FH Tip: Not All Tight Muscles Should be Stretched

Have a muscle that just won’t loosen up no matter how often you stretch it? After all, the way to loosen a tight muscle is to stretch it, right? Wellllll……not necessarily. Not all muscles that are tight need to be–or even should be–stretched.  It all depends on why it’s tight in the first place. Contrary to popular thinking, inflexibility isn’t always due to simple disuse or a lack of stretching.  There’s often a functional basis for the tightness– an underlying cause–and in those situations, stretching alone will get you nowhere until you’ve addressed the dysfunction, the real culprit.

Muscles that haven’t been used much or that are kept shortened for long periods of time (e.g. hip flexors while sitting) will tend to loose flexibility.  But sometimes muscles tighten up because they’re actually working too hard and/or for too long.  In essence, they don’t ever get a chance to relax.  That generally occurs in two main contexts: either the muscle itself is too weak or it’s compensating for another muscle that’s too weak. In the first scenario, a muscle that is simply too weak to do its job doesn’t get the chance to adequately relax because it has to work overtime to make up for its lack of strength.   It is a common misconception that a tight muscle is a strong muscle; in reality, it is just the opposite. It also may be strong only within a very limited range of motion, in which case it will tend to resist being pulled out of its comfort zone rather than risk injury by working at its extremes where it’s weaker.  In the second scenario, the muscle might be working overtime in order to compensate for the weakness of another muscle that’s unable to do its rightful share (due to injury, disuse, or several other reasons).  Whatever the reason, the tight muscle effectively ends up doing double duty, again preventing it from sufficiently relaxing.

If you stretch a muscle that’s tight because it’s just too weak to do its job, you haven’t done it or yourself any favors.  These muscles  actually need to be strengthened. Only when they’re strong enough will they be able to “let go” and loosen up. Calf and hip flexors commonly fall into this category. And if you try to stretch out a muscle that’s become tight compensating for another muscle, you won’t get very far until you identify and strengthen the deficient muscle.  Hamstrings and upper trapezius muscles–compensating for weak glutes and lower trapezii/rhomboids, respectively–are typical examples of this pattern.

We have been conditioned to think of the tightness itself as the problem, thus the automatic tendency to try to stretch. But in reality, sometimes tightness is a result of the problem. In those situations, stretching is not the answer–at best it gets you nowhere, and at worst, it aggravates the problem. So the key to correcting the issue is figuring out why a muscle is tight. It might even clue you in to a problem you didn’t know you had….

TIP: Not all tight muscles need to be or should be stretched;  sometimes the real problem is weakness not tightness. This needs to be considered when inflexibility persists despite consistent attempts at stretching.

58 Comments

  1. Hi Kerrie,

    I have a seemingly advanced ITB situation/injury on the left side. It doesn’t seem to want to heal on it’s own (I had a problem on my right side earlier which just needed rest to resolve. But, when I started running again the left got injured much worse – overcompensation, surely – and won’t resolve on it’s own.) The most obvious symptom is knee pain a short while into a run. And even in the days after while walking. While running, I also feel the tightness in the vastus lateralis and ITB. And the VL is pretty sensitive to foam rolling.

    Some of the classical wisdom is to stretch and foam roll the ITB. But, I’m wondering since the ITB seemingly affects (for me) everything from the lower back and gluts to knee… if there’s something better I can do to facilitate recovery. Could it be tight hips and weak gluts that caused the problem and pulled on my ITB? Is there something I can strengthen to limit the tightness of the ITB? Let me know if you believe it’s a hip, pelvic, glut issue and what strengthening exercises you think would help with that. If there are other muscles/good exercises you believe are culpable/will help, I would be grateful to know about those as well.

    Thanks in advance,
    Adam

    • Hi Adam,

      No matter how much stretching, foam rolling and/or massaging is done, a muscle that is tight because it has to overwork can’t relax and loosen until it is relieved of having to overwork. In cases of a tight ITB, I most often find that a weak gluteus medius is the major culprit, which also makes sense biomechanically. It is not uncommon to have other factors contributing, e.g. such as some things you mentioned, but I find that the majority of the solution tends to lie with one maybe two major culprits while the other stuff adds some fine tuning. Good luck and thanks for the note.

      • Adam, I have had similar experiences with the ITB. I have a history of jogging through untreated (and in a couple cases severe) ankle injuries, resulting in extremely tight calves, hamstrings and lower back. It was pulled so tight that the affected leg was measuring 1.5″ shorter. It took months of Pilates-based PT, occasional yoga, and eventually cycling to build up my glutes and hamstrings. As the wise Kerrie Reed is saying here, I lacked flexibility because I truly had no hamstrings and glutes to stretch. After PT, proper form on a clipped-in bicycle build my legs up nicely, without impact like running, and my flexibility also improved greatly.

