Conventional wisdom says that if a muscle is tight, it needs to be stretched. Did you know that short muscle fibers are NOT the only reason a muscle can be tight? There are lots of reasons for tightness, which is why a stretching program that works great for one person will seem to make another person even tighter. I’ll go over a few of the most common reasons.
- The muscle fibers are actually short. This tends to happen when there is damage to the muscle fiber (from a hard workout or stretching) and the muscle is then put into a shortened position while it is rebuilt. Example – you work your hamstrings really hard at the gym in the morning, but spend the rest of the day sitting. Your body is repairing your hamstrings in that position and when you go to stand up, they feel really tight.
- The central nervous system (CNS) will automatically do things to try to protect you from injury. One way it does this is by keeping you in positions it knows as safe positions. The brain keeps a “map” of all the positions you are in regularly and as long as you stay in one of them, the brain knows where it is and where it can go. As soon as you start to get to the edge of the “map” the brain starts freaking out because it has no idea where you are going next. It wants to stay in familiar territory, so it starts tightening muscles to prevent you from going any further.
- There are a lot of little sensory cells that affect how tight a muscle is. Muscle spindles are within the muscle tissue and detect when a muscle is being strained. The Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) lies within the tendon and detects strain on the tendon. What they do is send signals to either relax or tighten muscles to protect the one they are in from being over strained and tearing. Sometimes, a muscle that is flexible enough to reach a certain position just doesn’t doesn’t have the strength to withstand the contraction force to come back to the normal position. In this case, the body will protect itself by tightening that muscle so that it simply can’t go to the stretched position.
- Dehydration. Most people have a lot of trouble drinking the recommended amount of water. Don’t believe me? Look at the health or fitness category on the app store for whatever platform of mobile device you use. Along with the myriad trainer apps and such, you’ll be amazed at how many apps there are that are designed just to remind you to drink water throughout the day. They wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a need for them. Every tissue in our body is held together by a sticky, glue-like substance. What happens to glue when it dries out? It gets hard, right? The same thing happens in our body tissues. Let’s say you are sitting most of the day and you forgot your glasses, so you have to lean forward to read your computer screen. The pressure of the edge of your chair on your hamstrings cuts off circulation and the tissue gets dehydrated. The cellular glue dries and muscle fibers that could slide past each other with ease an hour ago are now stuck together. This can be felt as a small hard spot within the muscle – what most people call a “knot.” This tissue adhesion will slowly grow as it occludes circulation to the adjacent tissue and the only way to release it is to break the bonds of that glue by stretching or applying direct pressure to “smash” and separate the fibers (which can be a very painful process)
The key to improving your own mobility is to find out what is causing your particular tightness and then adjusting your own stretching routine accordingly.