One of the most common complaints I hear in the gym, clinic, or on the field is “this muscle is tight”. An athlete’s default is to stretch said tight muscle. But, is this always the correct answer?
There are a few considerations we need to make when it comes to alleviating tightness in a muscle group. First, muscles can become or feel tight when they are chronically worked in a shortened position. This can especially become problematic when an athlete’s sport calls on that same muscle to work through a full range at high speeds. An example of this would be a baseball player training their biceps, but not allowing the elbow to fully extend at the bottom of each rep. If this athlete does this consistently over a long time and is throwing baseballs regularly, they are likely to develop elbow pain due to the shortened bicep muscle. In this case stretching the bicep would be of benefit, but if the training habits are not changed, the problem will continue to resurface. Therefore, the athlete should start training through a full range of motion and even consider exercises such as an incline bicep curl, which allows for both the elbow and shoulder to move into extension at the bottom of each rep, creating an even further lengthened bicep muscle.
A muscle can also feel tight when it has been chronically lengthened due to posture and/or using a muscle without proper postural positioning. The most common culprit that falls into this scenario are the hamstring muscles. We have to understand the anatomy of the hamstrings to get a grasp of how they are chronically lengthened. The hamstring attaches onto the bottom of the pelvis as well as below the knee. Therefore, both areas play a role in the length of the hamstring, whereas most people only really consider the knee. The pelvis is usually where things go wrong though. A common term thrown around is anterior pelvic tilt. This is a situation where the pelvis itself sits in a position of slight forward rotation/tilt where the top/front of the pelvis drops, and the bottom/back rises. This is usually noticed in people who have excessive low back extension or their butt sticks out at rest. If we go back to the fact that the hamstrings attach on the bottom of the pelvis, it makes sense that they would be lengthened if someone falls into an anterior pelvic tilt on a regular basis. The answer to correcting the tightness felt in the hamstrings from this situation would not be to stretch them. It might actually help to stretch the hip flexors which are the muscles on the other side of the pelvis that would be in a chronically shortened position in someone who has and anteriorly tilted pelvis. Along with that, the true fix would be to strengthen the muscles that create a posterior tilt of the pelvis, the glutes and abdominals. How to train these in a way that will fix the problem is beyond this article, but once strengthened and proper positioning is taught and practiced, the pelvis, and thus the hamstrings, will be in a much more optimal position to function, and therefore will not have the sensation of tightness all the time.
So, when something feels tight, make sure to determine whether it is tight due to a chronically shortened or lengthened position. Which ever is the case will determine the correct course of action that will actually alleviate the tightness. If you are unsure, an Athletic Therapist is a great resource to determine the course of action for you and will be able to teach you how to train and position yourself optimally to avoid tightness and increase performance!