        Good luck.

  2. Kerrie,
    I had THR 5 months ago in my left hip. the muscles on the left side will not lossen. I have done PT religiously since my first day out of surgery. I had in home PT and PT when I was done with that.
    My knee turns slightly inward even though I stretch, walk and use a recumbent bike. My Orthopedic says it will just take time, although I feel like its not right. If I stand to long I get very sore and tired or if I walk the outer muscle gets sore and tired and I limp a ton more.
    Is something more possibly going on?
    Jill

  3. So I found your article very interesting. I’m wondering if maybe you have an idea of what I have been going through for 3 years nows. It all started with a sudden fall while I was sprinting. I tripped and took the entire force of the fall on my right knee. Ever since then my quad has gotten progressively weaker, my calf won’t relax and my arch has almost completely fallen out. Im in pain everyday, especially everytime my knee buckles, which is at least a half dozen times everyday. I’ve gone through so many doctors and now they are looking at soft tissue problems. Do you think this could all bebe steming from weak muscles farther up? Also, I just had my first baby in september, and had no issues pushing him out. Had him out in 15 minutes actually, and he wasn’t little! If you have any ideas, that would be awesome!

  4. Hi Kerry
    You came up in a search and I wondered if you could advise me as to what I need to do. I have been suffering from chronic pain for 14 months now. Today it is about 9/10. It started in my lower back and for months I was ‘ treated ‘ for sciatica, had peri-neural injections to the spine and 4 weeks later, the same injections to my piriformis. All had no effect because this wasn’t the problem. The pain has shifted to my groin and front of my legs and after so many attempts to try to discover the cause, I now believe that it’s my hip flexors and psoas muscles ( I spend time sitting during the day and driving causes the most pain ) . My glutes are very weak and I have never done exercises for that area of my body. I only walk every day for exercise and do a couple of stretches at night. I went to an osteopath for 6 sessions and all she did was to place pressure on my psoas causing me further pain and having no lasting effect at all. I have started doing exercises for the glutes but am scared that I am doing more damage than good ( as you suggested in your post ). I am pretty desperate and the pain has got worse and worse. I would truly appreciate your help if you can spare the time to reply. Many thanks

    • Belinda,

      The post was really about stretching going wrong (or more accurately, going nowhere) not strengthening. You can’t go wrong by strengthening your glutes. Generally the key with that is to make sure you’re isolating the glutes and not strengthening the low back muscles along with the glutes since those are often already overworked, contributing to the pain issue in the first place. I like to do it by doing mule kicks while my body/torso is draped forward over a big Swiss Ball–that keeps my low back flexed forward and basically takes those muscles out of position to contribute much. Good luck!

      • Hi Kerrie :)
        I just want to thank you for this Brilliant article!! I’m a Sports Massage Therapist, and can definitively tell you that we were not taught this in the school I attended. Even having gone on to take several high end courses, I still wasn’t taught what this article taught me. I recently have been suffering my own “tight” muscles, and was stretching the hell out of them with no luck. I couldn’t figure out why to me they felt tight (but not upon palpation). Thanks to your article I’ve been able to put yet another piece of the puzzle in my knowledge basket, and help myself as well. I have been strengthening those same muscles, and it has been working famously. Thanks Again, Nicole Clayton

  5. Hey Matt,

    About three days ago I did a very heavy lower body routine which included a bunch of calf workouts. Now I can’t stand up straight with my heels down unless Im on my toes. If I try and put my heels down my knees bend and I can’t straighten them. Any advice on what to do?

  6. Hi! Thank you for your post. I had problems with my right knee when I played volleyball at a very competitive level about a year ago. My doctors said Tendnitis in my hamstring. My Rectus Femoris felt like a rod. Two days ago I played soccer which was quite a bit of running, felt fine yesterday and now my Biceps Femoris is tight as a rod and it hurts to walk. The tendons in my foot on the same side also cramp if my foot is stretched. Should i be wearing a brace or compression sleeve when I work out? Which should I wear now that the injury has taken place? Recommend ice or heat? I now know not to stretch but any preventative actions?

