Throughout my career, people have been coming to me with the complaint that their neck, their back, their knees or wherever else feels “stiff” or “tight”.
Taking them on their word, their previous therapists would prescribe stretches. After all, that’s what you do to something that’s tight and, plus, stretching feels great and relieves symptoms in the short term.
But those symptoms would come back, no matter how much they stretched.
Why weren’t the stretches working? Because the patient was never tight in the first place!
Think of muscles as “on” or “off”, not “tight” or “loose”
I’ve treated many people who were perfectly flexible – even hypermobile – who still reported feeling tight. But it’s very hard to believe someone could be tight when they’re able to lay their palms flat on the ground from standing.
So if their muscles weren’t tight, what was causing that nagging sensation of tightness?
To understand what was going on, first we need to talk about how muscles work.
Muscles are turned “on” or “off” through a chemical interaction with the nerve synapse connected to them. The stronger this interaction, the more the muscle contracts.
Some muscles, known as postural muscles, are in a permanent state of contraction so that your body can hold certain positions. Then there are the dynamic muscles, such as your biceps, which generate power but only briefly.
If a dynamic muscle is kept “on” for too long it can become fatigued.
For example, sitting at your desk using a mouse won’t tire you out immediately, but stay like that for hours and your muscles in your shoulder, upper back and neck become worn out, leading to a sensation of tightness.
Stretching may temporarily relieve symptoms because the overworked muscles are getting a break, but stretching won’t prevent the symptoms from coming back again because the tightness of the muscles isn’t the issue in the first place.
This isn’t to say muscles can’t be tight or loose. Muscle tightness can be an issue in certain settings: a footballer won’t be able to achieve a full range of motion on a kick if they have tight hamstrings.
But, for me, though I experience tight hamstrings when I bend over to touch my toes, this isn’t an issue day-to-day because they cause no symptoms during normal activity.
If stretching won’t relieve my tightness, what will?
Let’s go back to the example of your shoulder, upper back and neck feeling tight after using a mouse for a few hours. Using a mouse isn’t difficult, but it will eventually cause muscle fatigue which induces the sensation of tightness.
But if you strengthen the muscles involved, these minor activities which would usually tire them out become no big deal because you have increased their endurance and strength capacity, that means the muscle is no longer overworking when performing the previously challenging task.
Time and time again, I’ve seen patients who were once tight and stiff feel almost complete relief from their symptoms after some targeted strength training.
This leads to an important note about strength. Being strong doesn’t necessarily mean you’re highly athletic or built like a superhero. Strength is personal, it’s your capability to comfortably meet the physical demands of your life.
Everyone should be strength training, whether you work at a desk, need to keep up with your kids or want to be able to stay active as you age.
So, if you’re always feeling “stiff” or “tight”, it’s not time for you to stretch, it’s time for you to get stronger!
Clinical Director and Prescriber
B.PHYSIOTHERAPY PG CERT INDEPENDENT PRESCRIBING, MCSP, MHCPC