Tight Muscles are Weak Muscles

October 28, 2010 at 6:50 AM | Posted in Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | 1 Comment
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Up until recently, I was always under the impression that a tight muscle was an overworked muscle that was too strong in relation to its antagonist. English: a tight muscle is too strong and needs to be stretched to restore length. This idea is also the basis for most practitioners of medicine – present a tight muscle to a doctor and it’s likely he or she will tell you to stretch it and strengthen the antagonist muscles.

Here’s an example of this idea in action. Many a year ago, when I first started having shoulder pain, I went to a respected physical therapist. He told me my impingement was a result of tight internal rotators and inadequate external rotators. The prescription? External rotator work. Well, years and years later, after living with intense pain and tightness in my rear delt, infraspinatus and teres minor, I figured out he was kinda wrong. Sure, my “big gun” internal rotators were too strong and tight. But my subscapularis had shut down, glazed over with scar tissue, trigger points and adhesions. It was weak. It never did anything.

Justification

So with that anecdote, let me show you some evidence for my case here. First of all, let me note that it is ENTIRELY possible that a tight muscle is too strong. That said, as it turns out, that’s usually not the case. Take hamstring injuries, for instance. Hamstring injuries are frequent in athletes. However, we all know that almost everyone’s hamstrings are too tight and simultaneously weak. This is well-accepted. Here’s a little piece from an article written by people far more educated than me:

“They [Garrick and Webb] feel that overstretching of a muscle is not the chief cause of strain. It usually occurs by increased tension in the muscle before it has had time to lengthen, for example, by the sudden contraction of the antagonistic muscle before the agonist can lengthen. They point to the fact that most strains occur in the normal range of motion rather than the overstretched range. Because overstretching is often inappropriately considered the chief cause, treatment is mostly directed at improving flexibility of previously tight muscles. Whenever a weak muscle is forced to work beyond its capacity, it will tighten and, therefore, be more subject to stress and strain. ” [1]

 

Hamstring tears are ugly. They occur because the muscle is tight and weak.

Does it make sense now? Think about it: when you overwork a muscle, it gets tight, doesn’t it? Usually, you just rest long enough and it goes away and everything’s dandy again. But if you’re a bodybuilder, you usually don’t lay off of a muscle for a few weeks at a time. Then you work the muscle again, it tightens again, and pretty soon you’ve got yourself an overtraining/overuse injury in the works.

Now, let’s do some statistical correlation. Here’s a list of the most frequently injured or weak muscles in everyone:

  • Hamstrings
  • Adductor
  • Iliotibial band (technically a ligament, yes I know)
  • Subscapularis
  • Infraspinatus
  • Piriformis
  • Peroneals
  • Iliopsoas
  • Lower trapezius

Think about it. All of these muscles are weak in most of the population. They are usually shortened and tightened as well, sometimes even to the point of complete immobility. Subscapularis is the most frequently injured rotator cuff muscle. Infraspinatus is almost always tight and riddled with trigger points. How many football players have had season-ending hamstring tears or groin injuries? Weak ankles is associated with weak peroneals. The infamous iliopsoas is tight in all desk jockeys, yet when asked to perform a psoas strength test, nearly all of them fail. A direct association between tight and weak.

The Upshot

Ok, so now that you believe tight = weak, what’s the hype all about? Well, the take-home lesson is that any muscle that is tight is going to require strengthening. That’s not really intuitive to most docs. Most of the time, a tight muscle gets flexibility training only. However, even if you are successful in lengthening the muscle back to its original state, any length you achieve is only temporary. This is because the second you strain it again, it’s going to tighten back up and glaze over with scar tissue again. And because you’ve been in a shortened, weakened state for so long, it’s pretty damn easy to strain it again. Take hamstring injuries – re-injury is ridiculously frequent.

Furthermore, it’s a well-documented fact that muscles do not respond to static stretching unless they are warmed up sufficiently. You can warm the muscle up using activity or heat. You could go sit in a sauna or put a heating pad on the area for a while, physically warming the muscle, but this isn’t going to do nearly as much as actually using the muscle. Why? Well, warming it up from the outside increases blood flow, but not nearly as much as warming it up internally. Blood and nutrients flood a muscle when you use it. Also, when you USE a muscle, it gets stronger.

So, here are your options:

  1. Flexibility Training Only:  This rehabilitation program focuses primarily on restoring the flexibility of the muscle.  Passive, static stretching is combined with disuse of the muscle in an effort to avoid straining it and re-injuring it.  This method of rehabilitation completely fails if the muscle has been shortened for any length of time longer than a week or two.  The muscle has lost strength and become accustomed to its new, shortened length.  Furthermore, strength gain is passive and takes much longer, increasing propensity for re-injury.
  2. Strength and Flexibility Combination:  This program involves direct (maybe even isolation) work for the muscle in question in an effort to strengthen it and get nutrients and blood to the muscle.  A few sets with low weight is enough to stimulate the muscle.  Following each set, the muscle should be statically, gently stretched.  Do not push the stretching, as the muscle is not yet strong enough and your nervous system will shorten the muscle to avoid further injury if you attempt to stretch it too quickly or intensely.
  3. Trigger Point Therapy + Strength/Flexibility:  This method is the ultimate in muscle rehabilitation.  Yes, it’s ballsy to call it the ultimate, but I’m doing it anyway.  For long-standing injuries, this is the only permanent solution.  First, you use massage therapy and trigger point therapy to loosen the muscle and free it from scar tissue and adhesions.  If your injury has persisted through seemingly all forms of treatment and several doctors, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.  If the muscle is riddled with adhesions and scar tissue, no amount of strengthening or stretching is going to free it in a reasonable amount of time.  Once you have mobilized the muscle, follow activation techniques to restore your mind-muscle connection and begin using light resistance to strengthen it again.  Be sure to include gentle stretches after each workout.

