How do you relax tight muscles? What to do when you’re stuck and stiff - Upright Health

How do you relax tight muscles? What to do when you’re stuck and stiff

We’ve all been there. Maybe after a hard workout or some stressful weeks, your muscles are tight. You’ve had massages, done your stretching routine from top to bottom… but after a short period of relief, it comes back again. 

The common treatment for tight muscles consists of massage, stretching, rest, or ice/heat. But those approaches don’t always work (more on that here).

 What do you do when muscle tightness keeps coming back?

How to fix tight muscles: Overview

This video covers much of what you’ll see in this blog post. I encourage you to watch the video AND read this blog post for a deeper understanding of fixing tight muscles.

Why do muscles feel tight?

“Tightness” itself can be misleading. The way we tend to use the word “tight” is confusing when talking about muscles.

First, let’s be clear about this: tightness is a sensation. It’s something you feel internally. It’s that irritated, gnawing, tender sensation you get in a muscle.

It’s not an objective, measurable phenomenon. And it is NOT easily correlated with the way a muscle feels when someone else massages or palpates it, as you’ll see.

A muscle can feel tight to you for a variety of reasons:

Overuse 

A harder training session, a sudden increase in intensity, even the wrong footwear can lead to the feeling of muscle tightness.

After a muscle is overused (a condensed version of the classic theory):

  • The weakest fibers break. This induces an inflammatory response to begin the healing process.
  • This response shortens the muscle fibers.

This is a situation where the muscle feels tight because its fibers are strong and short. Tightness due to overuse is the classic scenario people have in their minds.

In this case, the proper treatment is to relax the muscle. Ice may help (though this seems to vary wildly based on the individual). Massage and stretching techniques can release the tension.

It can also be beneficial to strengthen the antagonists (the muscles that have an opposing function).

Why?

Mostly because it will enhance the muscular balance around the joint. A short muscle means a lengthened muscle on the other side. Training the antagonist will help that short muscle relax, improve balance around the joint, and increase overall stability at rest.

Weakness.

This is a cause of muscle tightness people rarely consider. Muscles are like rubber bands. If a rubber band is stretched, it’ll feel tight, right? This tightness doesn’t mean it’s strong or shortened. Similar idea with your muscles.

For a clear real life example, let’s talk about the hamstrings (those long muscles on the back of the thigh).

The hamstrings attach in two places: on a corner located on the inferior and posterior part of the pelvis and down to the back of the knee below the knee joint.

Your hamstrings help you with hip extension and knee flexion - when they aren't too busy being super stiff.

If the hamstrings are weak, two things can happen:

  • They can be stuck in a lengthened position. The hamstrings aren’t strong enough to keep the pelvis in its place. They are like the stretched rubber band. A stronger muscle is pulling the pelvis forward, locking the hamstrings into a weak and lengthened position. This is what happens in an anterior pelvic tilt.
  • They can be stuck in a shortened position. The hamstrings are weak and the pelvis is tilted backward. In this case, the pelvis is locked in a posterior pelvic tilt. Here, the hamstrings are in a weak and shortened position.  The hamstrings lack strength in a lengthened position. So they don’t let your pelvis tilt anteriorly. The hamstrings can’t be long and strong. They just lock down in a short position.  This locks the pelvis into the posterior tilt.

What should you do for chronically tight muscles?

This leaves us with three main categories of tightness:

  • Strong and short.

  • Weak and lengthened.

  • Weak and shortened.

How you fix tight muscles will always depend on the main cause of tightness, as shown in the following chart:

(This excludes people with musculoskeletal disorders caused by a neurological condition)

CAUSE OF MUSCLE TIGHTNESS

THE WAY TO FIX IT

Strong and short

The classic approach of massage and stretching will reduce the tightness. Strengthening the antagonist can be beneficial as well. It will restore muscle balance around the joint and will help prevent prevent injuries.

Weak and lengthened

A treatment with massage therapy and passive/static stretching will worsen the problem. In this case, we have to strengthen the muscle itself and likely stretch the antagonist. That way, we’ll regain muscular balance and eliminate the sensation of tightness.

Weak and shortened

Fixing this kind of muscle tightness requires strengthening the muscle itself and the antagonist. Both will be weak; one will be shortened and the other, lengthened. Strengthening both at varying muscle lengths will improve the control of each muscle, normalize sensations, and eliminate tightness.

Muscles with "tight" tendencies

The relationship between agonist-antagonist muscles can be problematic. As seen in the chart, weakness or excessive strength in one muscle can lead to an imbalance that causes the sensation of tightness.

This pattern of short-long/ strong-weak is found in different muscular groups all over the body.

When it comes to the hip, the TFL and the hip flexors are on top of the list:

The TFL (tensor fascia lata) loves to get stiff

the tensor fascia lata and IT band get tight often

This muscle commonly feels tight in athletes, mostly the ones involved in running sports. If the classic treatment brings benefits only in the short term, consider strengthening your internal rotators of the hip.

Yes. Those tiny muscles in charge of rotating the hip sometimes need to be strengthened.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not about lifting weights with your internal rotators. It’s about telling them what they’re supposed to be doing.

You can re-teach a lengthened or weak muscle with isometric exercises. It’s all about keeping the muscular contraction for at least a few seconds. That way, the muscle starts to “understand” that its job is to do a certain movement.

In this case, activating the internal rotators can release the sense of tightness on the TFL. As these rotators tend to be weak, it’s normal to experience some cramps at the beginning.

Check out this video for more guidance on how to train the internal rotators to treat tightness on the TFL:

The other hip flexors  get stiff all the time too

Hip flexors can get tight and stiff

Having "tight" hip flexors is really common. Spending most of the day in a sitting position shortens those fibers.

After stretching these muscles, they’ll need some stimuli from their antagonists: the glutes. Activating the glutes after stretching the hip flexors will help maintain the changes.

This video will teach you some exercises for tight hip flexors, including specific hip flexor stretches and some activation work for glutes.

The bottom line on tight muscles

Tightness doesn’t always mean you need a massage. It can mean you need to strengthen muscles as well.

If massaging and stretching the muscle is not working, consider the possibility that your tightness is due to a weak muscle somewhere.

Fixing the tight muscle can be as simple as 5-10 reps of 10 seconds!

But if it takes longer, don't be surprised. The path to getting muscles balanced around a joint can take weeks and months. It's always helpful to remember that strength and mobility training  is a gradual process, not an all-out sprint.

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About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.