Stop Stretching and Start Strengthening: The Solution to Persistent Muscle Tightness

by Dr Charlotte Robinson, Alpine Fit PT, Fitness, Physical Therapy

What is causing my muscle tightness??

A recurring complaint I hear in my practice is “Some of my muscles have been tight for years. I stretch them but it doesn’t seem to get any better!” Whether it’s the hamstrings,upper traps, hip flexors, glutes, or even the calves, most muscles are susceptible to persistent tightness that is hard to shake. 

Even if you consistently stretch before and after activity, you may still feel that pesky muscle tightness lingering. If this is resonating with you, consider the following: Your muscles feel tight because they may need to be strengthened!

The two paths to muscle tightness

There are two types of dysfunctional muscles: 1) Muscles that don’t know how to fire and turn on and 2) Muscles that fire too much and don’t know how to turn off.  Over years and years of subconscious incorrect movement patterns, our muscles become inhibited and weak and fall into one of those dysfunctional categories. 

When a muscle is dysfunctional it’s going to tighten up to try to do its job the best it can. But this muscle isn’t tight because it is “shortened” like most people think. This muscle is weak and is holding on for dear life to provide some stability to our body. So how do we get these muscles to feel less tight? STRENGTHEN THEM!!

Tight hamstring muscles 

The hamstrings are a classic example of a muscle that is tight because it’s weak and dysfunctional. If you can’t bend over and touch your toes, odds are your hamstrings are in that 2nd dysfunctional state and can’t relax enough to let you touch your toes. If you can touch your toes but your hamstrings feel very tight doing so, this is likely because the muscles are in the 1st dysfunctional state and aren’t firing. 

Both of the above situations could be caused by weak and dysfunctional hamstrings that have tightened up to try to provide us with stability. If you stretch a muscle that’s already dysfunctional and weak, you are actually going to cause more inhibition and harm in the long run. Read our article about dynamic vs. static stretching here

What these muscles need is a load to teach them how to do their job again. You need to activate and then strengthen your hamstrings to get them out of a dysfunctional state, which will help them relax and increase their flexibility. In turn, you will feel less tight! 

Tight hip flexor muscles

Now, let’s consider the hip flexors. As a society we are constantly sitting for travel, work, and relaxation. This puts our hip flexors (and hamstrings!) in a constant shortened and dormant position. Running, hiking, walking, cycling are activities that require a lot of hip flexor demand, yet our hip flexors are never strengthened. 

The hip flexors are a muscle group that is always over-stretched but never strengthened, which oftentimes is what it needs! Because your hip flexors and hamstrings are in a shortened and dormant position so often, they need a load to remind them how to fire correctly and what their job is.

Strengthening to relieve muscle tightness

So if you suffer from tight hamstrings and hip flexors and are tired of stretching with no long term relief, try to strengthen and load these muscle groups instead. I have a current patient who reportedly has had tight hamstrings since high school. As an avid long distance runner, this has only gotten worse. Over the past few months we have focused on strengthening his hamstrings and he says he has never been as flexible as he is now, even when he used to stretch constantly. 

Another example is a young mother I’m treating who had back and hip tightness with cobra during yoga. After 3 weeks of strengthening her hip flexors, she not only is pain-free during yoga, but has improved her hip mobility tremendously and is noticing this with other forms of exercise. So instead of stretching next time you feel tight, try the exercises below to STRENGTHEN instead!

If you’re curious about more ways to prevent injury, talking with a Doctor of Physical Therapy is a great place to start. 

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