    • Chrystina,

      I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at–are you wondering whether a brace/sleeve would help with the tight muscles? Generally that’s not the answer to something like that. I’m not sure what your situation is– e.g. whether you just resumed playing soccer after a year hiatus, or have been playing all along since your tendonitis–but when hamstrings become really tight after a bout of activity like that, often it’s due to weakness of the butt muscles (glute max primarily), or just the typical tightness/soreness any muscle has after starting up a new activity it’s not used to doing. For anyone who doesn’t know what that’s about, try doing a few lunges after not doing them for several months and see how those hamstrings feel the next day…YOWSA! Sounds like there may be some weakness or overuse of your calf muscles too btw…

  7. Hello, if I could get your input it would be appreciated. I have very tight adductors and internal rotators. i sleep on my side and for the past couple years have been sleeping with a pillow between my thighs because i find that if i don’t, my adductors automatically activate. i don’t understand why they are always activated!!

    i do adductor stretches almost daily, for 20-30 minutes at a time. over the past couple years i have seen very slight improvement in adductor flexibility. if i don’t stretch for a few days my legs feel extremely uncomfortable.

    my hamstrings also feel tight often, even though i have good flexibility in them. i can bend forward from standing and put my palms flat against the ground with my knees locked out, but hams still always feel tight.

    i have strong glutes (max and med) so its not from a weak glut med.

    the only thing i can think of is that i used to do a lot of yoga in the past, but in the past 3 years have pretty much stopped, and gained about 50 pounds. what are your thoughts?

  8. Hi,

    I am currently in limbo with my lower back, doing all sorts of stretches and strengthening work.

    I am unsure whether my psoas is too tight or too weak, or fine? Also, the same applies to the piriformis.

    I am sure that I have a weakness somewhere and that there is an imbalance.

    I also don’t know whether to work on foam rolling rather than stretching? I have become obsessed with my condition as I am only 24 years old, and used to be very fit and active, with weight training and sport!

    Any response would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    James

    • Hi James,

      I’m not really clear on what you’re asking since you haven’t really said exactly what your problem is or what you’re trying to correct/treat/accomplish.

  9. Hi Kerrie,

    Thank you for the awesome material! I came across this in hopes of finding an answer to this issue I’ve had the last year. I live in Korea and I’ve heard all sorts of assumptions and misdiagnoses from 5-6 physiotherapist, orthopedics, and chiropractors. I think here if they can’t find an answer in a book they are completely lost about what to do.

    I really appreciate any tips you can give. I know I’m overarching in my squat and it seems like my glutes are deactivating at the bottom causing both hip instability/sway as well as causing my low back to arch deeply inwards and lifting mostly with quads until my hips get a bit higher. I also have the issue where I cannot start my sumo deadlifts with an extremely upright torso because my glutes will not kick in if I’m that low… same with conventional I pull almost better SLDL than with my hips down. I’m more interested in how I can strengthen the proper muscular to prevent future injuries if you can just shoot some tips!

    I’ve suffered multiple injuries. 16 yrs old low left L5 mild herniation, 5 years ago very bad left knee issues, 4 yrs ago right sartorius sprain, 3 years ago right glute/sacrum area pain for months and could squat but couldn’t deadlift, extremely tight right lower erectors/lats for the past year, most recently left lower back pain caused in June from squatting 315 3×8… I had flown from Korea to Georgia and then didn’t work out for a week and went in to squat without warming up… felt insanely weak and my core was shaking left to right… something clicked in my left low back and I almost completley seized up. That injury still persists slightly and is not allowing me to squat at all even with 40kg I’ll get pain the following day. I haven’t squatted in 2 weeks and just deadlifts/other work and it feels mostly alright.

    Right now that left low back injury right above my sacrum to the left of my spine aches when I squat and the pain is exacerbated when I brace my core. My left low back, possibly QL, has been tight for over a year. At the moment it hurts right where my ribs start under my lats. Gotten graston and stretch everyday, but the stretching made it more sore for extended periods of time so I stopped.

    My squats have always been stronger than my deadlifts. I deadlifted 170kg 3 years ago and haven’t gotten over that since due to injuries and resetting. Squat max is 185kg. Bench 150kg.

    You can peruse my YouTube channel to see various lift videos. Feel free to analyze this in your own media outlet and to help other people out too if they have similar problems by seeing how they can fix it too.

    Squats:

    80kg with bands … I was trying to keep it light to rehab but it still caused pain for the following 2 weeks
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMtTba_ObQ8

    375lbs 4×3
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxIxGbWg5Jg

    185kg
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9D9Bc78vso

    Sumo:
    100kg 3×8
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IF1Lv3JnQlY

    145kg 5×3
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbRXmj9hKPI

    Thank you so much!
    @ClassicPhysiqueJourney on Instagram

  10. After a few months of not working out, I did some calf raises on a smith machine 3 days ago. The next day, there was just some typical soreness. Three days later and I can’t even stand up straight. My calves won’t fully extend without extreme tightness. Stretching them only allows me to walk (painfully) until I sit down again. At that point, they tighten right back up within seconds. There is no joint pain or sharp pain. Also, I can identify that it is the inner calf muscle, not the outer. Any idea what may be the issue and how I can fix it?

