I’ve presented this idea in lectures with great titles such as:
4 Simple Reasons you are Treating Chronic Tight, Stiff and Sore Muscles Incorrectly. (boring)
Stretching is soooo 1990s…(I get it.)
Stop doing it like your Parents. (Seriously? You’re going there?)
and in some form, the doctors in my clinic give this lesson, I’d say…a dozen times per day.
Here’s the gist…I’m just going to point clients to this article and save my breath from now on.
I plan on this article saving me 1000’s of hours of daily public service announcement repeats. I honestly wrote this one to save my career. I just cant do this one on one anymore.
So, let me be fair. I’m warning you. This is a lecture. I’ll sell this as an online seminar and there are literally 25 links to additional articles on this one alone. It’s THE grandaddy article that is my day-in day-out career.
If you want quick tips skip to the middle of the article. If you want to finally “get it” after decades of doing it wrong. It’s going to take a little explanation.
To Cut to the chase, the old way of looking at tight muscles went like this.
“They are tight, they need to relax.”
That was a poor and outdated way to look at muscles. The new modern version reads like this…
Your muscles are TIGHT primarily because of 4-5 reasons:
they are too short OR
they are too long OR
splinting in an effort to protect an injury OR
you have an electrolyte issue OR
they are recovering from a workout.
PAY ATTENTION NOW!
These each have a different treatment. If you don’t finish this article. At least “Get that.”
Back in the 1980’s and 90’s – The old way was – “stretch muscles if they are tight.”
Now look, the music was better back then but that medical and healthcare advice was off. It’s come a long way and new and modern treatments are available!
Old way: Despite stretching tight IT bands daily for years, runners still had tight IT bands every day. They’d think, “Hmm, I must have to stretch more.” I’ve even had runners tell me, “IT band issues can take 8 months to recover from!”
Sciatic pain was typically called “piriformis syndrome” and the figure 4 stretch was touted as the next big thing. Much Like the IT band deal though, It didn’t work well and the pain just came back each morning and you’d go through the same routine over and over forever.
That advice is now OUTDATED and it’s why YOU ARE DOING THE WRONG treatment.
Then 2010 Came around. A great Era to be in the sports rehab/performance world. Graston and FAKTR Tools, Tak Balls, and Deep Tissue RELEASE techniques blew up as the sports worlds exploded. Millions of dollars poured into the professional sports worlds. Analytics and dollars per performance were defined and CrossFit went from a workout in your garage to a legit Sport claiming Prime Time Television slots on ESPN. It was truly a golden Era of Human Performance experimentation and the aftermath we’re in now is a cornucopia of sports-related careers that are exciting and cutting edge. There are 100’s of techniques to try and thousands of products from Vibration Guns to Cryochambers. We have stuff now that looks like they came off the set in Star Wars. It’s a blast!
The 2010 era philosophy of the healthcare practitioners like me became:
“Stretch didn’t work fast enough or at all. Now we just BEAT the muscles into submission. RELEASE, COMPRESS, CRUSH, DEEP, MORE, HARDER. We went from tennis balls to Lacrosse balls to Shot puts. From foam rollers to Squat bars – push more, beat harder, kill the muscle! (link to Why More is a Terrible Treatment Plan.)
SUBMIT tightness, TAP OUT soreness, KNOCKOUT Roundhouse kick stiff shoulders into a Chuck Norris meme, CUP the low back until the 3 inch hickies are still showing a week later. (What?! Michael Phelps won golds galore with those hickies…it MUST work!!!) And If not, I’ll throw some pink tape at it.
“Now” we look at our place in the sports practitioner world and can proudly state, “Well, that’s not really working too great either.”
It’s like what we used to see with stretching. It seems to work. It feels good, or in this case “bad, in a good way.” Except that the athlete/client returns a week later feeling the same way. Then we reply the same way as our parent’s generation, “hmmm, maybe we just need to do more.”
It gives you perspective doesn’t it? We’re in the same trap.
Please allow me to offer a modern alternative. Something we can evolve here and take forward with us into the future.
Although I’m often introduced at lectures as, “Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Dr. Chad Peters. He’s a sports based chiropractor from S. Texas and he HATES stretching.” that’s just not true.
