When many people think of “tightness” within a muscle, they might imagine a muscle that is physically short and unable to elongate itself to the proper length. Thus, we stretch that muscle in hopes of making some sort of mechanical alteration.
But think of it this way for a minute: instead of using the word tight or tightness, use the word tension. The feeling of tension within a muscle, similar to the sensation of pain, has a large neurological component.
It’s also important to remember that tension can arise in muscles for a number of reasons. There are psychosocial factors to tension and “tightness” within a muscle. For instance, prior injury can induce tension in a muscle or nearby muscle group in order to protect again future injury. As an example, someone with a history of back injury might feel tension throughout the lower back as a protective mechanism. As another example, someone performing an exercise or activity that previously induced pain into a certain area might feel pain or tension even without any structural harm being done.
On the other hand, your body is pretty damn smart and sometimes creates tension within muscles to prevent future injury even in the case that there wasn’t any history of injury to begin with. For instance, someone with an excessive arch in their lower back might feel excess tension through the back of their legs as their body attempts to prevent the lumbar spine from slipping further into extension and putting the person at risk for a more serious spinal issue.
Alternatively, your brain might create tension in muscles when the body is put into unfamiliar positions.
For example, it’s common during a hip flexor stretch (especially if the rear foot is elevated on something) to feel tension through the front of the thighs. This might not necessarily be caused by a mechanical shortness of the muscle, but by the body’s protective instincts in an unfamiliar situation.
Now for a moment, let’s elaborate on the idea of a “short” muscle. Picture your muscles as rubber bands (they don’t have the exact same qualities, but this comparison works). Now ask yourself, “When would I feel the greatest amount of tension on a rubber band, when it’s long and stretched or shortened?” The correct answer is long and stretched. Even though it’s physically longer, the band has greater tension at this point because it’s mechanical components are being stretched.
The same goes for long muscles. You might feel tension in a muscle because it’s mechanically long, possibly weak, and probably tense in order to maintain some sort of stability in nearby joints. See, if a muscle becomes long and weak, the affected joints might become unstable.
For example, when someone carries an excessive arch through their lower back, the hamstrings are often long and weak. You feel tension because the body is attempting to create some stability in this area, similar to the situation above. Stretching a tense muscle, in this instance, might actually do more harm than good.
So let’s change the paradigm on stretching. First, let’s remember that tension on muscles is a good thing. In fact, you require minimum amounts of tension throughout the day (depending on your position) in order to keep yourself from collapsing like a sack of potatoes (I almost wrote “like a sack of bones and organs” but it sounded too creepy when written so I elected instead to write about writing it).
Second, let’s change our language. We’ll change “tightness” to “tension” and “stretching” to “positional acclimation.”
When it comes to the human body, we don’t want to remove all of the tension on our muscles. It’s more important that we find out why they’re tense, build strength and stability where needed, acclimate to positions that we’re unfamiliar with, and create a more balanced neuromusculoskeletal system.
And yes, when I first wrote this post I was fairly confident that I had invented the word “neuromusculoskeletal.”