    • Andrew,

      Sounds like you did a doozy on yourself! All I can say is that as excruciating as it can be, the delayed onset muscle soreness in that king of situation is not unusual, and it’s not unusual for such pain to take more than a week to resolve. I generally recommend staying well-hydrated to help flush out toxins like lactic acid and just keep as moving as much as you can. Best wishes!

  11. I had low ferritin iron (store house) for over 17 years before a massive diet change and regular iron infusion fixed it. I am exhausted by fairly regular activities (30 minutes of weeding or a couple of hours of house work). Standing on concrete floors for 3 to 6 hours takes me out for a day or two afterwards. Exactly what type of doctor or specialist do I go see. Regular md and iron doc have not addressed the weak tight muscles. I am much better than prior to fixing mal-absorption but muscles are weak from prior years. Also everyone else that I have spoken with who has a corn or soy allergy seems to have the same tight muscles. I’m 47 now but muscles were crazy tight and weak in my late 20s and 30s.

    • Billianna,

      I don’t know what kind of doctors you’ve seen so far but would recommend you seek out a non-surgical (i.e. not an orthopedic surgeon) sports medicine physician such as a physiatrist or possibly a family practice sports medicine sub specialist (which one will just depend on the specific doctor and their background in seeing such conditions). In my experience, that’s who would have the best knowledge regarding the muscular part of your condition, and if need be, can work with your other physician(s) (e.g primary/gastro-enterologist/hematologist/endocrinologist) to make sure all bases are being covered. This is one of the conditions that spans across several specialties, so having each specialist take care of his/her piece of the puzzle while communicating with the others should get you taken care of. Also, just a thought–I don’t know your gender, but iron deficiencies tend to happen more in woman so a sports medicine doctor focused on women athletes or women’s health (even if you’re male) might have more experience with the condition and be an even better bet. Just a thought….Good luck.

  12. Thanks for replying..these eccentric exercise is for achillies or calf strengthenin?? I have very weak right leg..But if I ttry to strengthen it, muscles get tight..If I stretch it, calf gets injured…How to get out of this?

    • The eccentric exercise is for both the achilles tendon and the calf muscles. There are definitely ways to exercise that will get around the tightness and avoid injury, so it sounds like you’re not doing something correctly. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what to do for your specific situation without seeing you personally. Hopefully you can find a sports medicine physiatrist in your area. Look on http://www.aapmr.org under Find a Physician to see if that gives you some doctors near you.

  13. Really grt article…I have very tight calves along with plantar fasciitis and minor achillies tendinitis in my right leg.Due to rest, my right leg is quite weak..I cant stretch my calf as it hurts my achillies..But if I try to strenthen my weak calf, it gets more tight and there are cramps..How shud I get out of this vicious cricle..pls help..thanks

    • As a general rule, tendons respond best to eccentric exercises, so that’s usually the best approach to strengthening in the presence of a tendonitis. Most people know eccentric exercise by its more casual term, “getting the negative.” So in calf strengthening, for instance, it’s not the calf raise part you’re interested in (i.e. concentric exercise), it’s the motion you do as you return back to your starting position. Doing that part in a controlled, slow manner will work the calf and Achilles tendon eccentrically and effectively. With tendonitis, you often want to avoid/minimize the concentric phase of the exercise (i.e. the actual toe raise part), which I do by pushing up with both legs while also using my arms to grab an bar toverheado help pull my body up at the same time (I try to do this exercise using the frame of a pulley machine, Smith machine or other similar sturdy piece of equipment that provides a bar to grab onto). That way, the calf I’m trying to “treat” does as little work as possible on the way up. And then when I’m ready to lower my body back down, I use only the injured leg…and do it slowly. Hope that information helps.