How Effective Is It?

Extremely. Here’s my personal story: I began noticing a nagging ache in my left shoulder 5+ years ago. After it persisted for some time, I began altering my training a little bit and started pouring money into professional medical help. I saw a renowned shoulder surgeon, had MRIs done on the shoulder and went to physical therapy. The MRI came back negative (which was good I guess), and the physical therapy provided momentary relief, but nothing really lasted.

About three years ago, my right groin started hurting during squats. Naturally, as an uneducated, younger idiot, I worked through it and figured it was a weakness I could train through. No dice. My shoulder and hip progressively became worse and worse and nothing could fix it. My father (and all of the other older people in my life) gloated over me with their “I told you so!” and “Getting older sucks, don’t it?” Of course, I was doomed to repeat their failures in my life because it was the inevitable course of action. No way anybody could “beat the system.”

So there I was, all of my 200 pounds that I worked so hard for melting away and turning into blubber, forced to sit out my favorite activities. People would tell me “Wow, Frank, you’re not what you used to be…” and assume it was because I had gotten lazy. Skinny fucks in the gym would taunt me. “Where’s your strength now? I bet I could beat you at [insert test of physical superiority here].” My mental condition was greatly diminished.

Then I discovered trigger point therapy. While not the answer to my problem, it provided me with a great deal of pain relief. In fact, without having done all the work I did on myself, no amount of recovery or money spent on medical care would be able to fix me. I loosened up all kinds of muscles, removing scar tissue. I found strength I hadn’t felt in years. The trigger point therapy was SO helpful, in fact, that I was actually STRONGER on a lot of my lifts after over a year of not doing them. I tried going back to the gym, but I was again frustrated by the same failures – left shoulder impingement and a short, tight right leg.

FINALLY, I found a few articles on the internet about this tight = weak muscle relationship. I had determined which muscles needed to have more length and functionality, but no amount of active recovery was doing it. Once I understood this relationship, however, I directed training at my tight muscle groups. You know, the ones I had always assumed were tight because they were overactive and too strong. Instead of training my hip extensors, I began training my weak hip flexors (psoas, rectus femoris). They had become injured from years of training and weakened by years of inactivity. Instead of pounding away in futility on my external rotators, I gave my subscapularis some tender, loving attention. And instead of training my upper trapezius, I directly trained my lower trapezius. The result? Shoulder impingement was gone in two weeks. Hip no longer feels like it’s catching every time I try to walk. Just for the hell of it, I decided to give the sissy hip adductor machine a go today and found out I have WOMANLY strength on adduction. After four sets, I felt like my weight was more evenly distributed between my feet, and I proved it to myself with a calf workout that worked both sides equally.

 

If the lower trapezius is tight, doesn't it make sense that the scapula would be pulled down permanently? And if that were the case, doesn't it make sense that impingement shouldn't be an issue? Yet, because the lower trapezius is so weak (and simultaneously tight), impingement is the result. The only way to fix it is by strengthening the muscle first, THEN lengthening.

Ok, so that’s my personal success rant. There are others who have had great success doing the strength AND flexibility option, too. Coaches who emphasize posterior chain training (with hamstrings, etc.) have a far lower occurrence of hamstring injury, and players perform at a higher level. Consider that a strong muscle will not suffer injury during overstretching, eccentric contraction or maximum force production. Consider that muscles with strength in all of their ROM are hardly ever injured. Case in point: well-trained hamstrings using straight-legged deadlifts. I have never had anything even close to a hamstring injury using this training protocol – it’s stretch overload for the hamstrings. Only a healthy muscle is flexible.

Conclusion

In a sentence, a tight muscle is a weak muscle. Oftentimes, injuries occur because a muscle is too tight. Hamstrings, adductors and psoas are the biggest, most common injuries seen in both athletes and average joes. While it is possible that a muscle is tight because it’s strong, this isn’t as likely as a muscle being tight and weak.  When you strengthen a tight muscle, you increase the utility and function of the muscle AND reduce the risk of injuring it.

The next time you have a tight muscle, consider strengthening it. For athletes, this entails tailoring your program a little bit to hit some underworked muscles. If you want to be big on your big lifts, start looking at your strength in adduction, hip flexion and shoulder stability. I’ll follow this post up with a few exercise programs that emphasize strength and flexibility together.  In the meantime, here’s an EXCELLENT article by Eric Cressey, the master of all things biomechanical:

http://ericcressey.com/fixing-the-flaws-a-look-at-the-ten-most-common-biomechanical-weak-links-in-athletes  .

References

1. http://www.dynamicchiropractic.com/mpacms/dc/article.php?id=45406

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1 Comment »

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  1. Great article! I’ve gone through more or less the exact same process with left shoulder and hip, starting with the ‘established’ treatment that goes nowhere (and wastes how many million $ a year I don’t know) before finding certain exercises that make it better. Now, 7 years after the problems began, I’m 90% ‘perfect’.

    Yet I still think I’m missing something. I’m now inspired to target the muscles more specifically like you point out here. I’m wondering exactly what exercises you used for the subscapularis, lower trapezius, and psoas?


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