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What it means to be tight

Functional Training

What people perceive as tightness

Most people assume that there is tightness within a muscle that causes pain, discomfort, and a limited range of motion. However, there is much more to it than just the skeletal muscle that causes such discomfort.

What is usually done about it

I always have clients and people in general discuss with me how tight their "this and that" is; so out of curiosity, I often ask what they do about it. In response, 9 times out of 10 they tell me of stretches they do in an attempt to alleviate their "tightness". However, much to their lack of avail, the "tightness" does not go away. In fact, it typically gets worse as they keep up this progression of stretches.

So, the next step people do is try a form of muscle release (aka Myofascial release). This is done by foam rolling or using a deep massage over a painful area. However, this method works for reasons different than what most people believe and is still only a temporary relief; soon, the muscles will become "tight" again unless there is something else done about it.

And as for icing a tight area, it simply does not work. Icing only reduces inflammation of a torn muscle, not a contracted one. Likewise, heating may help, but only during the time of using the heat; as soon as you remove it, the discomfort in the area returns.

Most people resort to using myofascial release and stretches to get rid of their discomfort and "tightness"

How muscles really work

Backing up a bit, the primary function of the skeletal muscle is to provide locomotion to the skeletal system; in other words, IT MOVES THE BODY. Furthermore, every joint has a set of muscles on each side to provide flexion and extension. For instance, the biceps flex the elbow while the triceps extend the elbow. Therefore, these two sets of muscles are opposite of each other. These muscles are paired up in every joint of the body.

And there is a reason for this: Muscle can only either Contract or Relax. That means they cannot stretch without the opposing muscle contracting. So imagine you didn't have triceps to extend the elbow back; everyone would walk around like a T-Rex.

As one side contracts, only then is the other side stretched back out.

Why does this matter?

Many times we have a habit of both overcomplicating things and making things easier for us. In this case, we have overcomplicated the muscular system to the point of forgetting its function. Furthermore, we want to make it convenient and easy to relieve tight areas by stretching and massaging them.

Unfortunately, by doing this, we are ignoring the causes of discomfort and only providing temporary treatment.

What "tightness" is really?

Tightness can come from many different issues. For one, muscle is actually quite elastic. In fact, when you stretch, you are really stretching the fascia that overlaps the muscle fibers. Furthermore, because each joint has a set of opposing muscles, there must be an equilibrium between the two. If not, then you are allowing the joint to be pulled by the stronger muscle. Ironically, the stronger muscle is often stretched out and the weaker ones are often ignored, thus creating a feedback loop that often leads to chronic injuries.

In other words, if there is a muscle stronger than the other on a joint, an Imbalance occurs, causes the feeling of a "tight" muscle. Think of it as a tug of war in which the stronger muscle wins your attention and the weak one is ignored.

Both sets of muscles must have the same strength and integrity to have balance.

Let's use a realistic example:

John is an accountant that has a set routine of going to work from 8AM-4PM, then watches TV for a bit, eats dinner, then goes to bed. After a few years of doing this, however, John notices that his back begins to hurt and "tightens" as he sits through work. Because of this, he starts stretching to try and alleviate the issue. The tightness alleviates for a bit but worsens when he isn't spending the time to stretch. Becoming tired of the discomfort, John then sees a massage therapist and a chiropractor to treat his tight back. This definitely helps, but he finds that frequent visits are mandatory or the pain will come back in full force. Thus, John is caught in a loop of treatment visits just to avoid pain in his lower back.

Why is that?

John sits at work all day, and that prolonged sitting causes the muscles in the back to be contracted the entire time. In contrast, the muscles in the trunk and hip flexors which act as the opposing muscles for spinal and hip stability are relaxed and become weaker than the strong lower back muscles. To make things worse, that static position creates webbing between the fascia and the skeletal muscles, making him feel stiff and creates the urge of stretching everything out. Therefore, even though John is stretching to alleviate his scar tissue buildup and relieving his lower back muscles through massage, there is still an imbalance in his spine and hips from his weak trunk and leg muscles.

-This is the result of his "tight" back-

John then has not learned the main function of muscle: To Move! If he would use this info, John would not only get rid of his "tightness", he would realize that in order for him to get better, not only does he have to alleviate his hyperactive back muscles, he needs to strengthen the muscles that are causing his back to work extra hard in the first place!

How to proactively alleviate "tightness"

These are two simple concepts that can definitely help:

1) Motion is lotion

When acute injuries and soreness occurs, rest is very much needed to prevent inflammation and to allow recovery. However, if a set of muscles stay still for a prolonged period of time, the fascia surrounding the muscle will begin to mesh and scar tissue will be created. You are therefore literally putting yourself into a web!

Furthermore, when a muscle stays contracted, that means another muscle is relaxed. And if you keep a position there for long periods of time, you will most certainly develop an overactive and strong muscle on one side; but you will also create a weak muscle on the other.

Because the skeletal muscle system is designed to move, movement must be used to keep the Musculoskeletal system in check.

-Which leads me to the second concept-

2) If you do not use it, you will lose it

Muscle is an important system in the body. However, if you do not challenge it effectively, you will begin to lose its functions. For instance, many people with shoulder and neck tightness never engage their shoulder and upper back muscles properly; as a result, they lose integrity of their shoulders and neck. If they would just challenge the range of motion, the body will adapt and the tightness will alleviate. Also, because the nervous system is linked to the skeletal muscle system (i.e. Neuromuscular system), you must teach and train the body to move properly. Giving yourself better range of motion through massage and stretching is too passive and cannot teach this function; It would be the equivalent of lending your car to someone that has never learned how to drive!

So when you stay active and perform exercises that use a full range of motion, you are much less likely to experience these imbalances and muscle "tightness" that can definitely throw you in for a loop!

Here are three exercises that can help:

1) Squatting

Squatting is a very primal movement that helps built leg strength, core strength, and hip mobility. I find it is very useful for those that get lower back and hip tightness because it correctly engages all the muscles surrounding those areas. To make the full range, point your toes out and squat down till your elbows touch the inside of your thighs. At the bottom, think "belly into your thighs" to properly engage your trunk muscles!

2) Hip Hinges

Performing Hip Hinges engages the hip while stabilizing the trunk muscles. This in turn stretches the hamstring muscles more effectively while also teaching you how to lift things off the floor properly. Think "hips back" and "gut braced" when performing this one!

3) Arm reaches

Because most people do not reach above their heads, they often lose this ability an issues come up around the neck and shoulder region. To avoid this, simply practice reaching the sky with lightly shrugged shoulders and a stiff trunk once in a while. While doing this, take deep breaths into the belly and blow while reaching higher for a better range of motion! You can even perform this holding a broomstick or dowel

So when you stay active and perform exercises that use a full range of motion, you are much less likely to experience these imbalances and muscle "tightness" that can definitely throw you in for a loop!

Please share and enhance the discussion through commenting below!

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