"I ALWAYS FEEL SO TIGHT, THOUGH!" - WHY STRETCHING ISN'T ALWAYS THE ANSWERNov 22, 2020
Tight does not usually equal tension. Now, the exception here is when you’ve been stuck in a cast for 6 weeks or bedridden for months/years without changing position as much as needed. (Threw out arbitrary time frames, so don’t get too stuck on those) In those cases, enough time has past where the muscles are in a shortened position for long enough that collagen fibers have had the time to lie down and start to create true tightening. But that tight neck you woke up with after moving fine the day before? Or the tightness you feel in your legs and/or traps after sitting all day? That’s simply not enough time for collagen fibers to do a damn thing. That would take a very long time.
Generally, when we feel tight, it's often more a sign of weakness or poor activation of a muscle. Not true tension. And because true shortening is not the case, that’s part of why stretching/foam rolling/ lacrosse-balling hasn't made a lasting difference yet. 9 times out of ten (ok, fine, more like 99 out of 100 times) when I do a mobility test on the area that feels tight, it ends up being completely fine in that department. But then when I go to strength test it…different story. To note, I’m not necessarily saying there is true inherent weakness either. Sometimes there is pain or a motor control issue going on inhibiting muscle activation, thereby causing weakness. Let’s break it down a little more with some examples
MAYBE IT’S JUST IRRITATED
First, let’s actually take the neck example I gave above. In this case what likely happened is fluid through that area was static for longer than it wants to be. Our bodies are meant to move. So sometimes when it’s static like that, an area can get what we call chemically irritated as a little bit of inflammatory chemicals are just sitting there. Once you get moving however, fluid will get moving again and ”flush out” that area. (Yes, sometimes you need a little help in doing that from a practitioner - this is where getting a manipulation/adjustment from a good PT or chiro can really help hit the reset button) Moreover, any static fluid that’s chemically irritated will impair the signals to our muscles, causing poor activation and a feeling of tightness. This is actually pretty similar to what happens when you get that tension the 2nd morning after a hard workout, especially if you didn’t do much the day in between - inflammation built up, wasn’t flushed out with movement the day after, and then you slept in a relatively static position, allowing it to build up. Now, I could really deep dive into how that chemical irritation build up id the source for a lot of neck/back/joint pain that we feel as well, but that’s a long conversation and not entirely related to the message I’m trying to get across today. But it is another example of how the feeling of tightness isn’t what we think. At the end of the day, the message is this: We want to find a way to get the area moving and then load it to remind the area how it’s supposed to function.
MAYBE IT’S IMPAIRED MUSCLE ACTIVATION
Could be true weakness, could be impaired muscle activation. We have all experienced this. I know I personally have some neck/upper back tightness after hours of doing documentation and get tight upper traps if my hiking backpack isn’t sitting properly.
Some great common examples are
The tightness you feel in your upper back/neck after sitting at a computer all day
The feeling of chronic hamstring tightness …for a multitude of reasons… maybe you’re a runner with stronger quads vs hamstrings, maybe you overuse your stronger back with lifting and so your hammies are fighting to work, etc. But I promise you, I very rarely find true tightness with testing even when the person is convinced otherwise prior
Tight upper traps…maybe you carry a heavy purse or bag of some kind that causes it to fatigue out and then feel tight, or that’s where you carry your stress and you chest breathe, etc
…in these instances, there’s often a lack of full muscle activation…for some reason, the signal to them has been turned down. Whether it’s actual weakness or just shut off. Either way though, it needs to be addressed for that feeling of tightness to go away. And in both cases, getting some weight and loading it throughout it’s range of motion is the answer. See the exercises below for some great drills for tight hamstrings, hip flexors, and tight neck/upper back. Oh! And if you constantly find yourself doing the pigeon pose stretch, please stop and try more glute and hip flexor activation drill instead (see below for one) and see if that takes care of it
MAYBE IT’S TAUGHT, NOT TIGHT
Another important thing to note is we will often feel tight when the tissues are being pulled taught. A good example of this that I have seen frequently is “IT Band tension” in someone who has a muscle imbalance between their glutes and their adductors (the muscles on the inside of your thigh). If your adductors are doing a lot of the work in squats, running, etc, they will be pulling the knee inward as they contract, causing the IT Band to be pulled taught. Part of the job of the glutes is to counterbalance that in order to keep our hips/pelvis level. If there’s an imbalance in strength or activation and this isn’t happening, the IT Band will feel tight from being pulled to it’s end range. So you can smash it on a foam roller all you want, and it may feel good for a bit, but it’ll keep coming back until you address (read: load) the glutes and/or adductors. (Glute example below. For the latter, check out the 1st 2 exercises in this blog. Both load the inner thigh into a lengthened position) But seriously, please stop foam rolling it. The fact that it does nothing other than maybe feel good for a few minutes after is incredibly well researched at this point. And it’s not like it feels good during, anyways.
You may have guessed it…
Instead of stretching, try loading (ie strengthening), into a lengthened position. Works SO much better for a multitude of reasons.
(Thank you, Andris, for helping me out with videos)
❣Weighted hip thrusts for "tight hip flexors" or “tight IT Band” or “tight glutes”
Can bias it for hip flexors by taking 3-5” to come down from the top each rep - the hip flexor is what controls that descent. And for the ITB or glutes, you can add a band around the knees to help remind you to press them out and get a little more glute activation.
Either way, make this challenging with enough weight (Andris is taking it super light here). Try doing 4 sets of 8 at a weight that you could maybe do 10, but not 11 reps at, each time. If you have the slow negative (coming back down), this wont be nearly as heavy as it would otherwise. And it’ll take some time to figure out what a good weight is, and it’s so vastly different for everyone
❣Overhead press for "tight neck/ upper back"
To note, this one is obviously not into a lengthened position, mostly because trying to add weight into a lengthened position for the traps is just awkward if you think about it. But this exercise works incredibly well!
Here, he is doing a Z Press, which is simply a strict press seated with your legs out straight. This makes it so you can’t use your low back or legs to help drive the weight up, therefore better targeting the upper areas. Make sure you don’t let your ribcage flare and you don’t lean back and end up doing some weird variation of a bench press. Use the same rep/weight scheme as in the hip thrusts to start.
❣Slow negative RDLs for "tight hamstrings"
For these, you can use just about anything. Kettlebell, dumbell, barbell, etc. Smaller weights will end up being held just in between the legs. Note that depending on your range of motion, if the weight is hitting the floor before you are at your end range, you’ll need to stand on a box or bench.
Start standing tall and keeping your back flat, push your hips back to the wall behind you (think like shutting the car door with your arms full of groceries). The weight should slide right down your thighs. Don’t let it drift out away from you! Take 5” to get all the way down as far as you can without letting the back round (you should feel this entirely in the back of your thighs). Hang out at your end range for 3” and then drive through the ground to return.
And in case anyone is still in a situation (yay COVID) where they don’t have access to actual gym equipment, get creative with household items! Try the hip thrusts with a 50lb bag of dog food or mulch. Do the overhead press with a bag full of books or your kid. Do the RDL negatives with a full laundry basket.
This is a short list and there are SO many other good ones. Please shoot me any and all questions you have either through the comments, contact form, or you can even email me at [email protected] or text me @ 480-751-2137
Have a “tight” area or anything else going on that you want individualized help with? Schedule now :)