Are tight muscles weak muscles?
As always, it’s not that simple.
Don’t get me wrong, strength training is an integral part of increasing flexibility and should be part of any flexibility training program.
Strength training through range:
- Reduces the risk of flexibility related training injuries
- Can improve the stability of joints allowing access to greater ranges
- Provides a reassuring stimulus that encourages increased tolerance to stretch
- Is a simple and effective way of increasing flexibility
- May increase the ‘usability’ of increased range e.g. allow more freedom to use increased flexibility in variable ways
But does this mean tight muscles are weak muscles?
What is a tight muscle?
It is not uncommon for well-meaning and experienced flexibility coaches to proclaim the solution to tight muscles is to strengthen them. Fortunately, this is usually helpful advice (or at least not unhelpful), as there are many benefits to strengthening, but feeling that your muscles are tight does not mean they are weak.
Stiff people don’t feel tight...
Ok, of course, everyone will feel tight from time to time. The point is that the sensation of tightness is subjective and relative. For example, If you have never been able to touch your toes, it doesn’t feel tight to not touch your toes, because this is your normal. Tightness is a personal experience based on physiological, psychological and environmental cues that infers a change or difference in perceived tension, with or without a change in range of movement.
Common scenarios in which people may feel tight muscles:
- When you cant get as deep in a stretch as you did last time you tried ie, your range is restricted
- When you are tired, overtrained / under recovered and stressed (or in any way more vulnerable)
- If it feels more effortful to get to the same depth than usual
- If you have been working really hard on your flexibility and don’t feel you have made enough progress
- If you compare the relative openness of one joint/muscle group with another, e.g. ‘my shoulders feel tight compared to my lower back in my bridge’
- When you are actively contracting the muscle that you are stretching, e.g. isometric holds
- When you consciously focus attention on a muscle group
- When you are training with others who are more flexible than you
- When it’s cold, when stretching intensely without warm-up or if you are dehydrated
- When you are injured or in pain
It's important to note that while the experience of tightness doesn’t mean weakness, it also doesn’t mean that you are restricted or that there is anything wrong. ‘Feeling tight’ is universal, but in my experience, it's far more common for people who train flexibility to be worried by this experience. In some situations, strength training may increase your perception of tightness, such as if you have an acute injury, you are overtraining / under recovering, or only training resisted stretches.
Tightness can be eased by heat, movement, and improved rest / recovery in most cases.