Tight Muscles Aren’t As Bad As You Think (Here’s Why)

Before I tell you about the first time I felt tight muscles restricting motion, I’d first like to let you in on something a new client mentioned the other day.  As I was going through the process of addressing an under-performing muscle in his back, he said, “A foam roller isn’t capable of reaching those muscles.  I know that!”

If we’re being honest, more often than not, foam rolling is only putting you in a position to where you’re going to continue to feel the need to do more foam rolling.  It’s a vicious cycle.

This is due to the fact that much like stretching, foam rolling isn’t capable of addressing muscles that are under-performing.

Muscles that are under-performing for you.

[ Sidebar: Since you rarely hear anything about muscles that aren’t capable of pulling optimally, think of them as muscles that are under-performing or weak. In other words, just because you have much of the same muscles that everybody else has doesn’t mean all of them are capable of pulling their share of the weight at the right time. ]

As an example, if you know anybody that has plantar fasciitis, many (most!) professionals are lining up to tell your friend that over-pronation or weak muscles are at the heart of why they continue to struggle with pain in their feet.  Since it takes more than our feet to overcome gravity on every step, plantar fasciitis is more about muscles that aren’t capable of pulling at the right time.

Until the under-performing muscles are back online, the tight muscles will continue to do what they do best – protect.

When I was 10 years old, a friend and I rode our bikes from my grandmother’s house to the reservoir.  Not too long after we figured out how to get to our destination, my curiosity got the best of me and I fell off a ledge. Not only was it a good distance to fall, I ended up landing on a cement ramp at the edge of the water.  Although I was never officially diagnosed with a sprained ankle, that’s what landing at such an awkward angle ended up being.

Since I wasn’t supposed to be that far away from my grandmother’s house in the first place, I spent the remainder of that day and then some…trying not to limp.

The thought that I could have told my grandmother I sprained my ankle somewhere other than where I wasn’t supposed to be never crossed my mind.

As you might have already imagined, the more I tried to hide my limp, the more difficult it was to walk.  What I didn’t know then is that no amount of conscious effort on my part was capable of keeping the tight muscles from reacting to my recently injured ankle.

If you’ve ever rolled an ankle, then you know how it feels to have tight muscles shorten the length of your stride.

Needless to say, regardless of how much I would have liked to change the circumstances, with enough time to limp around, the sensation of pain ended up driving my foot in such a way that I would no longer have to experience the same level of discomfort.

The universal lesson that comes out of the sensation of pain is, in order to decrease the level of discomfort our bodies are going to find a workaround.

A workaround that’s different for each and every one of us.

When your body responds in this way, the tight muscles are trying to protect you from going too far in a certain direction(s).

Although it’s annoying to regularly feel tight muscles throughout your neck and shoulders, or even your back, that sensation of tightness is there for a good reason.

This is your bodies hard-wired response to protect you from additional injury.

Which also ends up being your muscles best attempt at finding stability.

As counterintuitive as this may sound right now, just because it’s natural for muscles to tighten up – doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Given what you’ve heard over and over again for all these years, I realize this idea that tight muscles are good goes up against all the conventional wisdom that hasn’t allowed for much in the way of progress.

Rather than get discouraged with all the misinformation that’s constantly thrown around, consider this: when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s close to impossible to decipher whether or not what you’re being told is a lie.

Fifteen years ago, I believed stretching was beneficial.  I also believed that when I walked a client through a strength exercise all of the target muscles were going to get stronger.

For the first eight years of my career, I fell for those lies.

When I continued to see people coming back with pain, naturally, I started questioning what I was doing.


If you’re on the fence about the state of physical therapy today, try going through the one-size-fits-all model or even the evidence-based approach.

Besides being unrealistic, the problem with the one-size-fits-all model is that it doesn’t include much in the way of a process.  Since there’s no process, there are a lot of assumptions.  This makes the things that are worth thinking about largely invisible.

The one-size-fits-all model is also so quick and easy that we aren’t too far away from a robot taking over some of what takes place on the factory floor.

In a round about way, the evidence base approach also takes the thinking out and relies heavily on more assumptions.

The biggest difference with the evidence-based approach is that it allows for another way to hide while continuing to buy the stories that support the worldview of the tribe.

Therefore, the story (read: evidence) is the marketing.

What’s peculiar about the ‘evidence’ is that the consumer (read: you) isn’t the only one that’s buying the story.  😐

Think back to all those times when a physical therapist kept going to the well with the same stretches you could read in a magazine.

