Why does muscle tightness happen?

Jun 3 2020

You know that stiff feeling of muscle tightness, perhaps in your calf or neck? And you probably write it off as ‘just one of those things’? You give it a stretch and accept it can’t be avoided?

Well… good news, muscle tightness isn’t inevitable – as long as you understand your body and how it works.

Muscle tightness and running

If you’re one of the many people who’ve used the lockdown as an opportunity to start running, there’s a good chance you’ll have suffered with tightness and soreness the next day. We’ve seen many new runners in recent weeks on video consultations. The first thing new runners suffering from muscle tightness often ask is what kind of stretching they need to do to avoid tightness.

But it is overuse and weakness, not lack of stretching, that’s the cause. Muscle tightness happens when you exercise the same muscle over and over, without building up strength first. You might head out on your first 5k run in months and then wake up to pain, tightness and tiredness the next day. Stretching doesn’t help, and more running makes it worse.

To avoid muscle tightness, you need to build up to your target distance slowly. Your muscles simply can’t cope with 5k after a long break – even if you used to run that and more regularly. Strengthening is the key. If a muscle isn’t strong enough to do what you’re asking of it, it will seize up to protect itself. It’s this that leads to the tight feeling.

Muscle tightness and laptops

Muscles that people often find are tight are the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and the trapezius muscle, which runs from the base of your head to your mid back. If you feel tightness when you lift your arm overhead, it’s your trapezius muscle you’re feeling.

You might find that you feel tightness in your trapezius is not from exercise, but from the lack of it. If you’re sitting on the sofa or on your laptop working long hours, your shoulders are hunched and can’t relax. They’re constantly firing.

If you can imagine how exhausting it would be to flex your bicep over and over for eight hours, you’ll have a good idea of what you’re asking of your trapezius when you sit at a laptop for eight hours. The upper fibres of your trapezius are trying to hold your arms up, but they haven’t been trained to do so and become tense. The middle and lower trapezius fibres, which work to move your shoulder blade downwards, then compensate for the weakness in the upper fibres by tensing up too. All three parts of your trapezius work together and will be stronger or weaker (or tighter) together.

What can I do about it?

It’s important to remember that when it comes to muscle tightness, it’s possible that they’re not actually tight, they’re weak. To cure tightness from weakness, you should focus on strengthening. If you’re in the gym doing your three standard sets of 30 seconds, think about whether the exercise or stretch you’re doing is actually helping. Or if there’s something else you could be doing to address it.

In our recent rehab and injury prevention video series, we explain muscle tightness vs. weakness. We also share some strengthening exercises for the muscles most prone to tightness from weakness – your hip flexors and your traps. You can check out the videos here.