Whether I am grunting in the gym, chilling on the couch, doing Pilates at work, or training with my football team, one of the most common physiotherapy issues I am asked about by friends, family, teammates and patients alike is how to deal with tightness in muscles. We’ve all experienced it, hissing hip flexors when trying to do an ab workout, screaming shoulders after a long day at the office, or howling hamstrings as we agonisingly reach, but ultimately fail to touch our toes. The question is, how do we solve this problem and become the supple leopards that we were all born to be?
To cure this feeling of stiffness the first port of call should be figuring out what exactly is causing it. As with any sort of musculoskeletal issue, muscle tightness is quite often multi-factorial, and some of these common factors include:
- Maladapted postures
- Neural tension
- Capsular (joint) stiffness
- Acute injury
- Previous injury
- Compensatory muscle activation (eg. Hamstrings compensating for poor glut control)
As we can see, stiffness in a muscle can have one or, often, several different, complicated causes (us lucky physios get to piece this intricate jigsaw puzzle together!) One major cause of this stiffness which I would like to address today, which I feel has been massively overlooked by many, is this bombshell:
MUSCLE WEAKNESS = MUSCLE TIGHTNESS
Yep, you heard me correctly, your stringy, tight, aching muscles may just be screaming out for a nice little bit of R and R; Resistance and Repetitions!
This may sound like a completely counter-intuitive idea, to strengthen a tight muscle, but it is an idea that is starting to gather traction. Recent scientific research describes “fatigue induced muscle disorder”, where stiffness in muscles had actually been due to the muscle fatiguing, and as a result tightening. Weakness equals tightness!
To put this into an everyday scenario, let’s look at the upper fibers of the trapezius muscle, the muscles that connect the top of the shoulders to the base of the neck. These poor, often villainized muscles are consistently described as “super tight”, particularly in the desk-bound population, but believe it or not, are in many instances weak, over-worked and elongated. They fight day in and day out against our heavy, rounded shoulders, working tirelessly to oppose the effects of gravity and poor postures, until inevitably they can take no more, and striking in unison, down tools and pack it in, stiffening right up! *Physiologically correct explanation of this process is available on request.
So, to sort out our fatigued, elongated and, as a result, tight-feeling muscles, we must build up their strength. BUT, we must remember that not all strengthening programmes are born equal!
To skim through the biology lesson, all we need to know is that a sarcomere is the basic unit of a muscle, which contracts to shorten and expands to lengthen a muscle, and it has been theorized that adding sarcomeres to a muscle (sarcomerogenesis) could make a muscle longer. Research has recently shown that eccentric training can cause sarcomerogenesis to happen in a muscle.
Eccentric loading is when a muscle is contracting and lengthening at the same time, like the lowering phase of a squat or bicep curl, and is often referred to as the control phase of an exercise. It should be performed slowly and with precision, and when done correctly, works wonderfully at building length and strength in a muscle group, something we physios and Pilates instructors are big fans of. It is important to note at this stage that initially you may feel stiffer for the first 24-48 hours post-eccentric workouts, thanks DOMS!
Nevertheless, the next time your traps are tender, your pecs are precariously pulling or your hammies are hanging on by their strings, rather than just stretching, foam rolling, or getting a deep tissue massage (all of which can be super helpful), maybe think about giving your weary muscles an eccentric workout and who knows, you might just reach them toes of yours some day!