As an example, if you were to reach down and grab your leg right above your ankle, you could then pull your leg towards the back of your thigh.  Since all four of the muscles that make up your quadriceps cross over the front side of your knee and attach to your leg you’re going to feel the stretch throughout the front of your thigh.

But just because you feel the stretch there, doesn’t mean all four of those muscles are tight.  The reality is, it’s going to be different for each person.

When you know what to look for, it’s not uncommon to see 2 to 3 of the 4 quadricep muscles as under-performing.

<figure><img src="https://www.engagingmuscles.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Four-Runners-Stretching-Their-Quadriceps.jpg" alt= "Four Runners Stretching Their Quadriceps" width="500" Height="333" /></figure>

Photo Credit: Roberto Bertolle Flickr via Compfight cc

Said another way, since all four of the muscles that make up the quadriceps are crossing over your knee joint, it only takes one tight muscle out of the four to feel the stretch.

After having knee surgery, it’s not uncommon for an individual to have one or more quadriceps that are under-performing.

If you’ve ever talked to anybody that’s torn their ACL (read: anterior cruciate ligament), after having surgery, there will be a major focus on getting the knee to bend further.

A physical therapist will try anything and everything that doesn’t include addressing the muscles that aren’t capable of pulling optimally.

When a physical therapist ignores your quadriceps or any other muscle that’s under-performing for that matter, restoring range of motion at the knee will take a lot longer than when the weak muscles are addressed, first.

And let’s not forget that when the under-performing muscles aren’t addressed beforehand, any strengthening that occurs after the range of motion is restored is only going to strengthen the muscles that are already capable of contracting optimally.

If you’ve ever felt stronger after physical therapy, since all the muscles weren’t capable of pulling together, it only makes sense that you were only relatively stronger.

Which is another way of saying, you’re going back into the game with a false sense of strength.

If you’re uncomfortable admitting that physical therapists are regularly stretching muscles that aren’t tight, and strengthening muscles that aren’t weak, it’s difficult to deny that they’re chasing pain.

To paraphrase Dr. Karel Lewitt, “Those who treat the pain are lost.”

Having worked with the human chain for over 20 years, what’s disheartening for me is when I continue to see physical therapists follow the same map of the territory only to get sub-par results.

And then, pretend to do work that delivers on a promise.

“Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know).  It obscures from view various weaknesses in our own understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course.  This is where the silent toll is taken.”

– Ryan Holiday, Ego Is The Enemy

When I reflect on what it means to be a professional, constantly questioning what one believes is at the top of the list.

If you’ve ever struggled with plantar fasciitis, then, you have experienced how difficult it is to take those initial steps in the wee hours of the morning.  I know how that feels.  It feels like you can’t hobble to your destination fast enough.

All the while, your calf muscles are trying to tell you those stretches you keep doing aren’t coming close to getting to the root cause.

But yet, you don’t know what else to do.  So then, your best bet is to keep looking for different advice that’s better than what you’ve heard before.

Believe it or not, when you visit a podiatrist with the thought that you have plantar fasciitis, they don’t know to tell you that your calves are tight for a good reason.

Since you more than likely went many years without pain in your feet, a podiatrist doesn’t have the ability to think that up until the time you started to feel pain muscles were capable of getting the job done.

Not only in your feet, but in your trunk.

Besides being blinded by the financial incentive to sell more custom orthotics, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to inform you about something that they aren’t aware of themselves.

Since they don’t know your calves are restricting motion at your ankle for a good reason, they also don’t know to tell you that those calf stretches are only addressing the symptoms.

<figure><img src="https://www.engagingmuscles.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Stretching-Tight-Muscles-In-Calf.jpg" alt= "Stretching tight muscles in calf" width="500" Height="375" /></figure>

photo credit: Håkan Dahlström Legs via photopin (license)

No matter how much a podiatrist wants to believe they’re giving you advice that’s worth paying for, more and more stretching isn’t going to be enough to override what your body is capable of doing without your conscious awareness.

See, by continuing to stretch the tight muscles throughout your calves, you’re working against what your body has already figured out how to do.

Said another way, until you incorporate the right inputs that are capable of pulling the weed out by its roots, your body is going to continue doing what it does so well.


I recently started working with a new client that’s been getting regular chiropractic adjustments for years.  While we were talking, out of habit, he rotated his trunk in both directions only for both of us to hear multiple cracks along his spinal column. At which point I told him, ‘After we get the muscles that are responsible for performing those motions back online, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to self-adjust in those positions.’

