Every one, at one point, has complained of muscle stiffness. Runners often complain about tight hamstrings after long runs. Those working in front of computers for many hours often complain about neck stiffness. Given these observations, it would appear that muscle stiffen is directly related to physical stress.
Why do muscles stiffen up?
Muscle stiffness is not necessarily a direct result of excessive stress on the tight muscle but rather response to lack of muscular balance at a given joint. When muscles tighten, they do it for a good reason. The nervous system is always receiving information about the readiness of all muscles involved. When a muscle is not ready for the perceived physical load, the nervous system will recruit a different muscle that may be adequate for the given job. For example, when the glut muscles are not ready, they become weak. The hamstring is often recruited to compensate for the weak glut. Although the hamstring is an adequate choice, it is not optimal for the job. The result of this compensation is a poor quality of movement, and of course muscle stiffness around the hip.
There are many forms one may regain flexibility. The following are some common methods used to increase flexibility.
This is the most common method of stretching. During a passive stretch one takes a muscle to a position at which a stretch is felt. The position is most often held still for 20-30 seconds. Although this method is very effective at stretching specific muscles, it does not address the weak muscles that are not recruited by the nervous system.
During an active stretch one set of muscles contracts, and by doing so, stretches its opposing set of muscles. For example, hamstrings can be stretched contracting the quad muscles and lifting the foot up. For those that are more flexible, the stretch can be performed on the back while pulling the leg closer to the body. This method addresses both the weak and tight muscles. Active stretches are great exercises to begin in the morning; however they can be too aggressive for very unstable joints.
This method is less common yet (in my opinion) it is one of the most effective and safe methods for loosing tight muscles. The concept is rather simple; find a range of motion in which there is restriction (tightness) and perform a series of light contractions in the direction of that movement, right before tightness is felt. For example, a client has a tight upper back and one of the arms does not cross the chest as far as the other. The client can stand parallel to a wall and press the arm into it for about 10 seconds. The exercise can be repeated and progressed to a greater range of motion with each repetition.
Dynamic stretch is very similar to an active stretch. The difference is the velocity. During dynamic stretch movements are fast. A good example would be walking and kicking the leg up. This method is a very good method for warming before playing sports, however it is not recommended for very tight muscles.
Balance and stability exercise
As mentioned before, flexibility is positively correlated with balance and stability. A good progression of stability exercises can help regain control of all muscles at a joint. Once the nervous system recognizes that a joint is stable, tightness is simply no longer needed and thus flexibility should increase. The key, however, is a strategic and careful progression where the exercises are performed under absolute control. A good example of a stability exercise that can increase flexibility is the plank. This exercise is one of my favorite for loosening up a tight lower back. Plank activates all the hip flexors and abdominal muscles and reciprocally it will loosen the lower back muscles.
Ralph Klisiewicz, is a certified personal trainer and a certified muscle activation technique specialist working in Chicago area. He has been working in the wellness/fitness industry for over 6 years. His fitness specialization is in human mechanics, as he often works with people who suffer from pain and joint imbalances. He writes on the topic of fitness extensively. Personal Trainer | Chicago