Muscle tightness may creep up at expected or somewhat unpredictable moments. You might anticipate it following a long run or after hitting the slopes to begin another season of alpine skiing. Muscle tightness may also be noticed after sitting for a long time in a car or behind a desk. At other times it is unexpected - perhaps stress brings it on or you tighten up after spending a weekend bingeing on junk food. (Yes, poor nutrition can lead to poor muscle tissue health!) Muscle tightness also increases with age due to inactivity and changes occurring in the structure of muscle tissue. Tight muscles are associated with many musculoskeletal (muscle and skeleton) and health problems such as back, neck or knee pain. Tight muscles and muscle groups are at greater risk of straining or tearing. Muscle tightness can lead to discomfort and pain for serious athletes and couch potatoes alike.
Consider the daily activities of many Canadians. We rise from bed, drive to work, sit in front of a computer, drive home and then sit on the couch to watch television. The excessive amount of time spent sitting during the day causes muscle tightness in hip flexors, hamstrings and the lower back, just to name a few.
With an inactive lifestyle, regular flexibility training becomes essential to maintain normal musculoskeletal health. For instance, it is estimated that 85 per cent of people will have back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain can be a result of many different musculoskeletal problems, but muscle tightness is a very likely cause. Tightness in the hip flexor muscles (muscles on the front of the thigh) can cause back pain by putting excessive strain on the lumbar spine (lower back). Regular flexibility training may help reduce certain types of back pain. Flexibility training can also be used to relax and relieve stress. Activities like tai chi and yoga are becoming more and more popular in North American culture.
In sports, muscle tightness can mean a decrease in performance. Regular flexibility training can directly improve performance and prevent muscle strain. Flexibility is a requirement in many sports including martial arts, gymnastics, and figure skating. Muscle strains often occur when a muscle is stretched unexpectedly past the normal range of motion. Flexibility training increases range of motion and ensures that muscles can stretch safely without straining. There are many types of flexibility training, including contract-relax, static, and dynamic (active isolated) training.
Static flexibility training, the focus of this article, is safe and easy to learn. It involves moving a body segment or limb into a stretched position. Body weight, gravity or some other external force is then used to hold the position as the muscle stretches. Static stretching is excellent for relieving muscle spasms or for general relaxation.
To do static stretching properly, start with a general cardiovascular warm-up. This increases blood flow to the muscles and raises the core body temperature. After this step, begin stretching at the feet and move up the body, stopping at each muscle group to perform a stretch. To figure out how to stretch a muscle, first contract and then push it in the opposite direction until you feel a stretch. The effect of the stretch depends on the position. It is very important to stretch muscles at different angles and with different types of stretches. Once you feel a mild stretch, hold that position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Visualization and relaxation are also important during static stretching. Imagine that the muscle being stretched is getting longer and focus on relaxing it by taking long slow breaths. Never overstretch or force the limb into a painful position.
Although tightness can occur in any muscle or muscle group, certain muscles are more prone to tightness. In people who spend long periods of time sitting, three common areas are the hip flexors, the hamstrings (back of the thigh) and the lower back.