I don’t hate stretching. I don’t hate foam rolling, balls, tools rehab, exercises, release and these treatments either. I also don’t magically “adjust” away the pain like my amigos on TikTok push. I use all and any of these things. I do some sort of muscle/fascia/mapping technique on nearly every single client that comes in, with every single visit.
The difference is, I don’t use them all. Or more. Or harder. Or deeper.
I use what is appropriate for the condition. I test and re-test each visit, sometimes 3-4 times within that one visit to see what is working and what is not. I think like a detective (link) and try to solve the mystery. I don’t guess or have a favorite or decide ahead of time.
Please browse around this website and the SportsDocDC YouTube channel. I’ll show you a better way. I don’t use or teach the tools the way I learned them.
Everything has evolved!
“First thing’s First – Find out WHY you are tight. There can be multiple reasons why and each reason has a different approach and unique fix.”
Seems better doesn’t it? Not a one treatment fixes all approach?
Stay tuned to this page because one of my next articles will be even more basic.
Just by stopping for a second to acknowledge, “This is the back, this is the foot, this is the shoulder.” you can gain great insight into how the body reacts and therefore have a more clear direction on what treatments get you fixed, FASTER!
Hopefully, none of this comes at you prompting this reaction: “OH NO! That’s just too much thinking. I’ll never be able to figure out what I should do!” but more so, “Ahhh, I get it now! (lightbulb cartoon above the head) Now I can make better decisions for my own health.
Let’s get some more info out there, maybe this time you can make a better decision.
4 Reasons why you experience muscle tightness AND how treatment differ
- A basic muscle contraction. (short muscle tightness)
So this is the basic, what everyone thinks they have. You could have a muscle that is just a little too tight and needs a stretch. Think of a bicep flexed.
The muscle is shortened, the joints come a bit closer together and you just need to relax this baby. This istypicallyl a day or two after the gym, after a long ru,n or when starting up exercise again. Muscles can and do get “tight” and some of the basic stuff from our high school track days still apply. Throw a little heat in there like a hot shower or manual work like a massage and man, “that feels gooooood”
Stretch is definitely a treatment option for this type of tightness and moderately “OK” for warm-up, as in, it won’t hurt you. But there are better warmup ideas than a stretch –it’s the future after all
But, I’d bet this is NOT what you have.
If you’re to the point you’re seeking advice and medical help, keep reading.
Here’s the rub (the 1st of multiple) – this is almost NEVER what happens with an injury.
It is also almost NEVER what happens with long term pain and tightness.
version 2 is the exact opposite…
- An elongation of a muscle (long muscle tightness)
This might seem counter intuitive.
Most muscle injuries and in my opinion, nearly ALL OF THEM on your posterior side, such as:
1) Hamstrings, (pulled hammy)
2) Low back,
3) Upper back and neck “I hold all my tension here” &
4) Butt (think sciatic stuff here) are almost always muscles that are too long.
“WHAT?? Tight muscles that are too long? ..puh! impossible!”
I’ll explain. Keeping with our earlier analogy of the flexed bicep.
Go ahead, flex that baby – nice…feel your bicep flexed. “Tight”
Now, straighten your arm. All the way, as if you were going to hyper extend your elbow. Funny how the bicep still seems “tight” isn’t it?
That’s right, despite being too long, that elastic muscle is still way too tight and hence, the mistake that most of us make when self-treating. It may be a different VERSION OF TIGHT.
If we just touch aka “palpation” we get “tight” as our feedback. Remember when I mentioned that I’m introduced as the guy that hated stretching? I don’t hate stretch, I hate the word “tight.”
Tight describes what I feel but not what is going on. I’d prefer short/long or contracted/ elongated. It’s a better description and would improve treatments in the clinic. More importantly, Understanding this would REVOLUTIONIZE home treatment!
Elongation of a muscle shouldn’t stretch at all, it should shorten into a more proper and pain-free position.
How does this apply to you? I’ll tell you first how it applies to me. I see people in my clinic that have had the same IT band issue or “sciatic tightness” and have diligently stretched the area for weeks with no change.
They are treating it all wrong.. the 90’s style. How it applies to you is that often, YOU are the fool doing it all wrong. So stop it!
“But it feels so good..” please… (see) Therapy vs Therapeutic…And why you’re screwed.
True, extra blood to the area does feel good but you are creating a poor therapy loop and not improving your condition and you are seriously hijacking your recovery. I don’t care what feels good, you want to improve, yes?
The problem is with “flexibility.” A term that is thrown around way too much and should have basically died in the 1990s. In the modern era, we want to look at “mobility” or simply, how the body works in movement. I don’t care so much about your hamstring flexibility when tested by a sit and reach test but more about how your hamstring works in a real-world real-world application such as the back, hip, knee, and ankle all bending together as you lift something off the ground…MOBILITY!
Remember in the ’90s when an Olympian or NFL player went down with a hammy? The trainer would run out and immediately start stretching that baby. Have you ever seen that nowadays? NO WAY! –maybe for a cramp (keep reading, this one is down below) Electrolytes – Dude, You need some but not a pulled muscle. The hammy almost always is injured in a “fast stretch” elongation injury. DON’T stretch it. Despite what your coach and PE teacher back in the day taught you. That era is dead, there’s a better version now!
Moral of the story here? Don’t stretch it unless you know for sure.
Could you be OVERSTRETCHING? Yeah…not “could you?” You are!
My advice… assume elongation – I think it’s about 90% of the cases. I can test most areas to see, you may or may not be able to do so. I don’t know your education or body awareness. I don’t have the book out yet to explain this all, but I’ll try my best on this website!.
I will offer you this though. Try whatever you want but if you don’t feel serious improvement, say 85% better sensation AND movement in about 4 treatments try something different than what you’re doing. In other words, If you’ve tried something 4 times and it hasn’t helped, try something else, possibly the opposite.
A year of, “It’s just not stretching, think I need to stretch more?” is crazy talk. Try something different. How do you think I figured all this out anyway?
3. Protection along the spine
This is the big papa of them all. You will almost always get moderate to severe muscle spasm with any issue around the spine. Simple but painful conditions like a rib out of place (link) or a disc strain (link) cause a HUGE spasm, and because of that spasm – a HUGE amount of MIS – TREATMENT.
I can explain this as well.
This time let’s imagine a sprained ankle – immobile, black and blue, and swollen up like a thanksgiving turkey. OUCH – Now you all know not to heat and stretch this injury correct? The acronym RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) has made it common for recovery and first aid even my grade-schoolers understand.
“So what Chad? It’s not my ankle that hurts right now, My freaking back is all locked up and killing me!”
Well, most issues along the spine are like this, they are sprains and stress to connective tissues…the new sports med term – is “threats” to the area.
And as promised, Rub #2 –Despite the injury being physiologically similar to the sprained ankle, the spine reacts differently than the sprained ankle. It really can’t allow for swelling like the ankle because there is all kinds of important stuff in that area. Lots of nerves, important blood vessels and oh yeah, the spine. That’s important. So the body being the miracle of God that it is finds another way to immobilize the area and make it tough to move around so you don’t make it worse by being stupid. It locks up all the muscles in the area. Like I say in the clinic, “The brain doesn’t want you bowling tonight.”
The lock down is a protection mechanism to slow you down and not allow you to bend and twist quickly. (I hear “I couldn’t turn my neck to back out of the driveway today.”)
That’s smart! Your body is thinking for you…
The trouble is, it’s a muscle that’s all spasmed and tightened and easy to feel because it’s TIGHT.
So all of us- you, the doctors, chiros, massage therapists, PT’s, foam roller masters, trainers or well wishing friends and family can feel this.
“Darn Mel, that’s one tight back, you want me to sit on you and stretch that out for ya?”
But see, the muscle isn’t the issue. The issue is the disc or the rib and although usually a very simple and small issue, it hurts like crazy because there are millions of nerves RIGHT THERE so you want to DO SOMETHING. Remember, the issue is NOT the muscle – most likely its inflammation at the strain. Inflammation doesn’t respond well to heat at all. Nor stretch, Nor Therapy Balls, Nor massage, Nor metal Tools, doorknobs, desk Corners, or your spouse’s best intentions and rubdowns.
In fact, all your best intentions to relax the muscle, bring some heat to the area, and stretch it out have an immediate feedback loop to your sore body. The injured area feels this and relays the info to your brain, similar to this…(use airline terminal voice) ”Say brain, I’m getting some strange responses here. Too much movement, inflammation is getting worse and this just isn’t safe, why don’t you just ratchet up this muscle a little tighter for a while until we’re out of the storm.”
An ever continuing spiral of despair and pain and this can go on for weeks! Basically starting over day 1 every. single. morning. The same loop the tweaked hamstring goes through.
