What to do When Stretching Doesn’t Help
Sometimes Tight Muscles Need Strength Instead
Muscles are tight for a reason. They are not tight because they hate you and want you to fail, or because they want you to be in pain. Your body is your devoted partner in this life and everything it does, it does because it believes that it’s helping you.
So why do muscles get tight, since it is so clearly unpleasant and painful? Why do some muscles seem to be impervious to stretching? Even if they relax for a few blissful moments, not long after they are right back to feeling like steel cables.
Muscles get tight because they are nervous, fearful, or downright terrified. They believe that if they relax, something really bad will happen in your body or your life. They feel responsible for your integrity, guarding you against injury or death.
The thing is, the nervous system as it relates to our muscle reflexes is very old. Lizard brain old. It responds to any perceived stressor as a threat. Threaten that muscle often enough and its like a kid on a playground afraid of bullies, it’s always tense. It may not really trust you to make the best decisions, especially if you have done mean things to it in the past (over-training, injury, exhaustion, excessive stress, dehydration, accidents, you get the picture). So even though you are begging it, yelling at it, demanding that it relax, it’s not going to listen.
This is especially true when you are going into a deep passive stretch. Passive stretches are perceived by the body as scary positions, so if a muscle is already a little freaked out, stretching will just confirm its worst fears. You may be able to force it to relax for a little while by pushing it hard enough, but that tension and hyper-vigilance will come back with a vengeance once you let up.
So what’s to be done? How do we reassure these muscles that they are safe and loved and it’s ok to relax?
We often think of strength and flexibility as being in opposition, but in fact they are utterly intertwined.
If a muscle is chronically scared, the best way to reassure it is to build its support system, and its capacity. Building its support system means strengthening the muscles around that muscle, the synergists (muscles that do similar things) and antagonists (muscles that are opposite). Building capacity means strengthening that tight muscle itself.
So often when I suggest this (especially to gym addicts), I hear people say, “but I’m already so strong.”
To which I reassuringly reply, “Yes, you are. And just because you are overall buff does not mean that you can’t have some muscles in your body that aren’t keeping up.”
Muscles build only and exactly the way that you use them. That means that as we train we default to certain muscles that are already strong and our body finds ways to compensate for muscles that are weaker. It all works out great for a while, then it starts to catch up to you because those sleepy muscles aren’t helping out enough.
In my years of working with bodies, when I have been investigating for the source of tightness, I have found some kind of weakness 100% of the time. I’m totally open to being proven wrong, but it hasn’t happened yet.
In terms of your daily practice, this means constantly searching for your weakest points. Usually we like to go right to where we are strong, because it feels good. But our bodies need balance, and balance comes when we dive into our discomfort and root around for the parts of our body that most need our attention.
Balancing ourselves out brings increased confidence and peace to our muscles—that feeling of cat-like grace, suppleness, strength and flexibility combined.
So next time you are feeling like you and your muscles are locked in mortal combat over a particular stretch, take a step back, thank your tight muscles for their loyal service to your well-being, and start investigating the cause of their stress. Who needs to be stronger and more capable so that they feel safe again? They will reward you with delicious flexibility.