Everybody has a tight spot: hamstrings, IT bands, shoulders, groin. Sometimes tightness comes and goes; sometimes it’s the only way you can remember ever feeling.
You tell yourself you should stretch more.
Maybe you’ve even got a trainer or physiotherapist telling you to stretch more. They provide you with clever and inventive stretches, some of which bring about a momentary relief while others are such a grotesque form of torture you can’t believe they weren’t designed by 15th century inquisitors.
Unfortunately, we’ve been trained to think of tight muscles as wads of taffy, stiff and tacky, and that all it takes is some vigorous pulling and kneading to loosen them up and lengthen them out.
This is not true.
Muscles aren’t tight because they haven’t been stretched enough; muscles are tight because they are in use—often without your awareness or consent.
The somatic nervous system (SNS) is a network of nerve tissue that takes in information from your environment and tells your muscles what to do with that information. In a stable skeletal environment, the communication between your SNS and your muscles is clear and amicable: muscles are called into action only when they are needed and never asked to do more than they can handle.
Here’s the deal: when you stand—let alone walk, run or practice parkour—you are in a near-constant state of almost falling over. You don’t notice this because the muscles throughout your feet, legs, hips and spine fire in short, low-intensity bursts at strategic leverage points in an effort to keep your balance (and store some of that acceleration due to gravity for later use). The SNS coordinates these bursts of muscular energy. The geometry of the skeleton, too, lends itself to this process: bones actively conduct ground forces, minimizing the amount of energy needed to maintain structural integrity.
When your skeletal alignment is compromised, you become vulnerable to muscular tightness. The balancing act that once was accomplished through short, low-intensity bursts of muscular activity now requires a greater force over a longer period. The communications coming from the SNS also change as it is forced to recruit certain muscle tissues to work beyond their capability.
As an example—one that I see, literally, every day— let’s say your right foot is rolled a few degrees onto its outer edge (likely due to a combination of footwear and repetitive stress injury). Imperceptibly to you, your SNS thinks you’re always just on the verge of rolling your right ankle. Consequently, it will send commands to contract all the muscles that prevent you from falling to the right and, until your foot alignment is corrected, these commands never stop. This means that your left glute and hamstring, as well as your right calf muscles, peroneals, and TFL, are receiving continuous warning signals to stay contracted in an effort to protect the ankle.
Your foot position is the cause; your muscular tightness is the effect.
But you feel that tight left hamstring, and you probably don’t feel the small deviation in your foot, so the urge is to yank on the hamstring and relieve the pressure it’s causing on the surrounding tissue. That tightness, however, is secondary; attempting to stretch it would result in a tense, burning sensation that is frequently—and incorrectly—associated with a “good stretch”.
Pull on the muscle all you want, but as long as the brain thinks it needs that muscle to be short to prevent you from falling on your face, it simply isn’t going to get any longer.
Achieving longer muscles, then, has little to do with the actual muscle tissue, but instead with the flow of information from the somatic nervous system telling the affected muscles to remain short.
In our example of the rolled out right foot, that means bringing the alignment of the foot back to an everted, abducted position. Fix the position and the tight muscles will simply stop being tight.
And here’s the great thing: use whatever method you want! Acupuncture, massage, Pilates, weight lifting, running, walking, Qi gong meditation, literally anything done with the foot properly aligned will help restore the correct patterns of communication and diminish muscle tightness.
So if you’ve got a tight muscle that won’t budge, look first to your bones. Look at your balance. Look for positions that put less stress on your overall stability and, if that doesn’t work, ask a professional!