How To Relieve Tight Muscles For Good.Mar 02, 2020
I love checking in with students before teaching a yoga class. It gives me a pulse on what everyone in the room is going through, and how the group views movement on that particular day.
When I check in for pain points, tight muscles is high on the list of things they want to address. What’s interesting to me is that this pain point is often coupled with a request to stretch out these tight areas.
Like most people, I love a good stretch, but I’m not sure that’s the most effective strategy for relieving tightness in the long-term. Perhaps it feels good in the moment and relieves the feeling of tightness for a few hours, but the tightness usually returns again later on.
I say this as a formerly very tight person who used a lot of passive stretching to alleviate said tightness. What was peculiar, though, is that the more I stretched the tighter I felt.
How could this be?! Isn’t stretching a tight muscle the same thing as lengthening a shortened muscle? Why should stretching make me feel more tight?
Well, it turns out there was a pretty good reason for this, and it started to make more sense to me as I learned more about why we feel tight to begin with. The good news is, it is possible to alleviate tightness long-term. I haven’t felt tight in any area of my body for over a year now, and it has to do more with strength than with passive stretching.
I’ll get into that in a moment, but first, let’s start with a question.
Why Do We Get Tight?
Why do we get tight? This is a great question to start off this inquiry, because if we truly understand the problem, we can find a solution that matches.
Tightness is an output from our nervous system that indicates our brain doesn’t feel safe in a particular area of our body. When our nervous system doesn’t feel confident in the capacity of a certain body part, it will respond by outputting feelings of tightness, pain, inflammation or a combination of any of those things.
When I hear yoga students complain of tightness in their bodies, the go-to strategy I often see is to passively stretch that area. In a way, I see how that makes sense on the surface. When we feel tight, we may feel like a muscle has shortened, and so our go-to response is to passively stretch it in order to bring that length back. In some instances, this works temporarily. If our outer hips feel tight, lying passively in a pigeon pose may make that sensation of tightness go away for a few hours. But almost always, the tightness comes back in a few hours or the next day.
Why is that?
While we’ve done the work to “lengthen” muscles that feel “shortened”, we haven’t given our nervous system any new input that would help our brain feel safe in that area, and so the tightness returns.
Relieving Tight Muscles
In order to get our brain to feel safe, we need to increase the capacity of our tissues to do the job they are designed to do. Muscles have one job: To contract. If we rely on passive stretching to fix our tightness, we are putting our tissues into a stretch while they are relaxed--the opposite of their job. (There is lots of value in stretching a relaxed muscle, but it probably won’t work long-term to relieve tightness.) When we feel tight, our brain is actually asking us to contract our muscles, and to contract them through a full range of motion.
Let’s use an example: Many people experience a feeling of tightness in their hip flexors, the tissues along the front of the hip. If we rely on passive stretching to alleviate our tightness, our go-to strategy is probably doing a lot of low lunges where the front of the hip feels like it’s being put on a deep stretch. If this is your strategy, don’t be surprised when the tightness returns later on.
Instead, a more effective strategy might be to contract our hip flexors to do the job they are designed to: flex the hips. This might mean lifting one leg up from the hip crease while standing and pulsing the leg in hip flexion. You may find that this is actually really challenging to do--and it will feel challenging if your sweet little hip flexors are starved of this movement! Your brain outputting a feeling of tightness in the hip flexors is its polite way of saying: Hello! You have hip flexors, they are very important to me but you aren’t using them very often, and I need to be able to tell you this in some way, so I’m going to make you feel tight there to motivate you to do something about it! Until you give your brain the movement inputs it needs to feel safe, it will continue to output tightness.
Let’s work with another example: Let’s say you have tight hamstrings. In an attempt to alleviate this feeling of tightness, you bend over and put your hamstrings on a passive stretch. This feels good in the moment, but later on you realize that the feeling of tightness has returned with a vengeance. What could you do differently?
If you want that pesky feeling of tightness to go away once and for all, you need to train your hamstrings to be...well, hamstrings! One of the hamstrings’ jobs is to bend the knee. So what if you stood upright, lifted one foot off the floor, and bent that knee like a flamingo so that the lifted foot tried to touch your butt? (Remember to keep the pelvis in neutral for this, don’t let the tailbone flip up towards the sky! Keep it grounding to the floor.) You could then do little pulses with the thigh, trying to move the lifted knee back in space a few times to really get the hamstring to turn on. You may find that you cramp during this exercise, which is an output from your brain when you try something you haven’t done before.
Experiment with your old strategy of passively stretching a tight area versus activating a tight area to do its job, and see what difference it makes in your feelings of tightness. As someone who used to feel tight in almost every area of my body, I can say that years of passive stretching did almost nothing for me in terms of tightness (or improving range of motion, but that’s a conversation for a different day). Now that I’ve flipped my tightness-relieving strategy, I never feel tight in any area. It’s like magic!
Muscle Tightness & Flexibility
As an aside, I sometimes sense that the desire to relieve tightness is coupled with a desire to improve range of motion of a particular part of the body. Not only do we want our hamstrings to not feel tight, we want to be able to touch our toes when we bend over.
When we understand why our brain creates the feeling of tightness and what it’s asking us to do in response, we naturally decouple our strategies to relieve tightness and our strategies to improve range of motion. It’s entirely possible for our hamstrings to feel great and to have the exact same range of motion that they have today.
Improving range of motion in our joints utilizes a similar strategy to relieving tightness--we still want to utilize muscle contractions--but we want to explore muscle contractions through our end ranges in an attempt to deepen them. Improving range of motion is more targeted toward the specific mobility goal we have, whether that goal is being able to touch our toes when we bend over, do the splits, get safely into lotus pose, etc.
Start Relieving Muscle Tightness Today
When I started focusing more on strength and less on passive stretching in my yoga practice, my entire life changed. I started experiencing less pain and tightness, and started seeing massive gains in my strength, range of motion and ability to control my movements through a variety of complex scenarios.
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