My hamstrings are tight.
Your shoulders are tight.
I can’t do [X] exercise because I have tight [Y].
If you’ve ever heard, said, or been told one of these things, not to fear, you aren’t alone. Tight muscles are always popping up when you least expect it and ruining your good time. Like mosquitoes. Or Jehovah’s witnesses.
And now, thanks to weekend courses and online certifications, there are thousands of personal-physical-trainer-therapists ready to diagnose the tight areas of your body. They’ll make you overhead squat, do some pushups, maybe even FMS you. But in the end, it’s the same generic story every time.
If you’ve ever been told that you have tight anything, this post is for you.
What Makes Muscles Tight
First off, there is a difference between short and tight.
Short refers to a muscle’s actual resting length. If a person spends a lot of time in a seated position, the hip flexors may take on a shorter resting length as compensation.
A short muscle may or may not actually “feel” tight. When we say tight, we’re normally describing the tension on a muscle. Since muscles are actually stretched into position (no matter what their resting length is), there is technically always tension on a muscle. However, increased muscular tension is often at work when we feel “tight” in our hamstrings or lower back.
It doesn’t mean the muscle is short. It just means the muscle is in a state of semi-contraction.
Simply put, there are two main places that muscular “tightness” comes from:
- Shortness as an result of posture
- Neurological tension
How To Stretch Tight Muscles
Sometimes, the best way to stretch a tight muscle is not to stretch it at all. Let’s take the first scenario above: a short muscle as an adaptation to long-term postural habits (a.k.a. the way you sit in your chair at work while you pretend to be editing Excel sheets, but are actually scrolling through Twitter).
Consider this: any muscle that becomes short and stiff over time probably won’t respond to a few weeks of stretching, even multiple times per day. Remember, it’s taken years of habits and consistent posture to shorten the muscle. It will most likely take large-scale postural awareness to change it.
Stretching and soft tissue work can be helpful, but the effects may be transient if you resume the same posture that you’ve always had.
The best way to lengthen a short muscle is gradual postural changes coupled with daily soft tissue work.
Now, about the second scenario. Neurological tension simply means that your brain is telling the muscle to be “on” at all times. A common example of this is the hamstrings. Tension felt in the hamstrings may actually be the result of shortened hip flexors (secondary to poor posture) and a resulting lordosis (arched back). To prevent you from slipping further into the arch and possibly harming your spine, your brain tells your hamstrings to be “on” all the time to balance things out.
In this case, stretching the hamstrings would create instability throughout your posterior chain, leaving you vulnerable to extension-based spine issues like good ol’ Uncle Spondy (spondylolysis is the technical term, but that’s not very clever).
Can You Touch Your Toes?
Believe it or not, the ability to touch the toes is becoming more and more rare (and, subsequently, now becoming a regular assessment tool).
I know you’re wondering, “If I shouldn’t stretch my hamstrings, how will I ever be able to touch my toes?”
And the answer is this: touching the toes is not just about hamstring, lower back, or calf flexibility. Touching the toes is an ability and requires control. Motor control. Pelvic control. Core strength. Core stability. All of these things.
Squatting requires the same control of the pelvis. Think of your core as an empty aluminum can. The can must remain intact on all sides so that the bottom and top of the can are always parallel to each other. Any dent in the can ruins this pattern and the can becomes unstable. Your core acts as the sides of a can, keeping your pelvis and diaphragm “facing” each other at all times.
However, in the case of the can, the strength of the material is the only determining factor. If one side of the can was made with wrapping paper instead of aluminum, the can would surely collapse.
Lucky for you, your body isn’t made of wrapping paper. Unlucky for you, though, this means that you must fire the right core muscles in the right sequence to maintain the shape of your core “can.” This becomes harder once you throw arm movement, leg movement, and gravity into the mix.
Furthermore, while you’re firing your core muscles, you must also release tension from other muscles (like the hamstrings, calves, and lower back in the toe touch) in order to move correctly.
Throw preexisting issues and previous injuries into the mix and you can see why moving correctly is hard and takes practice!
Touching Your Toes and Squatting Ass to Grass
The easiest way to regain the ability to touch your toes or squat ass-to-grass (I mean, come on, babies can do it) is to practice. Sounds easy, right?
However, if you can’t squat ass-to-grass now, quarter-squatting with the hopes of “stretching yourself out” into the hole probably won’t help. You need to facilitate the movement by engaging your core and releasing the muscles that need to relax.
Facilitating core muscles in a squat can be as simple as holding out a five or ten pound plate at arms length while you squat. This will engage your spinal erectors and force your anterior core (abs) to activate in response.
The same goes for the toe touch. Throwing yourself down at the floor and bouncing at your end range-of-motion isn’t going to help. You need to facilitate the release of the correct muscles and control your pelvis with your core.
Facilitating the release of the posterior chain for a toe touch can be as easy as squeezing a yoga block or rolled up yoga mat between your knees.
Wrapping It All Up
(Wrapping paper pun intended.)
If you can’t touch your toes or squat at least semi-deep right now, you should throw that stuff onto your to-do list. Structural differences aside, nearly every member of the population should be able to touch their toes and reach at least some kind of depth in a squat. Not only that, but you should probably be able to reach your arms over your head without poking your head forward into the next town.
Here are a few tricks that might help you:
- Breath correctly. Seriously, learn how to exhale. Do some crocodile breathing or something. It will help engage your core muscles that you’ve forgotten how to use.
- Soft tissue work. If you have legitimate short muscles, get a lacrosse ball and roll (or smash, as Kelly Starrett would say) them until they are no longer short. Oh, and fix your posture while you’re at it.
- Core, core core. Front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotationally. Hammer your core from all angles.
Tightness in muscles doesn’t always signify shortness and consistent stretching isn’t always the answer, sometimes it simply comes down to familiarity with a pattern and overall motor control. If you have trouble reaching certain ranges of motion with only your bodyweight, try one of the techniques I suggested and see if it helps.
It’s time to ditch the old idea that flexibility and strength are mutually exclusive. It would seem certain levels of flexibility can only be achieved with a requisite level of strength.
And that, my friends, is how you turn a post that was originally meant to be a discourse on mobility and motor control into a vehicle for me to tell you to go lift weights. Seriously, go lift.
If you’re looking for some more information, check out these articles: