Everyone has tight muscles sometimes, and some people have tight muscles all the time. While tightness is certainly uncomfortable and a request for attention, it is not a useful adjective for diagnosis, because this sensation has several causes. Treatment for one type of tight muscle can actually make another worse. Learn six types of tightness so you can respond to your muscles’ complaints more effectively.
#1 Short and overused
After a long hike or intense workout, the muscles in your legs may feel tight and sore, because they have been overused. The muscles are contracted and could benefit from gentle stretching, especially while they are warm from activity.
#2 Long and overused, but weak
Unbalanced posture creates imbalanced muscles. Some muscles will be short and contracted. Others will be long for counterbalance, which creates stiffness that feels like tightness. Computer posture is a great example. The muscles in the front of the chest are short and overused. The upper back and shoulders are overstretched and working in a compromised, weakened position . Isometric exercises, such as squeezing the shoulder blades together and down to shorten and strengthen the upper back muscles, are effective.
#3 Underused and weak
If a muscle is not used, it will atrophy and the surrounding connective tissue and fascia become dense. In computer posture, several arm muscles fall into this category. Gradually increase strength through exercise to rebuild the health of the muscle and feeling of suppleness to the fascia. Exercises that use many muscles at once, like pushups with the knees down or bench press with light weight, work better than machines that target individual muscles.
Muscles that are overused to the point of strain tighten up for protection. That can come from overdoing any workout, yard work, or helping a friend move. The first step in healing is rest. Ice, heat, or a combination can help, too. Then gradually introduce exercise and stretching. It is important to back off your usual routine and build up slowly to avoid additional strain.
#5 Trigger points
Strain can create trigger points and so can structural imbalance, poor posture, and being cold. These knots are often described as tightness. The best treatment is warming the muscle, pressing or massaging the tender points, and then stretching.
#6 Scar tissue
Muscles and connective tissue that have been damaged, either from a sudden injury or continual microtrauma of poor alignment, repair themselves with stiff, inflexible scar tissue. Manual therapy like deep tissue and cross fiber friction massage is an effective treatment. Gentle stretching sometimes helps, but overstretching creates microtears in the connective tissue and even more scar tissue.
Manual therapists and exercise professionals need to diagnose the source of tightness, so it can be addressed appropriately. For example, lengthening or stretching a long and overused muscle makes it even stiffer. For the client, becoming aware of what underlies the feeling is an important tool for self care, injury prevention, and personal growth.