When he came in for a second session, he said, “You were right, I haven’t been able to adjust my back. And, I haven’t even felt the need to keep doing that every day.  I’ve been doing that for years!”

This version of the story goes against the long-held theory of chiropractic.  Which is, it’s the tight muscles that are to blame for an adjustment that doesn’t hold.

Chiropractors will also tell anybody that will listen that the tight muscles are responsible for not allowing a certain region of your spine to adjust.

Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses. – Seth Godin

Since chiropractic adjustments don’t do anything to improve the function of the under-performing muscles or even the tight muscles, you’ll be back for more and more adjustments…

Hense, chiropractic adjustments are a Band-Aid.

If you’ve ever wondered why you feel the need to keep coming back for more adjustments, the chiropractor isn’t capable of telling you that all they’re doing is allowing for a different workaround than the one you originally came in with.

Along the same line of thinking, they also don’t know to tell you that even if you end up no longer having pain, you’re still going to have muscles that are tight.

And because you still have muscles that are tight, you’re also going to have muscles that aren’t capable of pulling their weight.

<figure><img src="https://www.engagingmuscles.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Spinal-column-with-Lego-figures-repelling-off-back-side.jpg" alt= "Spinal column with Lego figures repelling off back side" width="500" Height="592" /></figure>

photo credit: Dr. Mark Kubert North face of Mount Spine via photopin (license)

In order to make up for what the under-performing muscles aren’t capable of providing, the tight muscles are going to be forced to work harder to keep you away from reaching positions where you don’t have stability.

These positions I’m referring to are places where a body part is unable to go.  Not only because tight muscles are responsible for restricting motion at the joint but also due to the under-performing muscles inability to pull a body part(s) into the desired position.

Example: Going back to your friend that’s struggling with plantar fasciitisthey’re going to have tight muscles throughout their calf. Those tight calves are restricting motion at their ankle.  Along with the tightness, muscles aren’t capable of pulling the leg closer to the foot. When considering the role of your foot, in order for one joint to allow for more motion at another joint, muscles have to pull at the right time.  When these muscles aren’t capable of playing their role at the right time, the leg and the body that it’s connected to won’t be capable of advancing forward in the most efficient way possible for that individual.

As you’ve already figured out, these positions of instability are different for everybody.

Which is why the cookie-cutter approach to working with pain and/or an injury isn’t capable of allowing you to perform better than you did before you experienced either.


If you feel like all you’ve been doing is applying a different Band-Aid, rather than have everybody and their uncle continue to ignore the role of your muscles, ask yourself this question, How do you know if your muscles are capable of contracting at the right time, in the right direction, and at the right joint?

Pretending otherwise is good for business.  (emphasis added)



If you found this post to be educational, and you know somebody that’s been dealing with pain and/or an injury, I would greatly appreciate you sharing this post.  You can do this by emailing it to a friend, family member, colleague or feel free to share it on Facebook. 

A BIG thanks in advance.  🙂

Thanks for taking the time to read this post!  If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to Engaging Muscles.  You can also like Engaging Muscles on Facebook, subscribe to my YouTube Channel or feel free to connect with me on Twitter @rickmerriam

Book mentioned (affiliate):

Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday

photo Credit: Roberto Bertolle Flickr via Compfight cc

photo credit: Håkan Dahlström Legs via photopin (license)

photo credit: Dr. Mark Kubert North face of Mount Spine via photopin (license)

Tight Muscles Aren't As Bad As You Think (Here's Why)
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Tight Muscles Aren't As Bad As You Think (Here's Why)
The tight muscles continue to do what they do best - protect. As counterintuitive as this may sound right now, just because it's natural for muscles to tighten up - doesn't mean it's bad.
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I have held a license to practice massage therapy for over 20 years. For the first 18 years of my career, I was a nationally certified personal trainer. During that time, I completed thousands of one-on-one personal training sessions. I went on to teach biomechanics to personal trainers, group exercise instructors, and physical therapists throughout New England. I worked as a sports massage therapist at ESPN. Over the last few years, I have been quoted in Runner’s World UK, Massage Therapy & Bodywork, Massage Magazine, IDEA Fitness Journal, Massage & Fitness Magazine, and The Guardian Liberty Voice. I have also served as an applied biomechanics consultant for the fitness staff at Canyon Ranch, The Greenbrier, and ESPN. For the last 8 years, I've been teaching applied anatomy & kinesiology at Parker University. I have a private sports massage therapy practice in Dallas, Texas.