How to Loosen Tight Muscles
Tight muscles can limit mobility, range of motion, and keep you from engaging in your favorite activities. Loosening tight muscles will help you stick to your exercise regimen, in addition to making you more comfortable. Find out how to loosen tight muscles with this step-by-step guide.
But First. Why Do Muscles Become Tight?
There are a number of reasons our muscles become tight, the most common being:
- Long periods of inactivity - this doesn’t just apply to couch potatoes, but active people as well. Even if you are working out regularly, being seated at a desk for long periods of time causes certain muscles in the body to lengthen and others to shorten. Specifically, hip flexors and chest muscles become short and tight, while glutes, back, neck and shoulder muscles become elongated and weak. Assuming this position day after day creates imbalances between tight and weak muscles.
- During exercise - muscles can tighten during physical activity, sometimes so intensely as to cramp. Muscle cramps usually arise due to dehydration or low levels of sodium or potassium.
- Following exercise - delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) occurs about 24-72 hours after unusually difficult physical activity. This condition is characterized by muscle soreness and tightness. Although uncomfortable, DOMS is actually your body’s healing response to micro-tears in the muscle fibers following intense exercise. The tight feeling following a hard workout is typically related to physical activity that shortens the muscle, such as pedaling a bike or certain weight-training movements like bicep curls.
Much has been written about whether to use cold or heat therapy for aching and tight muscles. Studies show that cold therapy is better in the first 24 hours after a workout1. Heat is preferred after the initial healing period and for chronic pain. The reason is that cold is better at combating the early onset of inflammation, thereby potentially reducing recovery times and pain. The downside with ice is that it can tighten muscles. On the other hand, heat relaxes muscle tissues, which eases tightness and painful trigger points. Popular types of heat therapy that loosens tight muscles include:
- Heating pads -this method involves applying localized heat to a part of the body. If you are trying to figure out how to loosen tight muscles in the lower back, neck, arms or other specific areas of the body, a heating pad or gel pack will serve you well. Apply heat to the affected area for at least 15 minutes.
- Soaking in warm water - by soaking in a bath or hot tub, you’ll enjoy full body heat rejuvenation. If you are looking for tips on how to loosen tight muscles in legs, soaking in warm water with salt should help. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) are a favorite way to soak among athletes and chronic pain sufferers, with many devotees claiming that the salts alleviate discomfort in muscles and joints. While there is no scientific data to show this, at the very least, soaking in warm water for at least 20 minutes will improve blood circulation and loosen tight muscles.
- Hit the sauna or steam room - much like soaking in warm water, getting into a sauna or steam room will provide heat therapy from head to toe. Besides relaxing tight muscles and relieving muscle cramps, full body heat therapy improves blood flow. This is essential to muscle recovery as oxygen is delivered to aching muscles and joints and muscle building byproducts are removed.
If your muscles are short and tight, it makes sense that elongating them by stretching will help, right? While this is true, you need to be sure to stretch properly and safely. You can do more harm than good if you push yourself too hard or don’t take certain precautions. If you’re wondering how to loosen tight muscles in your arms, neck, or any other part of your body, try to stretch before and after every workout. Here are some guiding principles on how to loosen tight muscles in neck and other areas through stretching:
- Warm up - you want to use the elasticity of your muscles to your advantage while stretching, and your muscle fibers will be their most elastic when warmed up. To prepare yourself for stretching, try a light activity like walking. Active stretching can also work. This involves doing light movements that stretch muscles, like shoulder stretches, rotations, or the cat-cow position in yoga. You can also warm up with heat therapy. Consider stretching after you have soaked in the tub or enjoyed some time in the steam room.
- Go Light to Deep - while most of us know this, it bears saying: start off stretching lightly, and as your muscles become looser and you feel more comfortable, gradually go deeper into your stretches. If you feel tight, it is even more important to take it slow and listen to your body. Muscle tension, especially from working out, may mean you cannot go as deep into certain stretches as usual - and that’s okay!
