Stiff muscles? Help them, not punish them!

No-one likes having stiff muscles.

We all want to feel at ease and comfortable in our bodies. BUT when your muscles feel stiff or tight is that the same as BEING stiff? Is your ability to move actually impaired when your muscle feel tense?

This is something you can test for yourself.

If you get a stiff neck, how far can you look over your shoulder or look up or down?
Tight hips? Can you still squat right down, or when lying down pull your legs to your chest to a certain point?
Compare on a good, non-stiff day (assuming you have them -you probably won’t think about it on those days though!). Is your range of movement (ROM) better? Or about the same, but just feels uncomfortable?
What you are likely to find is it that you can actually move about as much as usual if you try. But because it feels unpleasant, you probably avoid it!
If you feel stiff/tight/painful (often tightness and pain are associated) for many years you then might use your full range of motion so little that you start to lose it. Some physical changes will happen to the tissues, eventually, over months and years, that will limit your movement and obviously you want to avoid that. But for most younger people (i.e. not very elderly) it is just your nervous system ‘forgetting’ that these movements are an option. Not being able to turn your head enough to reverse a car without removing the seatbelt is a common example where a ‘normal’ range of motion has been lost (but can usually be regained).

Feeling stiff or tight CAN be associated with reduced mobility.

But actually, this is relatively rare. Dystonia – muscle spasm that can be distressing and painful – can occur as a condition. Sometimes a mild version of dystonia can happen with an irritated spinal cord. Parkinson’s disease is an example of a disease process that affects muscle tone. But for the most part, a stiff or tight sensation doesn’t mean you can’t move as much as usual, it just means you can’t move with ease and comfort.  So, you are less likely to move in your full range, and can end up quite restricted in your everyday movements and have more ‘contracted’ or rounded habitual posture if you don’t keep active moving despite feeling stiff.

So if my muscles can let go of tension just fine, why don’t they?

Well, if you have read anything I’ve written before, you already know the answer: it is a body and mind thing!
It’s tough to come up with anything that you experience EVER that won’t involve both the mind and the body, because that’s how we work — we aren’t brains just being carried around by body machine. ( for instance pain is another weird body/brain/nervous system sensation experience)
If the problem isn’t your muscles, or fascia, it means you don’t have to pummel them to make them let go. Or stretch them, or manipulate them. You don’t need to change the muscles themselves. You need to change what the nervous system is telling them.
I hear of people punishing their muscles to the point of being in tears, and bruising themselves with foam rollers or back ‘knobbers’ in order to ‘release’ tight muscles or fascia. That’s extreme, but lots of people spend a lot of time and money on essentially trying to change their muscles or fascia, when all they need to do is ‘ask them nicely’ to let go!

I feel tight /tense and I want that to go away. What can I do?

1. Movement

Yes, you need to move a tense or tight body. But the HOW is important. You want to remind your body-mind* that it is ‘safe’ and normal to move freely.
*horrible term I know, but we don’t have good language for describing ourselves!
Pushing hard through the discomfort, stretching to the maximum, gritting your teeth, holding your breath, doesn’t say ‘this is ok’ to yourself!
Sure, you will stretch out the tense bit, and it is better than avoiding movement, but it doesn’t teach your body-mind to do it easily and comfortably next time. You will likely get some temporary effect on your mobility, but you will then just revert back to being tight and tense again.
Finding the edge of the discomfort, checking your whole body reaction, calming it down, then asking gently for a little more movement, is a much more effective re-education of your system. But you need to this frequently enough to make a difference.

2. Re-education of your Neuromuscular system

Regularly reminding the muscles to let go is better than an occasional exercise session to undo tense muscles.  Doing this during the day, whenever you have brain space, means that your unconscious habit of tension is dialled down over time.
Specifically, notice your tensing reaction to stress. Tightening the neck and shoulders is pretty universal, but you will have other signs too that you can ‘check in’ on and make sure you keep (literally!) toning down during the day.
This is one of the big things in Alexander Technique: learning to notice tension habits and let them go, a little, many times a day.  Gradually you can train yourself to have minimal muscle tension (just what you need for whatever you are doing) and move with ease.

3. Remember the mind-body link

We all know that stress tends to make us tense. Especially those necks and shoulders. Anything that is relaxing or lets you mentally switch off is therefore going to be helpful for muscle tension as part of an overall approach. It doesn’t have to anything ‘special’ for this – just making time for what genuinely helps you relax, even if its just for the odd few minutes here and there.

Use all 3 approaches

‘Checkins’, gentle movement, and addressing your stress. Combining all 3 will give you the best long term results for stiff muscles and tightness vs attacking your tense muscles as if they are the enemy!

But what if I am ACTUALLY stiff and want to be more flexible?

That’s a different thing!
If something about your stiffness is preventing you from doing everyday things, or enjoying a sport or activity, then yes, of course, work on your flexibility.
But do you just have a vague feeling that flexibility will help your bad back, or pain elsewhere? That’s a message that we hear from the fitness industry a lot. But there isn’t any evidence that more flexibility = less pain. There is a big range of ‘normal’ in how far people can move at different joints, and as long as you can do all the things you want to do, more flexibility doesn’t equal better for you. If your time and energy for taking care of yourself is limited, then working on ease, relaxation, and doing some exercise that you find enjoyable, or targets something you DO need, like more strength, may be better for you than working on being more flexible just for its own sake.

What if I am very flexible (hypermobile) and feel stiff?

This is actually very common, and illustrates that unreliability of our perception of our bodies sometimes. You may be genuinely ‘stiff’ in that you are guarding joints with excessive tension. Hypermobile can be loose or tight, sometimes even both in the same person, but at different joints.To ease out your stiff muscles you want to use the approach I describe above, but modified to not use your end of range. Stretching is NOT your friend when you are hypermobile.

More on stiff muscles in hypermobility from fellow AT teacher Natalie Gibellini

Do you feel stiff or tight? Is that related to pain? Does a lack of flexibility limit you?
Let me know what you think, or join us in the back to active Facebook Group to discuss!

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