  14. First of all thank you Dr. Reed for the very enlightening article and also for the fact that you are responding to everyone’s questions!! I am 45 and had a total hip replacement in my left hip in Oct of 2014. Here we are about 7 1/2 months later and I am still having tightness/weakness issues. I have a great massage therapist that stretches my legs/hips and that did help for a while but now I feel stuck. After reading your article I think it will continue until I am able to help with the weakness in my hip. I have pain on the top part of my thigh (where your leg meets your torso) and below my butt (where your leg meets your butt for lack of a better description!) I also have pain in the left part of my lower back into my butt. I know all of these things are connected and I thought all the trouble was because of tightness and therefore I keep stretching to no avail. I am trying to figure out some good exercises to do in order to strengthen that whole area. Any suggestions? I lay on my right side and do leg lifts, I also stand and lift my leg to the side, but I feel this is not enough. I am wondering if I need to work on my core as well. Any help would be appreciated! Thanks for taking the time!

    • Stacy,

      Thanks for the comment. As you astutely mentioned, there are a lot of things around the hip that are all connected, so there’s a lot to consider when trying to get that area working right. But after a hip replacement, there are some particularly important considerations. By the time most people get a joint replaced, the joint has been problematic for a long time and the ligaments and muscles around it have become very been stiff from being relatively dormant. So after surgery, those muscles and ligaments have a lot of catching up to do as far as being able to move! Also, in most hip replacement surgeries, they actually have to cut through certain muscles to get to the joint. So those muscles will be extra weak after surgery. And to top it off, at least one of those muscles that gets cut through (the gluteus medius) is one that is naturally prone to become weak unless something is done to keep it strong (more about that in this post on Postural vs Phasic muscles). Unfortunately, a weak gluteus medius–which is almost always the case in someone who had a hip replacement–is the source of a lot of evil aches and pains from the back down to the ankle. Leg lifts–standing and lying–can be good exercises to strengthen the gluteus medius but only if you’re doing them in a way that really targets that muscle (generally done with leg brought back at 40-45 degree angle, NOT straight out to the side, while pelvis stays facing forward). Otherwise, you’ll be compensating with other muscles instead and perpetuating the problem. And as far as the core strengthening…it is never wasted effort to work on your core!

  15. I am having back pain just off to the R side, around L4&5. R leg very sensitive in groin & down the inside of the leg. Spasms were occurring in the groin area, now it’s traveling down the inside and top of the leg. It can stop me dead in my tracks! Right now it’s a constant hurt. I’ve have seen a physical therapist who also does connective tissue release, but she went deep is the psoas and set off the spasms again. I can usually put up with a lot of discomfort, but this is becoming a debilitating problem. I sit for quite a long time at my job, but I am trying to stand and move more, but it seems it is getting progressively worse. Could you suggest a type of treatment, therapist or should I consider acupuncture. At this point, any type of suggestion to alleviate the problem would be appreciated so I
    could get some relief.
    Thank you.

    • Janet,

      The first thing you need is a specific diagnosis, which it doesn’t sound like you have. There’s a wide variety of causes that have to be considered with something like that, beyond just muscular-related diagnoses. You always want to avoid falling into the trap of treating something without first having a firm idea of what you’re treating. Should be common sense, but you’d be amazed at how often that bit of common sense gets ignored… But it becomes even more important to go back to that basic principle if/when things aren’t getting better.

  16. Very interesting site. I went to physio with sore knee rhs after exercise, after no response to standard treatment they were convinced was problem with my back but after some chiropractic treatment developed lumbar spine pain. Referred for MRI specialiset decided was hip issue which MRI confirmed torn tensor latae fascia rhs and moderate tendonosis right glute minimus. After 2 months rest and laying off chiropractic tx for back which left me in agony for days is slowly settling but is still easily aggravated. I usually feel hard “balls” of muscle in glutes and sometimes sore hips, if aggravated get bad sciatic pain down back of both legs and muscle spasms in glutes/front of quads/lumbar spine. Stretching does aggravate it at the moment but I’m persisting with small amount thinking it is good for me! Would I be better off starting on some very gentle strengthening exercises and leave stretching for later then?
    I also have a labral tear on the same side, sometimes the groin is a bit sore and the inside of that leg tightens up – I’m sure it all fits in together somehow! Any advice welcome – thanks.

    • Kirsten,

      I can’t speak to the specifics of your situation since it sounds like you’ve got a complicated situation with multiple issues contributing to your symptoms, or at least multiple issues that have to be considered. For instance, the muscles around an injured joint (e.g. a hip with a labral tear) often tighten in an effort to “guard” that joint and prevent it from being aggravated. In a case like that, the muscle tightness might be needed to avoid further injury to the joint, and the real solution is fixing the underlying problem in the joint. It’s also possible that the labral issue is completely irrelevant red-herring!
      Some of what you describe regarding the sciatic pain could also be related to a Piriformis Syndrome, which is something worth checking into. If you’re not familiar with that, you can get a quick rundown in this post of mine.
      So I agree with you that it probably all fits together, but you need someone who can take a detailed look and put the specific pieces together for you. Worth pursuing…Good luck.

