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.