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Many people devote an inordinate amount of time to perfecting their strength training, muscular development, cardio, and diet. However, often these same folks still suffer from muscle tightness. Left untreated, this can end up leading to chronic pain and / or injury. Here are a few causes of muscle tightness, as well as possible solutions.
If you’re a victim of muscle tightness or suffer from poor flexibility, you might think the problem lies in the muscle that actually feels that way. The truth is that the root cause of these symptoms can often be found in the antagonistic or surrounding muscles. This is because what you think is tight muscle is actually a muscular imbalance.
Muscular imbalances occur when one set of muscles is inordinately stronger than others, therefore the body relies on them instead of muscles that are supposed to be used. For instance, it might not be that your hamstrings are tight – it’s that your quadriceps are too strong. It’s not that your shoulders are inflexible – it’s that your chest is overdeveloped.
Muscles feel tight when you have a hard time fully extending them. However, muscles can only fully extend when their opposite counterparts contract. If the opposite counterpart is significantly stronger, the body will naturally try to protect the weaker muscle. The body will then prematurely tense the weaker muscle, preventing you from fully stretching it.
Take the hamstrings and quadriceps example from above. You might think you have tight hamstrings because you’re not able to stretch them that far. However, if you stretch them a little bit, ease off, take a deep breath, then contract your quadriceps, your hamstring flexibility will immediately improve. This is because you’re actively causing your body to not protect the hamstrings. Do exercise programs that correct muscular imbalances, and you’ll reduce muscle tightness.
If you’ve ever been under a lot of pressure at work, you’ll know how tense your neck and shoulders can feel. A 2002 study by Boudarene demonstrated that there is a physiological component to the stress response, and one of the natural reactions the body can have is the fight or flight response. Part of this is the body naturally tensing up muscles. If you can actively reduce stress in your life as a whole, you can reduce the risk you’ll suffer from muscle tightness.
One large cause of muscle tightness can be the presence of scar tissue. If tissues are damaged enough, they “bond” together, acting as one unit. Build up enough of it in one area, and it can cause muscles to be inflexible. Good ways to break up scar tissue are foam rolling, deep tissue massage, and ART (Active Release Technique). Make these a permanent part of your overall routine can also go a long way to preventing new scar tissue from forming in the future.
Though muscle tightness can feel like it’s sabotaging all your other physical efforts, it can be simple to fix. It might take time and effort, but if you can foam roll or get good regular massages, lower your stress, and fix any muscular imbalances, you should be good to go. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll have a much better chance of remaining injury-free.