      • thanks for the comments Kerrie, the point about tight muscles protecting the joint is probably very relevant as I’ve always had tight hip flexors/hamstrings and been prone to back issues on the same side as the hip labral tear but probably haven’t pushed the body as much as I did before the chain fell apart!

  17. i dont know, just a question regarding my problem. been in long distance triathlons and began having ITB issues. i took a break for weeks and has focused on stretches & yoga but it worsened my condition. My TFL & gluteus medius feels more always tight now and my gluteus muscle appears to be having dysfunction (shuts down). i feel more unstable on my right hip and more tight on my left. i went back on lots of strength and core training now (and foam rolling) but still no progress it seems. probably im not doing a correct exercises and does some thats not appropriate as well. Just want an advise what i should really do and focus on. Frustrating.. :-( Thanks alot!

    • Ken,

      It does sound like you’re doing things incorrectly and/or not doing the right things even though it seems like you’ve got the right idea. Best to have a professional (physiatrist like me, or a physiotherapist if no physiatrist near you) evaluate in order to pinpoint exactly where the strength deficits are AND to teach you how to target them effectively. The devil’s in the details on stuff like this, so just a slight change in position during an exercise can make the difference between fixing the problem and perpetuating it. They can also teach you how to monitor for yourself whether you’ve got it right. I know it can be frustrating, but don’t give up–it should just take a little knowledgable guidance to get you on the right path!

  18. This is exactly what my PT has been drilling into my head for the past 3 years. My hamstrings feel tight, but he won’t let me stretch them. They are weak and overworked–not tight. Stopping the stretching (and sadly, no more yoga since it has so many forward folds) has been the best thing for me! I do still get areas of tightness in my body that sometimes cannot release and have recently had a few dry needling sessions done (calves). Hoping this also helps. Thanks for a great article.

  19. My left knee has been bothering me for 7 years and I have been through therapy with 3 different people with zero results. My entire left leg feels very weak and I actually have more flexibility (especially in my calves) on that side. My knee also extends further back on my left side. I figure something has to be seriously wrong, but I wonder if you have an opinion. It feels like tendinitis, but most docs aren’t convinced because it takes a lot of direct pressure to cause any pain. Hopefully you can help point me in the right direction! Thanks!

    • Sorry, Chris, but I really can’t even figure out what you’re asking or describing. So even if I could give out specific advice on this site, I would need more information from you than what’s in your comment. I can tell you that hyperextension of the knee (having it extend beyond straight) can be caused by several things including loose ligaments and weakness of the quadriceps muscles (which, in turn, can be caused by several different things from pinched nerves to diabetes to strokes to pain to muscle injury to…). Or the chicken and the egg can be reversed such that a hyperextended joint can pull on the surrounding ligaments and cause, or at least feel like, a “tendonitis.” Sounds like you need a thorough evaluation of it by a specialist or better answers from ones you’ve already seen. Hopefully some of this info provides some direction. Best wishes!

  20. Great article! I’ve always wondered why there are certain stretches where it seems like I never make any progress in my flexibility. In a v-sit leg stretch I’ve always struggled to increase the angle between my legs and it is never a comfortable stretch for me. Do you have any ideas as to what an underlying cause might be?

    • Mariah,

      Ah yes, those adductor muscles along the groin and inner thigh are tough little guys! It could be that they are compensating for weakness in the core or other hip muscles like the hip flexors. Or it could be that you’re simply not stretching effectively–long enough (30 sec hold is good rule of thumb), frequently enough (at least 2-3x/day to reverse a tight muscle), with good form (are you at least feeling it in the muscle your trying to stretch?), and no bouncing (ballistic stretches). I’m actually not a fan of the seated or standing V-leg stretch where you bend your body forward towards/through the V. I always prefer a side lunge position where I crouch down an then extend one leg straight out to the side (with inner thigh facing down towards floor). You increase the stretch by lowering your pelvis/body down. Again, no bouncing!
      Unfortunately, adductors are also one of those pesky postural muscles that are prone to be tight, as I talk about in another post (Postural vs Phasic Muscles). That’s almost always part of the problem…but not insurmountable. So don’t give up on them!

  21. I have had ongoing right hip troubles for the past two years as a high school cross country/track runner. My right leg passes just slightly across the midline of my body when I run, and I often find myself in anterior pelvic tilt. The pain becomes severe at the end of the season, but I usually push onward because the top 7/relay team needs me, and I want to finish. My outside hip (gluteus medius) gets tight, but I read that stretching it is counterproductive. My main question is whether strengthening the muscle while it is already tight is effective; if I can’t stretch the muscle to relieve symptoms, is rest the only option? Thanks!

