If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “I’ve just got really tight muscles” I’d be pretty rich by now. Many people also believe, wrongly (no offense, but it’s true), that tight muscles are either 1) something that is genetic or, rather, just how their body is, 2) tight muscles don’t contribute to their injury risk and/or 3) they will always be tight – as in they can’t do anything to decrease the tightness.
So in order to understand why the above thinking is wrong, we need to understand some neurophysiology and anatomy. The first truth that I am going to lay out is SUPER important and something that you’ll see in many of my posts. That is, the brain controls EVERYTHING. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING. But for the sake of this post, every muscle contraction/activation or lack of contraction/activation is controlled by the brain – can we all agree on that? Good.
Since the brain controls everything, then at the basis, if we can get the brain to turn off the tight muscles, theoretically those muscles should not be tight anymore – right? So the question isn’t “why are my muscles so tight” but rather “why is my brain keeping my muscle(s) tight?” And if we can figure out that answer, we’ll be golden.
The brain is a creature of habit and likes to take the path of least resistance (i.e. the easy way out). If it can get out of recruiting the biceps at 100% during a biceps curl, it will. It may recruit the deltoids and pecs (to stabilize) at an increased rate of 20% and decrease full on biceps recruitment to, say, 80%. This example may result in a bicep curl that looks more like the whole arm is moving a bit more, than a straight up bicep curl; instead of seeing just the elbow bend, it may look like the person is leaning back, their shoulder may move forward a bit etc… Don’t get bogged down by the numbers I just listed – I made those up, but the concept is still accurate. So, depending on your age, your brain will have created hundreds of thousands/millions of movement patterns (i.e. muscle memory) and stored them in a bank where it will draw upon them when necessary.
Now, oftentimes, the brain usually will keep a muscle – or muscles – tight for one of the following reasons (yes, there are other reasons the brain might do this, but these are the most common):
- To keep in the body in a protective state. So the follow-up question to this is “why does my body want to protect ‘x’?” It could be that the tight muscle is turned on due to inhibition or weakness in another part of the body. So rather than fix the problem (which would take actual work!), the brain does what’s easiest, keep a muscle tight. Example: Many times (certainly not the only times), tight hamstring(s) can be holding on to the pelvis for dear life because the core muscles are inhibited. So the solution wouldn’t be to stretch the hamstrings till the cows come home (bc, hopefully you’ve guessed it by now, the hamstrings will come back tighter the next day or a few hours later), but rather to figure out why the core is not efficient (I utilize NKT to figure out what muscles are facilitated/inhibited)
- Another reason the brain keeps a muscle turned on is because of over utilization. If you go to the gym and only work your chest, well guess what? The muscles utilized in all of those exercises (pec major/minor, some anterior delt, some biceps, some neck muscles etc…) will be overworked (and even more depending on if you had any compensations to begin with). With each repetition, your body is RECORDING that movement and the muscle activation patterns required – and saving them to your hard drive. Overtime, these muscles that are over utilized become …. well…. tight. And if something is tight or overworked, it can be facilitated or inhibited – NKT helps me in my assessment process. So the lesson here is, make sure you work ALL muscle groups, the back and the front!
One thing I want to clarify – compensations aren’t all BAD! This is something I’ll elaborate in a future post. But know that our bodies compensate all the time, it’s called adapting to life! It’s when a compensation has served it’s purpose, but still sticks around and is no longer aiding your body in anything in particular, that it becomes a “problem”. This is a loaded topic that can’t be expanded upon in this particular post, but I promise, I’ll get to it in the future. Just know, I may be addressing compensations in a negative light right now, but that they aren’t all bad!
All in all, we have to re-frame our mindset and the questions we ask. Instead of “Why are my muscles tight?”, ask yourself “Why is my brain keeping my muscles tight?”. This allows you to trace the problem back to the source. While I don’t know the specifics of your problem, hopefully with these pointers, you’ve realized that tight muscles 1) don’t resolve on their on 2) don’t resolve with constant stretching alone, and 3) you should see a clinician (I would love to help you!) if your problem doesn’t resolve.