Stop Stretching: Proven Methods to Relieve Muscle Tightness

body insights yoga practice
A person stretching their leg on a yoga mat, representing common attempts to relieve muscle tightness.

Tightness is a protective mechanism. It's our brain's way of holding our body together when we're missing the muscle strength that would naturally stabilize our joints.

Why you feel tight...

In a perfect world, daily demands would ensure we used our muscles and moved our joints through a full range of motion with varying degrees of load. We would lift, carry, throw, push, pull, walk, run, and squat--all without thinking about it. In this reality, our muscles would be well balanced and strong enough to support our skeleton naturally.

But most of us don't live in a perfect world. The demands of our day rarely ask us to do more than sit in a chair or stand in a few positions. As a result, we need to carve out separate time to go to the gym, yoga class, etc, to add back in crucial movements that used to be a natural feature of the day.

As we all know--that's easier said than done. This requires extra time, money, and energy to figure out. Most of us simply don't have the resources to religiously provide for ourselves the missing pieces of our movement diet that our body is asking for.

So what happens? Our brain fills in the gap by using tightness to hold ourselves together in the absence of crucial muscle pliability and strength. In this scenario, tightness performs an essential function--it keeps us safe.

But there is a cost. Tight muscles don't feel good and they don't function properly. As a result, it hurts to perform movements we should be able to do pain-free, and other movements become simply off limits.

So, how do you solve your tightness problem?

If you're like most people, the first thing you think of is stretching.

At first glance, stretching makes sense. A tight muscle feels short, so why not stretch it to make it longer?

Why stretching doesn't help...

You can go this route, but you'll probably find that while stretching makes your muscles feel better, the solution is short lived. The next day when you roll out of bed, you feel tight in all the same places. It's a case of Groundhog Day over and over again.

This is because stretching is a reactive mode of problem solving. Our body should be able to easily tolerate a stretch, but stretching is not a necessary ingredient of our fitness. We need something more protective than stretching. We need strength.

Now, I get it. The idea of strength is a scary idea to a lot of people. It conjures up images of Arnold Schwarzenegger deadlifting 300 pounds, or people in the body builder section of the gym squatting with kettlebells the weight of concrete bags.

That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a more subtle brand of strength. I'm talking about the strength of being able to access and control all of the different movements that your body is theoretically capable of producing.

Let's make this tangible. Our feet are made up of 26 bones and 33 joints. This means they are designed to deform over the uneven terrain of the earth and translate that force into something doable for our ankles. Our ankles are designed to respond to those variances in a variety of ways, and translate that into something even more doable for our knees.

As we move up the chain to the hips, we find the power center of our body. Not only are our hips designed to respond to the forces coming up from the ground through our feet, ankles and knees, but they are also designed to propel us forward into the world--or backwards, sideways, up, down, or diagonally.

If we followed this thought experiment through our spine, ribcage, shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands, we would find a specific design for each structure, and with it, a specific set of movement potentials.

Those potentials are actually requirements. Meet those requirements and you wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, supple, and ready for whatever the day has in store. Neglect those requirements and you wake up feeling sluggish, tight, and unsure about your ability to take on the day.

When you think about this way, it's easy to see that stretching doesn't do a whole lot to meet those requirements, and this is why it doesn't solve your tightness problem.

What to do instead...

So if stretching doesn't work and you don't need to become a body builder, what do you need to do?

You need to prioritize actively moving your body through the movements it's designed to do in a controlled way. The word control is important here. It means you need to create movement by contracting your muscles, and resist the urge to let gravity, leverage or momentum do your work for you.

I know what I just said probably makes your head spin a little bit, but stick with me on this.

When you use gravity, leverage, and momentum to accomplish your movements, your muscles are not fully engaged. For example, when walking, many of us kick our feet forward, relying on gravity and momentum instead of controlled muscle engagement. We often sink into a squat, letting gravity pull us down rather than actively lowering ourselves. Similarly, we use the armrests to push ourselves up from a low chair, leveraging our upper body weight instead of using our leg muscles. Running down a hill or a flight of stairs, we let gravity and momentum carry us, instead of using our legs to control the movement.

If you look around the gym or yoga class, you'll see people offloading the work their muscles should be doing to gravity, leverage and momentum all the time. This is how people who look physically fit find themselves waking up with the same feeling of tightness sedentary people do.

To fix this, we need to focus on slowing movements down and getting more specific with the movements we're doing. Unfortunately, we can't rely on daily life to provide these opportunities for us. We need to seek them out.

So this week, I invite you to roll out your yoga mat at home and try some of this out for yourself. Use your yoga practice to de-emphasize stretching and emphasize slow, controlled movements. It's going to feel different, especially if you're used to a yoga practice that glorifies end ranges of motion.

Try this experiment this week: practice this one 30-minute class every day and see how your tightness responds. You can even respond to this email and let me know how it goes. Don't worry about repeating the same class over and over again. Your body needs repetition in order to learn and build strength.


You ready to feel a whole lot better? I'll "see" you on the mat.

From my living room to yours <3