Tight muscles - what does it mean and what can I do about it?

By Brooke Humphreys

Have you ever felt that tight feeling in your hamstrings? Hip flexors? Calves? Shoulders or neck? Do you feel the need to stretch and “release” the tight sensation? Does it give you long term relief or even temporary relief?

Tightness in your body may be because your muscles are, in fact, weak! More often than not, our muscles can be “perceived” as tight due to an underlying strength or stability deficit. Just because the muscle feels tight, does not always mean it needs to be loosened or lengthened.

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In order to counteract this feeling of tightness, we need to strengthen the muscle or group of muscles that are not providing the adequate strength and stability to the joint involved.

The common misconception surrounding strength training is that it will make your muscles really tight. The reality is, the stronger your muscles are the better you will be able to control the movement of joints throughout their full range of movement and the more work they will be able to perform before they do get tight.

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In most cases, its generally best to choose strengthening over stretching for the management of injuries. And more specifically, eccentric strengthening, because of the "2-for-the-price-of-1" effect that eccentric strength training has on muscle.

In an eccentric contraction, a muscle lengthens as it resists a force. Contrast that image with what we usually think of as a muscle contraction, the concentric contraction, where a muscle shortens as it overcomes a weight or force. It is the concentric shortening muscle movement that gives a more contracted or bulky look to the muscles.

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Research shows that not only do eccentric strength exercises improve strength, they also improve length of the muscle and tendon being exercised. This is a win-win situation, for those people who are time-poor.

One effective way to achieve this eccentric strengthening of your muscles is Pilates. In Pilates, there is more emphasis on the eccentric contraction than one finds in most other exercise systems. It is the eccentric contraction that accounts for the long, strong muscles Pilates is known for building.

When you resist the springs on Pilates apparatus or use the magic circle or exercise band, the lengthening contraction often happens when you resist what you might think of as the return portion of the exercise. For example, with the magic circle, you squeeze it, which is usually a concentric contraction; but then you control the release, which becomes a muscle lengthening eccentric contraction. When you push away or pull on the reformer, you also have to control the contraction of the springs on the return.

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Along with everything else, stretching does have its place, but when it comes to making our muscles long and strong, and less “tight”, strengthening will always trump stretching.


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