We’ve all had muscles that feel really “tight.” Whether it’s the shoulders, back, or hamstrings, the muscles just don’t seem to let go. Massage may help it. Stretching it may help it. But then suddenly the tightness bounces right back. What’s the reason and what can you do about it?
It may surprise you to find out that the sensation of tightness does not necessarily mean that something needs to be loosened or lengthened. You can have muscles that are tight and strong, and you can have muscles that are tight as a compensation for another set of weak muscles.
In the first case, you want to try to loosen things up and relax the muscles more. A classic example of this is a man having muscles in the chest that are extremely strong that pull his shoulders forward and cause his chest to feel tight. In this instance, stretches to open up the chest would likely be a great idea.
However, in the second case — the one in which you have tight muscles compensating for weak ones — stretching the tight area may not be a great idea. An exceedingly common version of this is the tight mid and upper back and neck muscles on women who “carry [their] stress in their shoulders.” Often, these are women who spend long periods slouched in front of a computer with their rhomboids and middle and lower trap muscles constantly getting weaker and longer. As the shoulders go into a more and more slouched position and the rhomboids and traps get weaker and longer, a sensation of tightness kicks into the upper shoulder muscles and neck muscles as they compensate for the lack of stability in the mid back. Massage and stretching the mid and upper back may offer some relief, but they also inhibit muscle activity there and thus exacerbate the underlying length and weakness issue.
Or you may have a situation where a guy feels tightness in his hamstrings. No matter how much he stretches the hamstrings, his hamstrings feel tight and never seem to relax. In a case like this, you’re often looking at a hamstring that is compensating for weakness in the butt/hip muscles. Because the butt/hip muscles are not doing their jobs, the hamstrings get a signal from the brain to ramp up activity to lend extra stability and control around the pelvis. This means if this guys is actually successful at stretching out the hamstring, he’ll have overridden an important compensation that his brain and body need to keep the hip joint stable. Not a pretty picture. So his body doesn’t let him do it until he can activate his butt/hip muscles (e.g. gluteus medius and maximus). On a brief aside specifically related to this situation, there is often extreme shortness in the muscles in front of the hip that neurologically shuts down the activation of the butt muscles even though no sensation of tightness in the front of the hip!
When muscles are tight as a compensation for a weak muscle, it’s important to first identify what muscle isn’t doing its job. You can then work to rebalance the effort in the muscles so that the ones that should be working DO and the ones that shouldn’t don’t. The alternative, commonly known as stretching and stretching and stretching (or even foam rolling and foam rolling), just won’t solve the problem.