movement or fitness. I want these lessons to be understandable and applicable to everyday people, yoga practitioners, and other movers. First up is a series of perpetuated myths about “tight” muscles.

There is an idea out there that when you feel that your muscle is “tight” or “stiff” that it means one or more of the following:

  • Your tight muscle is contracted or short;
  • Your range of motion might be limited by the tight muscle/fascia;
  • It is necessary to stretch to both lengthen out the tight muscle/fascia and to increase the range of motion it is limiting

 

MYTH-BUSTING ALERT! None of the above bullet points are accurate.

Here’s the thing. You might be feeling that your muscle is tight but there is no actual measurable, mechanical explanation for that sensation. Your muscle isn’t actually tight or short and it doesn’t need to be stretched or lengthened back out to fix the tightness. Your muscle tissue has the same resting length as it had before you felt it was tight. There also isn’t a relationship between the sensation of tightness and your actual range of motion. Tightness is a subjective sensation that you are experiencing that has to do with your nervous system rather than any actual physical state of your muscle tissue (Ref). The term “tight muscle” has no scientific meaning. None.

This is not to say that it is all in your head or that you are making it up.  Your nervous system is acting beyond your conscious level of control.  So your sensation is real, it is just not an indication of something happening at the level of the muscle tissue.

There are a variety of different experiences people describe with the word “tight”:

  • An inflexible person with poor range of motion might say, “I’m not very flexible, I have very tight muscles.”
  • A very flexible person with a large degree of range of motion might describe a feeling of tightness or discomfort near their end range of motion
  • A nebulous sensation of achiness or stiffness over a particular area, especially when remaining in one position for an extended period of time (e.g., airplane or long car trip)
  • An area of the body that they sense is never relaxed and chronically tense
  • Exercise induced soreness (also known as Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness) – this one is a bit different than the others as there are some physical things happening to adapt the muscle tissue for exercise – but it is still not an indication that the muscle is short or needs to be lengthened.

In the case of tightness experienced after being in a position for a long time (as in the airplane example), the sensation of stiffness is likely a signal from the nervous system to tell you to move. Usually in these cases getting up and walking around or moving or changing positions will alleviate the sensation. You’ve probably experienced this.

In the case of both the inflexible person and the flexible person, neither actually have short or contracted muscles. They may both feel a sensation of tightness at their end range of motion. This is a nervous system response to the stretch likely designed to protect you from injury. Your nervous system has a very large degree of control over your range of motion. When you hit your end range you have not actually reached the limit of your tissue length, but the limit of the range of motion your nervous system will allow at this time. It is likely that your nervous system perceives moving beyond that range to be potentially harmful (e.g., may cause tissue injury) and so is restricting that movement. If you don’t often move into this range of motion it is unfamiliar to your nervous system and that may be why it is restricting movement there.

While the out-dated theory persists that a stretching protocol increases flexibility (range of motion) by changing the mechanical properties of the muscle (i.e., increasing its resting length), the evidence from the research world does not support this. (Ref, Ref,). Instead the mechanism for flexibility increases from stretching often is through an increase in stretch tolerance, a mechanism of the central nervous system. In other words, when you regularly stretch you don’t make the resting length of your muscle tissues longer, you improve the capacity of your nervous system to tolerate the stretch. Your muscle tissue hasn’t changed its resting length, even if your flexibility has increased. What changed was that your nervous system no longer perceived that range to be problematic and allowed you to go there.  Isn’t our nervous system amazing?

If you’re wondering why all this clarification matters and how it might impact your approach to stretching or movement consider this: when we view a tight muscle as being short or contracted, this leads us to believe that we need to lengthen it back out via stretching. It also leads us to the false conclusion that strength-training results in shorter, less flexible muscles. But we know that the sensation of tightness doesn’t impact our flexibility and that that sensation has nothing to do with resting muscle length. So then why are we stretching?

Here are a few potential considerations:

  • Because the tight sensation is a nervous system response and is highly subjective, if you find relief in the tight sensation from stretching then go ahead and continue
  • If your nervous system has become more sensitive you might find that stretching makes your tight sensation worse – if the nervous system created the signal to get your attention and limit movement and you continue to move aggressively into that stretch you might find the nervous system ramps up the signal to make it louder – in summary, if your tight sensation gets worse with stretching then consider backing off on the stretching (unfortunately, a common assumption is that we should just stretch more!). If this is your experience you might want to get professional support from a PT or other health professional to help you find ways to desensitize your nervous system (more blogs on this to come!).
  • If your experience of tightness is usually felt only as a response to a stretch in your end range of motion, and your goal is to increase your end range of motion, then stretch to improve your nervous system’s tolerance for stretch and not because you think you are increasing the resting length your tissue
  • If you are stretching before or after exercise in an attempt to reduce DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) the research does not support that stretching has an effect on DOMS (Ref) – factors that do have an effect are hydration, general state of health, physical or metabolic stress and even fear of pain (if you perceive that you will feel sore after exercise you are more likely to – Ref)
  • Consider adding strength-training into your yoga or stretching protocol. Strength-training will not make your muscles tighter and strengthening is not the opposite of stretching.


To read more on how strength-training may actually improve your range of motion more than passive stretching alone read my next myth-busting blog here.

If you are interested in a yoga class with an updated approach to stretching and strengthening, check out my upcoming Events to find one that works for you!

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