Working with people in both the athletic and clinical setting, there is a common question raised: “My low back/knee/ankle/neck are killing me…oh, and I’m always super tight, my flexibility is terrible. Why am I always tight??” This question is especially prevalent among athletes and active people.
The reality is that most of these people are chronically tight in their hamstrings, calves, low back and neck because of the loads they are putting on their bodies. As a reaction to these loads, their nervous systems’ strong protective/defensive mode comes to action. What often creates these loads is poor or incorrect body function/movement. In other words, if you run 6-8 miles per day every day, you practice yoga 6 days a week or you lift every day, but don’t really know how to move efficiently, your central nervous system will trigger mechanisms to rescue you from eventual breakdown. Protective tension is one of those mechanisms.
Just go for it, no pain no gain! This mentality is very common and although that mantra may help you finish a long race or lift a heavier weight at that moment, the reality is that this approach can breed longstanding overload in the body taking away stability where it matters. This in turn will create an overload effect on a muscle/joint. When the brain perceives that a muscle or joint has been overloaded and is in danger of failing/tearing/becoming injured, the body creates an inhibition or a “shut down” of that muscle/joint. The nervous system reaction is one of protection to prevent injury, usually resulting in local tension. While a typical reaction to a very tight hamstring is to stretch it more and more, the brain puts a premium on protecting from injury first, especially when the demand of intense daily exercise remains. But, usually the cycle continues despite the discomfort/tightness felt in the hamstring or hip, you continue to run or push harder in the yoga studio, etc., etc.
What in fact is this tightness that you feel in any particular tissue? The actual mechanism of tightness in this scenario is often misunderstood. The perception that a particular muscle has gone rogue and just tightened is inaccurate. The body provides slack for movement through the complex network of fascia and nerves; muscles only stretch or move because of the fascia and nervous system allow it. Fascia can be thought of as a web of tissue that acts like an inner skin, encasing muscles and spanning the entire body head to toe. Fascia was once thought to be just dead connective tissue, but we now know it is the interconnected web of tissue that supports us against gravity and actually creates movement with signals from the nervous system. There are even some experts that suggest fascia can independently contract and send signals through the body without conscious control. Fascia does not change with classic stretching methods, which only serve to create a temporary change in muscle-tendon structures. An overload to any tissue triggers the system’s defense mechanisms causing the fascia and nervous system to inhibit movement to avoid potential injury. In addition to fascia, nerves under tension react poorly to stretching and will elicit a strong protective reaction. We feel this inhibition in movement as muscle tightness. While stretching the “tight” muscle may make a temporary reduction in the tight feeling, at best, it will not solve the “overload” issue.
The true way to reduce tightness or tension is to prevent the nervous system from locking down the tissues via appropriate loading and conditioning in training. Training the nervous system to accept controlled, safe movement is critical. In this quest, it is helpful to gain a better understanding of your fascial system and identify restrictions in that network that are worth reducing so long as they serve to improve function. Just because you can stretch further doesn’t mean that you can move better or with less risk of injury. The key to all increased ranges of motion is stability and efficient/correct movement from that point of stability. Without these two things, any seeming “improvement” will not be sustained.
So the next time you spend an hour stretching your hamstrings or your neck only to have it “tighten right back up”, consider your daily routine and the demands you’re putting on your muscles and associated joints. Perhaps your chronic tightness is just your nervous system and fascia pulling the emergency brake in your body. Give it an override code for a day, back off the long run or the aggressive stretching and see what happens. Maybe go for a walk instead of a long run or take the gentle stretch yoga class instead of power yoga that day. The body functions optimally when given a variety of physical tasks with varying intensities. To help more directly, perhaps get an evaluation from a qualified instructor, trainer or doctor so you can identify potential weaknesses or instabilities in the body or fascial restrictions that may be working against you in your activities. This way you can address these “hidden” areas through stabilization or mobility work and go back to the gym or the yoga studio with improved function and be able to have a new conversation about how tight you used to be.
For more information or to set up an evaluation at Markel Health Performance call 704-499-9128.