    • David,

      Same apologies for my delayed response as I recently mentioned in my reply to “Cheryl.”

      Although it seems like tight and strong would go together, a tight muscle is usually a weak muscle actually. So strengthening a tight muscle is often a good thing, but you will likely still have to stretch it as it’s getting stronger in order to get rid of that tightness that’s built up. Stretching it will also help stretch out the other tissues around it that have become tight as well (e.g. connective tissue, ligaments, little muscles nearby). Also, don’t forget that a muscle might be tight due to other muscles being weak. So you might not be solving the main problem just by focusing on the tight muscle. That is an especially common scenario in runners because of the high-level of function required to run (you’re literally balancing on one leg for miles, at relatively high speed…. not an easy or simple task. A lot of things on your body have to be working properly!). It’s generally all fixable stuff– you just need someone who can examine you and help you figure out what your specific problems are so you can take care of them. I will say that pushing through pain not only perpetuates whatever problem you have, but makes it harder to fix the problem and increases your risk for additional, more serious, less fixable injuries. So something that is persistent and painful enough to interfere with your activities definitely warrants evaluation by a professional. Thanks for the comment, and best wishes. Let me know when you have any follow up on it.

  22. I have tight muscles under my shoulder blades that do give me pain all the way to my head and create major headaches. Most doctors are not familiar with what you describe in you email. What type specialist would I see? What area are you in and do you see patients. Also I’m with the company, Kaiser. They usually have a standard treatment that may not help with my situation. I have kinda thought that this was a symptom from my menstrul cycle and now the begging of menopause Hope you can help. It’s be going on far too long.

    • Cheryl,
      Apologies for the delayed response–my website has been getting work done on the back end which has caused some interruptions.

      The association between those muscles around the shoulder blades and headaches is extremely common, but also extremely overlooked even by many doctors. What you describe is typically an issue of malfunction, meaning the muscles in that region of the body (and possibly the joints as well) just aren’t working right. It’s generally very treatable once you know what to treat….and that’s the tricky part. You need to see someone who can really evaluate the function of that cervical/upper back/shoulder area in detail and determine what the exact problems are. The best doctor for that is a physiatrist (i.e. a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician) subspecializing in musculoskeletal medicine (which is often called Sports Medicine, however there are a lot of non-physiatrists who are referred to as Sports Medicine as well, so you want to make sure you get a PM&R Sports Medicine doctor). That is what I am and these are exactly some of the conditions I see and treat regularly. You can click on ABOUT DR. REED in the menu to answer your questions about me and my practice. You can also click on the APPMR link in the footer to find out more about the specialty. It’s a little-known but extremely useful specialty! Best wishes.

  23. Just found this article. I have the same issues as Laura but also recently developed I shin splints on the same let that won’t go away unless I stop all activity and then when I start again they come back. What do you think might be the issue, weakness in my core? Is there certain exercises or should I go to PT?

    • For treatment of routine shin splints, I rarely find the need to address core weakness. There are almost always more local causes of and thus local fixes for the problem. The most typical approach is to strengthen the dorsiflexors (the front leg muscles that lift the foot/ankle up), stretch the plantarflexors (i.e. the calf muscles), and do the usual icing, anti-inflammatories, rest. But lots of factors might be contributing to why someone is getting shin splints in the first place (also known more formally as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome). Shoe type, training regimen, sudden changes in either of those things, foot mechanics, etc. So if the standard, basic treatment approach doesn’t do the trick, you have to broaden your thinking and consider other factors that might be contributing, and that you might be missing….That’s probably the time to seek out proper professional evaluation.
      Take care!

  24. Just found this article. What about the upper back around the shoulder blades along with the neck and shoulders? I know it’s all connected but I don’t know how to heal it. My trapeze muscles on my shoulders up to my neck, to the muscle at base of my skill has been so tight for so many years due to injury in car accident and stress that it never relaxes. Also, I have carpal tunnel in my wrist on right side to point of my fingers, and hand gets numb. Then I get tight knots at my shoulder blades towards my spine on both sides, and when I roll my shoulders I hear popping constantly. I don’t know what is causing what?? Oh, and I got fibromyalgia. I am a mess but I want to get back in shape. I am not sure what to do.

