Flexibility and tightness are two common and often misunderstood concepts. Just because you feel tight in a particular area does not mean you actually need to stretch. Wait, what?!?
The problem with the term ‘tightness’ is that it can be very subjective. When you finish a hard workout, your muscles feel tight. When you get punched in the arm and it bruises, that could feel tight. And, when you sit for extended periods of time, it’s likely that you’ll feel tight. But, without assessing muscle length with specific tests to determine the degree of tightness, this is just a subjective measure based on how your body feels.
Over the years, numerous runners have approached me with the goal of improving flexibility. This may be due to a shortened stride, the feeling of excess tightness following their runs, or actually having to stop mid-run and stretch due to tightness. I could easily give in and prescribe a series of static stretches to address the specific areas they are complaining about, and most people would be content. Instead, I feel it’s important that we dig deeper to uncover if these are actually flexibility problems. And if not, what drills, exercise, and/or therapy do they need to function at their best.
Several of the reasons you may be “feeling” tight are…
Lack of stability
Stability is a term that refers to the body’s ability to control it’s joint position. As you move, joints slide and glide around their articulating surfaces with the goal to be as centrated and optimally positioned as possible. Plain and simple, the stabilizers surrounding your joints contract in anticipation and in response to movement in order to keep you upright. It’s then the job of the prime movers to get you from point A to point B.
For some people, maintaining stability can be an issue. In these instances, your body will find other ways to create stability which can be by increasing tension and tone in certain muscles to then create a false sense of stability. I often see this around the hip and shoulder joints as prime movers become facilitated in order to “help out” the poorly functioning stabilizers. Instead of stretching this “tightness,” let’s address the stability component to restore function to the joint and surrounding tissue.
Lack of strength/endurance
Are you truly tight or did you just push the body past it’s threshold? In every running program there are increases in mileage from week to week in order to prepare you for your goal race. At some point, these increases become a little more challenging as you demand more from the body. If you do not have the capacity to continue increasing the demand, fatigue and tightness are often a symptom.
Stretching may help temporarily but it’s actually more rest, recovery, and increasing your capacity to load the body which will undoubtedly resolve the tightness. In essence, this type of tightness may be your body’s warning sign saying you are exceeding it’s limits. Therefore, strength training and establishing a more resilient foundation may actually be a viable strategy to reduce muscular tightness.
Lack of tissue extensibility
Sounds fancy, huh? Well, it’s not…
Simply, are you tight? This is the only way I think about tightness and it needs to be determined through testing that looks at muscle length. Do your tissues possess the ability to lengthen to the degree in which we have quantified average? If not, you are objectively tight.
All of the other examples above can leave you feeling tight but as a subjective symptom that would be better called stiffness or tone. This example is the only true tightness which actually means you have limited range of motion caused by tight muscles.
Would static stretching be good here? Ehh. Maybe yes, maybe no. But rather, full range of motion movements to end-range, mobility drills, and gradually training the nervous system to allow you into deeper ranges.
Interested in learning more about this topic? Click below to watch a video on ‘3 Reasons you “Feel” Tight’…
Thank you for taking the time to read this article! On a daily basis, I work with runners just like you who are actively stretching and searching for ways to improve flexibility and overall performance. Without an accurate assessment to determine the root cause, you may actually be wasting your time. I know that sounds frustrating, but I’d love to help!
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By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART