Everyone suffers from tight muscles, but it’s not always those muscles that need stretching, as Dave O’Sullivan explains

Almost every day I see clients in my clinic who say they have really tight hamstrings, calves, necks – the list goes on. What many people do not realise is that the muscles that feel tight are not necessarily the muscles that need to be stretched out. Our bodies are much more sophisticated than that.

When you hear the word “tight” most will think “short”, and you would be right. Muscles can be short and tight. However, as many of our previous and current clients have found out, muscles can also be long and tight at the same time. Think of an elastic band – as you stretch out the band it comes under tension. Our muscles work in a similar way. If you think of your joints as pulley systems, there are different muscles on opposite sides that do opposite jobs which we call agonist-antagonist pairs (this is putting it very simply).

If one muscle (let’s use the quads as an example) is working very hard to extend the knee, the hamstrings are going to resist that movement. If the quads are working a lot harder than the hamstrings, then the hamstrings can’t fully resist the movement and they start to lengthen. Like our elastic band, as they lengthen they come under tension and start to feel tight. Now, to the untrained hand and eye it is actually very difficult to tell the difference between a “short tight” and a “long tight” muscle. When most people feel a muscle is tight they do not consider its length and if a muscle is tight it needs to be stretched, right? This is where the problem lies.

Stretching a ‘long tight’ muscle makes it tighter

If you have tight hamstrings, it may in fact be a quadriceps issue. Going back to our elastic band – as the muscle grows longer it comes under more tension and therefore becomes more vulnerable.

In our quadriceps and hamstrings example, if your quads are overworking and your hamstrings become “long tight”, you may feel like you have tight hamstrings, but not tight quads (which are in fact “short tight”). As you stretch your hamstrings out, you add to the problem by making the hamstrings longer and tighter and, because the hamstrings are now longer (and therefore even weaker at resisting the short and powerful quads), the quads become even more short and tight. This is when we think of joints as simplified pulley systems.

Now take into account the fact that what is happening at the foot can impact what is happening at the hip, shoulder, neck – it really becomes quite messy.

Sports massage and ‘tight’ muscles

The same concept goes for sports massage. Most people will go for a massage and get these “tight” muscles worked on when in fact the brain will not like this and further tension in the muscles is the reaction. This is why an assessment of how you actually move and how your body moves is so important.

At my clinics (ProSport Physiotherapy), our therapists are very aware of the effects that short tight and long tight muscles can have on the body. In our sessions we identify the cause of muscle tightness and pain, and don’t just treat the symptoms. If you do feel tight and stiff don’t just pass it off because you don’t feel like you’re actually injured.

We prefer to see clients who come to us before an injury (our mobility MOT service is dedicated to it). So think again before stretching muscles blindly and seek professional help if unsure.

To conclude, the body is an intricate machine. Motion is a delicate process which is partly controlled by the musculature system. Muscles work in tandem to keep the body moving, but as some muscles get over or under-worked due to such things as injury, training and stress, the body compensates in a whole manner of ways. One of these ways is by tightening up, but as you hopefully now understand, a tight muscle isn’t always short.

If you have recurring muscle tightness or similar issues, either look elsewhere in the body or book an appointment with a good therapist to avoid problems further down the line. If a problem keeps coming back then you have not yet found the cause!

» Dave O’Sullivan is the clinical director for Pro Sport Physiotherapy Huddersfield and head physiotherapist for Huddersfield Giants Rugby League Club. He treats runners at his Huddersfield clinic. For more information and his running theories visit pbrunfree.com