Whether you're physically active or a dedicated couch potato, muscle tightness is a common condition. If left unaddressed, this stiffness can lead to decreased range of motion and postural misalignment. What often works best is combining therapies that loosen tight muscles, for both instant relief and long-term, preventive treatment.
Start With a Warmup
The primary characteristic of muscle tissue is elasticity. Muscles are at their most elastic when warm. Too many people confuse warming up with stretching. In fact, stretching cold muscles can be a bad idea. Before engaging in stretching, make sure your muscle tissue is warm.
Warming up your muscles can be achieved by performing light rhythmic exercise like walking. Walking warms tight leg muscles and other muscle groups by elevating your heart rate and increasing the flow of blood to your muscles. You can also precede stretching with a hot bath or shower or several minutes in a hot sauna.
Go for the Stretch
Regularly stretching is the most effective way to permanently loosen tight muscles and the adjoining connective tissue. Stretch all the muscles connected to major joints, not just the ones that feel tight. For example, remember that tight leg muscles are composed of separate muscle groups. Work on your entire leg, rather than just the section that has feels stiff.
If you stretch your hamstrings, make sure to also stretch your calves, quadriceps, gluteal muscles, and both your inner and outer thighs. Stretching tight leg muscles is most effective when you hold your muscle at its longest length for 15 seconds to one minute or longer. Relax into your stretch and do not bounce.
Of course, your neck, back and shoulders, among other areas, also need attention. Yoga is an effective practice for maximally stretching the muscles throughout your body. For best results, stretch all your major muscle groups at least three times a week.
Relax Muscles Through Release Techniques
Self-myofascial release is a form of therapy you can do on your own with a hard foam roller. It's an especially effective technique because it can relax muscles as well as the tissue that connects muscle to bone. Foam rollers come in various lengths and are about 6 inches in diameter. They are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased almost anywhere that fitness equipment is sold.
To loosen tight muscles using the foam roller technique, place the roller on the floor beneath the muscles you wish to loosen. Position yourself so that your body weight presses against the foam as you roll it the length of the muscle. Perform the action slowly from end to end, and repeat until the muscle tension is released.
Turn to the Pros
A professional massage can also help you loosen tight muscles. Massage therapists are trained to locate and manipulate muscles and connective tissue in ways that release tension and muscle spasms. Both traditional Swedish and deep tissue massage may be effective for relieving muscle tension.
If you are unable to work with a professional massage therapist, you can perform a self-massage. This is best for an easy-to-reach area, like your biceps. Begin by preparing an area where you can comfortably sit or lie down. Use oil or lotion to allow your hands to glide freely across your skin. Apply firm pressure, running your hands the full length of the tight muscle and palpating for pressure points where the pain is localized.
- American Massage Therapy Association: Types of Massage
- American Council on Exercise: Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: Foam Rolling- Applying the Technique of Self-Myofascial Release
- Mayo Clinic: Focus on Flexibility
- Mayo Clinic: Flexibility: Stretch Your Way to Better Health