    • Hi Jasmine,

      Sounds like you’ve got a few things going on! In those circumstances, there are usually several layers of dysfunction that have to be identified and addressed. That can get complicated in a situation like the one you describe, so the best bet is actually to get evaluated by a specialist. That person can really figure out the nitty gritty of what’s wrong, tease out the dysfunction, and help work through all of the layers of it with you. Trying to tackle such an involved situation like that on your own self, even for the most knowledgable person, is almost guaranteed to become an exercise in frustration.
      The good news is that there’s usually not five or six problems, there’s actually just one or two problems….with five or six manifestations. And that means that fixing just those one or two problems typically clears up everything else. Of course the key is discerning what those one or two things are. That’s where the professionals come in….let them do the thinking. Everything you mention certainly sounds treatable in the proper hands, so it’s worth pursuing. Best of luck!

  25. I just came across your information. I have always been told stretching solves everything. I tried that and you are right that is didn’t solve any issues I have been having. I developed sciatica from commuting to work and spending 2 hrs. each way. Not only am I dealing with sciatica but for the last 5 yrs. I have noticed that my Hamstrings are always tight. I also have noticed that the muscle that runs down the outside of my right calf (lower leg not back of lower leg) is so sensitive that when I am just stretching in bed from just waking up for example that if I stretch too much or wrong way, the muscle goes into a major cramp that really stings and hurts. Do you think this could be because of weak muscles or the sciatica or both? I will admit that I have not been very active for the last 7 yrs. and did sit a lot for work. I am 47 yrs old now. Can’t to hear what you think. Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Laura,

      Just from the brief description you gave, it sounds like there’s a very good chance that pelvic/core weakness is leading to tightness and malfunction all the way down the chain, so to speak. Even the sciatica can be secondary to those weaknesses as they force other muscles to overwork, spasm and irritate the sciatic nerve (this post on sciatica will be helpful). Never a dull moment with the body, is there?!

  26. But, how can one tell where the weakness or issue lies? I know that my hips are super tight. And, I am getting all types of problems in the legs from it. It has been this way for a long time. But, I do not know how to solve this issue. Any thoughts?

    • Suzanne,

      There are some usual culprits like the ones I mentioned in the post. I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to when you say that your “hips” are tight, but it’s very common for the TFL muscle (tensor fascia lata muscle) along the side of the hip/thigh to become tight when the gluteus medius muscle (upper, outer butt muscle) is weak. The TFL muscle actually attaches to the ‘IT Band’ which many people, especially runners, are all too familiar with as being frustratingly and relentlessly tight. So using a foam roller along the side of your thigh (all the way up to the top of the hip) and working on strengthening the gluteus medius muscle are a good way to tackle the typical tight hip. Exercises for the glute med vary depending on your muscle’s ability, but a good one to try at first is one in which you lie on your opposite side with your body in a straight line and about 6 inches from a wall. Bend your bottom leg up, keep your top leg fairly straight but not rigid and bring it back slightly so that the heel just touches the wall behind you (your hips should NOT roll back towards the wall, only the leg itself). Then slowly and gently raise that top leg up and back down along the wall, making sure that you are using the upper, outer butt muscle (glute med), the one just behind the side of your hip. If you feel the TFL muscle (toward the front side of the hip) doing most of the work, you’re doing it wrong and probably need to adjust the angle of your leg slightly.
      Of course, all of this is assuming that what you’re describing is a muscular issue and not something like arthritis or something else related to the actual joint itself. As always, if you have any concern over it being something else or if you can’t seem to get at the problem with these basic suggestions, it’s worth getting evaluated by a musculoskeletal specialist such as a physiatrist who can tease out your body’s specific issues and give more specific advice. Thanks for the question, and good luck!

  27. Would like to say thank you for this article. I’m dealing with some major imbalance issues that started with overuse in my hips that turned them weak. Didn’t act on it and now I’ve found myself with collapsed arches, some anterior pelvic tilt, and calves that stay very very very tight, especially that outside muscle of the calf. Stretching them all the time with only relief for a few minutes at most

    • Hi Matt,

      Your situation sounds exactly like the kind of thing this blog was referring to. There’s always a reason why our bodies are the way they are….sometimes it just takes a little figuring out! Glad the info helped. And thanks for the comment, much appreciated.

    • Hi Matt!

      I too had the same problem with my calf muscles. No matter how much I stretched they stayed tight and running was very painful, sometimes impossible. A doctor told me to start taking magnesium supplements and to eat a banana before I run. My calves loosened up pretty quickly.

      • Interesting, Jamie. Magnesium and potassium (bananas) are certainly useful for treating muscle cramping, but that’s different than muscle tightness. Did you have cramping?