Do your muscles ever feel tight and restricted after a workout? Or perhaps even from a lack of movement? Tight muscles can be painful and frustrating, no matter the cause. They limit your movement and can make it difficult to stick to a fitness regimen. However, muscles can become ‘tight’ for a variety of reasons, so, knowing how to manage and prevent muscle tightness can help you stay feeling agile and keep your fitness program on track.
What causes muscle tightness? The 3 main culprits and how to fix them
Periods of prolonged inactivity, for example, days or weeks working at a desk or in a seated position. Sometimes, muscles become tight because of restricted movement. If you work at a desk all day, your hips remain in a bent – or flexed – position. The muscles at the front of your hips (hip flexors) are kept in a shortened position, while the muscles at the back of your hips (glutes) remained stretched and lengthened. Plus, you’re often in a hunched position which makes your chest muscles (pecs) shortened and your back muscles (rhomboids) lengthened.
Over time, the shortened muscles become or feel ‘tight’ and the lengthened muscles weaken. You may notice that people with poor posture tend to have underdeveloped glutes and shoulders that hunch forward. There are three ways to help prevent this type of tightness. First, always maintain good posture while seated. Next, make it a point to do exercises that lengthen the shortened muscles and strengthen the weakened muscles. Finally, incorporate daily stretching into your fitness routine – specifically of the chest and hip flexors.
If your muscles tighten during exercise, it’s most likely a muscle cramp. Muscle cramps are never a fun experience and the painful sensation is often caused by low sodium, low potassium, or simply fatigue. Cramps can also happen when you’re not in the middle of a workout. The tightening of a muscle cramp happens when the muscle fibers shorten and are unable to lengthen due to a lack of hydration, poor nutrition, or fatigue. If you forcibly stretch the muscle fibers from such a contracted position, it can tear the muscle and cause injury. If you experience a cramp, let the muscle spasm until it relaxes. Recover for a few minutes before gently stretching. To prevent future muscle cramps, be sure to stay hydrated, eat a nutrient-dense diet, and take adequate rest breaks during your workout. If you plan on training for longer than an hour, consider an electrolyte drink post-workout.
Tight muscles after exercise can feel like muscle soreness. Pain and stiffness in the muscles after working out is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and can be felt 24 to 72 hours afterward. Eccentric contractions, or when a weight is lowered or slowed, cause the most intense feeling DOMS – for example, a bicep curl or running downhill. A tight and sore feeling in the muscles is caused by small tears and ruptures in the tissue. You can help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness by gradually increasing the intensity of your fitness program or weightlifting. Moderate cardio exercise like fast-paced walking and massage will increase blood flow to the muscles, helping alleviate pain. However, the pain will usually dissipate after 72 hours. And contrary to popular belief, stretching will not prevent DOMS, but it’s important to stretch after every workout session to maintain flexibility.
Other ways to prevent and relieve muscle tightness
Regular, deep stretching is a great way to keep your muscles feeling flexible and mobile. Here are some other tips to keep your range-of-motion at its maximum potential.
Perform regular resistance training. Research has shown that strength training improves flexibility just as much, if not better than, passive stretching. For the best benefits, maximize your range of motion during ever exercise. For example, during a glute bridge, raise your hips as high as you can and lower down to the floor before repeating the rep.
Strengthen your core. You’d be surprised how many of your muscles have to compensate for weak core muscles, leading to shortened, tight muscles. Improve your core strength by adding plenty of core stability exercises into your fitness routine – think planks, deadbugs, and Russian twists.
Use a foam roller. To really get into the deeper muscle tissues during your stretching sessions, spend 10 minutes with a foam roller. Research has shown that using a foam roller promotes short-term increases of range of motion, especially when combined with normal stretching. Aim to use a foam roller three times a week for best results.