- Stretch All Muscles in the Area - muscles move dynamically with adjacent muscles. Nearby muscles are also anatomically connected to each other, either by fascia, ligaments or tendons. As such, stretching should incorporate an entire part of the body, rather than a single muscle. For example, if your iliotibial (IT) band is tight, you will want to stretch nearby muscles, including glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Self-Myofascial Release & Deep Tissue Massage
Your muscles are surrounded by sheaths of connective tissue called fascia. When fascia becomes restricted, often through repetitive movements, it causes knots and trigger points. As a result, connected muscles feel tense and tight. The idea behind a type of bodywork called myofascial release is to break up trigger points and release the fascia for improved mobility and reduced pain.
Another similar type of body work is deep tissue massage. As the name suggests, this massage technique focuses on applying pressure into the deeper layers of muscle. Much like other types of bodywork (including myofascial release), deep tissue massage enhances mobility, blood circulation, and comfort. The key difference is that more layers of muscle are affected during deep tissue massage.
Performing self-massage regularly at home is critically important to alleviating muscle tension, muscular pain and keeping your body performing its best. The market is filled with self-massage tools that perform myofascial release, deep tissue massage, or a combination of the two. Here is a rundown of what to consider when choosing your self-massaging tool:
- Self-Myofascial Release Tools - the most well-known self-myofascial release tool is the foam roller. By rolling your body over the foam tube, muscles and fascia are condensed and released. Since foam rollers have long smooth sides, it is a tool best suited for myofascial release of large muscles. Other self-myofascial tools are better suited for releasing trigger points. These tools typically have smaller edges or sides that allow you to dig into specific areas of tension, such as around the shoulders. Most of these tools are not motorized, therefore requiring users to use their body weight against the tool to create tension, or manually press the tool into the body.
- Deep Tissue Massage Tools - there are some non-motorized self-myofascial tools that can perform deep tissue massage if enough pressure is applied. It is not always reliable and of course requires work on the user’s part. A more convenient and relaxing way to get a self-administered deep tissue massage is by using an electric massager. This is mostly because electric massagers can perform movements that penetrate deeper into muscle layers. In particular, massagers that make percussive movements apply concentrated and deep pulses of pressure. Keep in mind that some electric deep tissue massagers do not offer much in the way of myofascial release due to their intensity. If you want a massage tool that performs light and deep massage, consider massage gun with varying intensity levels.
See a Professional Massage Therapist
Regularly performing self-massage will do wonders in loosening tight muscles, but a massage therapist can take your recovery a step further. Receiving a massage allows you to go into a deeper state of relaxation. Additionally, a professional massage therapist will have the skill to locate and manipulate tight muscles, trigger points and tense connective tissue that you cannot identify and treat on your own.
Talk to your massage therapist about what type of massage is appropriate for your level of muscle tightness and discomfort. If you are in the throes of serious muscle pain following a tough workout, you probably need a lighter massage. Deep tissue massage or sports massages are best reserved for athletes when their bodies are otherwise healthy, but in need of a therapeutic touch to the deeper layers of muscle. If you need a deeper form of therapy in order to heal a more serious injury, visit a physical therapist.
Relaxing Tight Muscles for Mobility and Comfort
With the right techniques and tools, you can quickly figure out how to fix tight muscles for improved mobility and comfort. Don’t forget to perform self-care techniques on muscles adjacent to the tight muscle. And since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, be sure to warm up and stretch properly before your next workout to help avoid tight muscles altogether.
1 Petrofsky, Jerrold S; Khowailed, Iman Akef; Lee, Haneul; Berk, Lee1; Bains, Gurinder S.; Akerkar, Siddhesh; Shah, Jinal; Al-Dabbak, Fuad; Laymon, Mike S. Cold Vs. Heat After Exercise—Is There a Clear Winner for Muscle Soreness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: November 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 11 - p 3245–3252. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/11000/Cold_Vs__Heat_After_Exercise_Is_There_a_Clear.33.aspx