How to Untighten a Tight Muscle
Everyone knows what a tight muscle feels like–limited flexibility of the joint it crosses, a sensation of stiffness in the muscle itself, and often firmness and tenderness when it’s pressed on. Often we describe this as being a “knot” in the muscle that needs to be “worked out” by massaging it.
The “muscle knot” concept, though pervasive, is not a very accurate model. Muscle tightness is not typically caused by structural changes in the muscle–tightness is a neurological phenomenon. The muscle is tight because it is in a state of constant contraction, and it is in that state because it is being told to do so by the nervous system.
If we want to reduce the tension in a muscle, then, we need to modify that neuromuscular activity. Fortunately, there is a process that we can use to consistently make a difference in tight muscles. We will walk through this process, using the calf muscles as a case study.
Smash It or Needle It
Applying pressure to a stiff muscle will typically activate an initial defense response–the muscle will stiffen further in response to the perceived threat. Using breath and cyclic contraction, relaxation, and activating the antagonist, or “opposing” muscle (in this case the shin muscle, tibialis anterior), you can override this protective response and essentially tell your nervous system that it is safe to relax that muscle.
Dry needling accomplishes the same effect more quickly and powerfully. By physically stimulating the tight band of muscle fibers, the acupuncture needle interrupts the dysfunctional nerve/muscle circuit, often eliciting a twitch response in the muscle. After this twitch response, the muscle will be more relaxed, with more ability to fully contract, and show improved blood flow.
Load It (Through A Full Range Of Motion)
Once that muscle can move more, it is critical to do so! Putting force through that newly flexible muscle will help that new range of motion stick, by:
- Strengthening the ability of that muscle to contract through its new, larger range of motion
- Help to change the nervous system’s map of how much that muscle can move.
It is essential to load the muscle through the largest range of motion possible. For the calves, this means doing a calf raise in a stretched position, as shown above, to fully load into ankle dorsiflexion. Do enough repetitions to elicit fatigue in the muscle.
Holding a sustained stretch in the new range of motion will prevent the muscle from tightening back up and further reinforce the new range of motion. Adding the same techniques used during smashing (breathing, rhythmic contraction/relaxation), will increase the effect of stretching.
For the calves, any of the positions shown will do. Hold for 1-2 minutes, incorporating contract/relax cycles.
Strengthen The Antagonist
A key factor in limited ankle flexibility is weakness of the shin muscles. This is true for other muscles and joints as well: a weak antagonist further exacerbates muscle stiffness. Strengthening the tibialis anterior muscle will not only make it easier to pull your ankle into dorsiflexion, it will also directly reduce tension in the calf muscles by a mechanism called reciprocal inhibition.
When one muscle contracts, its antagonist automatically relaxes to allow movement to occur. The tibialis raise shown will thus not only strengthen your shins, it will help loosen your calves as well.
Put It All Together
If you want to make an immediate improvement in your ankle mobility, try this:
- Foam roll calves for 2-3 minutes each
- 15-20 reps full-range calf raises each leg
- 1 minute calf stretch each leg
- 15-20 tibialis raises
Try squatting before and after this little cycle, and you should notice a significant difference. Do this a couple times a week for two or three months and you will make a major change in your mobility.
The Movement Performance Center is proud to welcome Registered Physiotherapist Sam Martin to our team. Sam is a physio who began his career as a strength coach, and brings over a decade of experience in helping patients and clients move better.
Sam is certified and rostered in Ontario to perform dry needling and spinal manipulation. He uses these tools and other hands-on treatment techniques in concert with exercise and movement to help patients get back to doing the activities they enjoy without pain or limitation.
Sam was born & raised in Michigan and graduated from the University of Chicago in 2009. He spent time working in private gyms in Los Angeles and Chicago before earning his doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2020. Sam and his wife, Hannah, a Burlington, Ontario native and now a professor at Queen’s University, moved to Kingston in 2022.