What is Tightness?

By Emily Cooley

We use the word “tight” to mean a lot of different things. What does it mean to feel tight? How does that affect our performance? And can we do anything to not feel so “tight?” Well fortunately there is a great explanation for why we feel tight. Tightness is a muscle guarding phenomena. This means that it is a natural response to a stretch in the muscles.  In our muscles is a mechanoreceptor (Muscle Spindles) that tells the body the distance a muscle has stretched. Once it reaches a certain point the Golgi Tendon Organ tells the brain to STOP the muscle from stretching. This response forces the muscle to contract. The contraction is the “tightness” we feel.   Typically the contraction isn’t a strong one if the movement is within our normal range of motion (ROM), but on occasion, if we go past the typical ROM the contraction can be very intense and can even cause injury.


If we are suffering from this muscle guarding effect then it can drastically change the way we perform. For starters you just don’t feel comfortable. You start changing your body mechanics and that is never a good thing. As I mentioned before injury can occur. Because you are already limited in the ROM you are getting, if you push the limits you have a much greater chance of causing an injury. Many hamstring tears are a result of this type of muscle guarding concept.


One of the typical reasons for tightness is due to muscle healing. When our bodies heal they want to heal in a less stressed environment. This means that the muscles will want to shorten as this causes them less pain. When the muscle is shortened it causes no pain and therefore can heal. If it is lengthened it causes pain and starts the healing process all over again. Understanding how this works is one of the major reasons why stretching after an activity is so important. You want the broken down muscles to heal elongated. The more times you can hold a stretch after the activity the more likely you won’t feel as “tight” the next day.


If you still feel like you are tight and you were stretching like crazy you can use the autogenic inhibition concept to help stretch through the tightness.

I will use the hamstrings for this example:

Lay with your back on the ground.

Do a typical hamstring stretch where you bend your hip to about 90 degrees with the leg straight.

Go to the point where the tightness starts.

At this point you will want to bend your knee, the tightness should go away.

Remember the position where you were tight.

If you can reach your foot then grab your foot if not you can use a rope to wrap it under the arch of your foot.

Now you want to extend your leg firing the quad muscle to help you stretch back to the point in which you were tight.

If you repeat this a few times you should increase the ROM without causing any pain in the tight area.


Note: Be careful when doing this type of stretch as it can cause injury if you push too hard.




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