Treat the inflammation. Treat the actual problem. Ice that thing. Inflammatory control treatment all the way, or at a minimum, at least don’t heat it and stretch it and do the wrong thing!
You’ve heard the poor advice…48 hours of ice, followed by 48 hours of heat and then contrasting ice and then 48 hours of heat sounded good from your coach in high school and all of us have heard this great-sounding-but-based-on-nothing-other-than-sounding-good-and-easy-to-remember-seminar-type-advice.
That advice is wrong – 1990s advice and outdated. If it’s inflamed treat it as such, treat the problem, not the spasm!”
Some athletes are inflamed for weeks because of their sport, some people have immune problems (rheumatoid issues, arthritis) or dietary reactions (IBS, colitis) that keep them inflamed for weeks, some people have to go to work or have kids or live a real-life and keep it inflamed day after day.
Here’s another way I can maybe help out. I ask all my clients 2 questions for any back issue.
Q1) Does your injury respond to anti-inflammatory (think Advil or Aleve) medication?
Does this make it feel better, even takes off the edge?
If yes, guess what? You’re inflamed. There’s no pain reliever in most anti-inflammatories, just anti-inflammatory…so if that works, adding stretch and or heat, which brings more blood is a “pro-inflammatory”.
You are basically doing the opposite of the medicine.
Despite that “slap your forehead and say ‘a-ha’ – cartoon light bulb floating above your cranium” moment I still hear the standard low back protocol at the ER is 800 mg Ibuprofen and a hot shower or massage. BUZZ, wrong.. they are the opposites, a chemistry equation that does not equal – This terrible advice is why my clinic is so busy! We can all be better. We’re all smart and can figure this stuff out.
Q2) Does a hot shower make it feel great….for like ten minutes and then you can’t put on your socks because the pain returns so quickly.
Right. C’mon man. I don’t need to explain this all again.
I’m including this brief Follow up because people naturally just want to hear what they already believe and a couple of these ideas may have just shaken your belief system. I’ve been doing this for 15 years so I’m going to give you a little bonus Q and A.
(the Q is the patient, the A is me..)
A: “Sorry. I know, ice doesn’t feel as therapeutic as heat – but often what feels good does not equal healing you for some conditions.”
Q: “something that small, like a little strain, can’t hurt like this right? This is a 9/10 here doc”
A: “Have you ever had a paper cut? A piece of dust in your eye?”
Right, pain is such a liar. Pain is simply the signal. The “ENGINE MAINTENANCE” light. Most often it’s all dependent on the number of nerves in the area that dictate the pain not the severity of the injury. There are tons of nerves in the fingers, eyeballs, reproductive organs and along the ribs and discs, they hurt.
#4 Common Reason for “tight“
Cramps, Spasms or Charlie horse. These are typically an easy fix, as it’s usually nutritional. You most likely need electrolytes in your system…
This article has become much longer than I expected and Electrolytes are such a huge issue I’ll not go into detail about it today. I have more on this website and podcast however so learn about it. Electrolytes are typically thought of as a dehydration issue and that’s true, they are. But they are also a critical part of the neurotransmitter system. Basically, how the brain controls the muscles.
If you get cramps at all, usually in the feet and calves the house bet is on you needing electrolytes. Get some.
Rub 3 – You can also have more than 1 of these 4 problems. Say, a disc strain in the lower back and depleted electrolytes, which is very common. (literally 20% of my career!) Your fix is to start taking the electrolytes and start inflammation protocol. All the stretch in the world and time off, rest, and recovery isn’t going to get you better. Slow outdated ideas offering little benefit.
Q: “Screw you Mr. know-it-all think your so smart doctor guy. I’m just going to do what I believe is right despite all the long term fails.”
A: OK, I made that one up, only a handful of people really tell me that.
But they think that…We all seek advice we already believe is true.
Just remember the 4 application theory I mentioned earlier. Try whatever the heck you want to try. 4 times. If you aren’t significantly better, however, try something new, perhaps the above advice, and see if it doesn’t help you make better-informed decisions on your health and on your own body.
I know this article was a little longer and I preach all through this website, “simple explanation.”
Explanation takes time the first time through and I hate advice without knowing the “why.”
Now it should be simple to understand.
Like Biggie said, “And if you don’t know, now you know!