At some point in your life, you may have gone to a therapist, for them to say to you ‘wow, you’re tight’. This visit would shortly be followed by them digging in an attempt to loosen your muscles.
Believe it or not, tight muscles can sometimes be a good thing.
For many people, a short muscle is the same as a tight muscle, and that a tight muscle is a bad thing. There is a difference between the two.
Above: Nick Miller treating LaShawn Merritt
A short muscle is exactly that. It’s short. The relaxed state of the muscle is shorter than it should be. This causes a reduction in a joints’ range of motion because the muscle prevents full execution of movement. Full range of motion is important for any sport or movement, as it not only reduces tensile load but it allows for full muscle activation.
The muscles in your body are made up of bundles of muscle fibres called Actin and Myosin. A series of neurological and chemical processes causes these Actin and Myosin fibres to slide closer together; causing the muscle to shorten. The greater the number the fibres contracted the greater strength or power produced. When a muscle is already in a shortened state, it produces less power and has a greater risk of tearing.
A tight muscle is different, instead of tight, think stiff. This “tightness or stiffness” can be a good and a bad thing is depending on muscle and the athlete and activity.
How can it be a good thing? As much as muscles are a contractile tissue that shortens to create movement, they are also used to create tension and stability. Just like a spring, muscle and fascia can be used in movement to create energy, assist movement and produce power. This application is often used in the gym while deadlifting.
One of the final setup movements done is pivoting of the hips placing tension on the hamstrings. What this does is preload them assisting the body in creating stability. In a similar fashion, a tight or stiff muscle can assist in performance. For this reason, it is best to avoid any soft tissue work that relaxes the muscle on the day of an event.
Does this mean you should not stretch or do active recovery? No, quite the opposite. Work should still be done to ensure muscles don’t become short, and to aid blood supply post training to reduce lactic acid build up.
You should understand that it is ok to be tight if your joints and muscles still have a full range of motion. Now you can focus your active recovery on modalities (soft tissue work, massage, stretching, foam rolling, etc.) that will ensure a full range of motion through your musculoskeletal system.