Have you ever been frustrated that you constantly stretch and still feel tight?
Stretching is usually the go-to modality when you feel tight in a muscle. However, stretching almost never solves the feeling of tightness.
Tightness is a protective mechanism from your nervous system when it senses you could enter into a range of motion that could injure you, which is why I’m not a huge fan of stretching.
Stretching bypasses your nervous system’s natural protective mechanism (tightness). Your body is trying to protect you from a range of motion that it can’t control.
We don’t know if the tightness is because of unfamiliarity with that range of motion or due to instability or because there is a structural block like a bone spur, cartilage or ligament tear, etc.
So because we can’t know your nervous system’s reason for holding tightness without imaging, it might be safer to respect the tightness. In my membership, we work to improve mobility by using an active range of motion and muscle activation to improve stability. When your nervous system feels stable and safe, it will give you all the mobility your structure allows for.
Before we get into the specific muscles, let me start by debunking two myths about tightness:
Myth #1: Tightness is a bad thing
Muscle tone is necessary. A certain level of tightness is a good thing. Hypermobile individuals have all sorts of issues and are at a greater risk of injury. Our goal is not to be as flexible as possible because tightness keeps our joints from moving through end-range motions that could damage structures.
Myth #2: Tightness can be measured
Similar to pain, tightness is a subjective sensation and cannot be measured. Two people could feel tight in the same muscle and have very different ranges of motion. You can feel tight but still have a full range of motion.
So all that said, three muscles seem to feel “tight” in many people, and the go-to modality is to stretch them. But my recommendation is to strengthen them rather than stretch them. I’ve seen over and over that stretching these muscles actually causes more inflammation and exaggerates the issue.
Remember that tightness is your body signaling to you that you’re moving in a potentially dangerous range of motion.
We can’t do anything about a structural issue unless we get surgery, but we can improve STABILITY in the surrounding area. When your nervous system feels more stable, it will give you all the mobility that your structure allows for.
I tell people all the time to just TRY not stretching these muscles for a couple of weeks and instead try some light strength work. Every time I’ve suggested this, my clients have told me that they won’t go back to stretching because they feel so much better.
Three popular muscles that seem to be tight on everyone: Upper traps, quadratus lumborum, psoas major (hip flexors)
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had a client who was told by a massage therapist, PT, etc., they had tight upper traps, QL, or psoas, I would have about 300 dollars (maybe more). These muscles have a certain amount of tightness, but I’d argue that it’s not always a bad thing for them to have a certain level of tightness.
Your upper traps are a big neck muscle and should be tight to protect your neck and spinal cord.
Your QL (the lower back muscle that connects from your ribs and spine to your pelvis) helps keep your trunk upright and your lower spine protected.
Your psoas can keep you from hyperextending your hip and injuring ligaments and the labrum.
Often these muscles are dysfunctional because of several compounding things.
These muscles are often overused and weak. We use these muscles constantly in posturing and often in fitness routines. This overuse contributes to chronic inflammation, weakness, and tightness in these muscles. Because tightness is the symptom of the cause (overuse), stretching to relieve tightness will never fully address the underlying issue.
Let’s take a look at these three muscles a little closer.
When your arms are at your side, the upper trap is working to hold your arms. The upper traps can also be an accessory breathing muscle when someone is stressed (the baseline for many).
Compound those two things with fitness routines that do a lot of overhead presses, lateral and front raises, upright rows, etc. (which, contrary to popular belief, work the upper traps more than the shoulders).
This muscle gets utilized OFTEN, doesn’t have time to recover, and develops chronic inflammation. This chronic inflammation blocks the muscle from contracting effectively, causing instability and weakness.
And remember what happens when your body senses instability – it tightens the muscle to protect you. So by stretching that tight muscle, you could be stretching an already weak muscle, causing more inflammation and weakness.
Here is my recommendation to break this cycle:
First, work on your breath mechanics and intentionally use the rib cage expansion to draw air in.
Second, change your workouts, so you aren’t overstressing the upper traps. (Join Levo for help with this!)
Third, stop stretching this muscle, and strengthen it! Shoulder shrugs 1x/week can easily help.
The quadratus lumborum is a lower back muscle that connects from the ribs to the spine and pelvis.
This muscle often tightens due to instability in the spine or hips, or even from a leg length discrepancy.
Because the tightness isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom of an underlying problem, stretching the QL could expose you to vulnerabilities. Perhaps your body senses a bulging disk and wants to prevent you from excessive lateral bending to preserve the disc.
The point is, we don’t know the reason for tightness without imaging, so we want to look to improve stability rather than jumping straight to stretching.
Don’t be afraid to load this muscle! Kneeling side planks can be a great exercise for the QL.
Hip flexors (psoas)
Hip flexors are another commonly weak and tight muscle. The hip flexors, like the upper traps, are often weak for two reasons:
Overuse in exercise
Workouts involving repetitive hip flexion like cycling, running, squatting, lunging, etc., can over utilize the hip flexors and cause chronic inflammation, weakness, and tightness.
Because we spend so much time sitting, these muscles get accustomed to a shortened position and lose the ability to contract in their full range of motion. These muscles are rarely loaded in their more lengthened state, and therefore your nervous system loses the ability to contract them effectively, and they become “weak” and tight.
Remove highly repetitive hip flexion from your daily exercise routine.
Strengthen the hip flexors on your leg days. I love standing marches to strengthen the hip flexors. You can place a weight on your tight, or use an ankle weight.
I know this philosophy seems backward. For so long, we have been told to stretch what’s tight and strengthen what’s weak. But I’ve found over and over again that chasing tightness doesn’t result in long-term benefits. Try one month of no stretching of these muscles, and instead try strengthening them. And of course, if you want guidance, join Levo, where we apply this philosophy in our workouts every day!