Let’s figure out some common causes for muscle tightness, and what can actually be done about it. 

One of the most common questions we get in our clinic is why muscles get tight? They feel like they can never get ahead of their tight muscles and are super frustrated. Can you relate? Let’s take a look at some of the common causes for muscle tightness. 


One of the most common sensations that people report is that they’re tight in certain muscle groups. They might be able to bend further or they have more flexibility in other areas. We get this a lot with gymnast or dancers who have an insane amount of range of motion. Yet, they still feel like they’re always tight. They’re always pushing into their hips to try to feel more stable. Why can you feel so tight, but be so flexible? It’s really important that you know that a short muscle is not the same thing as a tight muscle. 

physical therapy calves


What is a shortened muscle?

Muscles can only do a couple of things, tighten and relax. Now in the case of a shortened muscle, the muscle has actually become physically shortened and lost length. Imagine you had one length 

of rope and you chop a little bit of it off to make it physically shorter. Now this is not the same as if we twisted the rope up to make it tight (then it appears shorter). You would still have the same amount of length in that rope. It would just be twisted up to appear shorter.


Muscle shortening is mostly a result of not using a range of motion for a very long period of time. Now the reasons that it (in essence) each muscle has a length that is optimal for producing force. When a muscle is put into a shortened position for a long time (such as the calf muscle when wearing heels), the body will actually reduce the available length of the muscle. This typically ends up causing an issue when someone starts to try using a greater range of motion by picking up a new exercise program. Their mobility is dramatically reduced and injuries occur, which is when they notice the tightness. 


Causes for Muscles Tightness:

Below we will dive into each of the common causes for muscle tightness.



Overuse typically occurs with faulty movement patterns. For example, if someone bends forwards from the waist instead of their hips the back muscles get overworked. This is because they’re doing all that work to get them back up. If you’re someone with back stiffness and your hips don’t bend very well, this might be you.  


An individuals typical response to tightness is to stretch,  foam roll, or go to a massage therapist. This is only met with temporary relief. You feel good for a few hours, sometimes a few days. Over time, what you start to notice is that as you get further and further from that initial treatment. You start getting shorter and shorter results. It’s really this vicious cycle. The best way to get it addressed is to take a look at what’s actually causing you to overuse those muscles. 


The second thing is dehydration. Dehydration is big, especially here in Arizona. When you’re dehydrated your body loses the ability to get necessary nutrients to the muscles. The blood doesn’t flow through your blood vessels as well. The blood is what carries oxygen to the muscles. This oxygen is what helps the muscles to actually relax and recover. When they can’t relax and recover, they stay tightened up. This is what affects their ability to get blood out, which means that new blood can’t get in. If new blood can’t get in, new oxygen can’t get in. Causing the muscles to become even more fatigued and more exhausted.


As a general recommendation, you should try to drink about half your body weight of water in ounces every day (and no coffee and tea do not count). If you’re doing anything strenuous and you live in a dry climate, you need to add an additional 10 to 20% to account for the water that you’re losing. 



The third reason that muscles get tight is injury. Muscles tighten protectively when they feel that something in the body is at danger of being injured. Many times the tightness and mobility restrictions can precede this sensation of pain or injury. You will start feeling like you’re getting stiffer. This occurs before you actually feel the pain in the joint. Muscles can also tighten in the case of a misalignment, particularly in the lumbo pelvic area. If you’re having pain in an area that seems to be associated with muscle tightness, you need to see if your pelvis might be misaligned. Any other misalignment might be contributing to the muscles tightening up as a responsive compensation to instability in a nearby joint.


Weak Muscles in Neighboring Joints:

One of the most common causes that we see muscle tightness is because of weak muscles in neighboring joints. In the hip for example, there can be small hip muscles that are supposed to stabilize your hip that are not doing their job effectively. Your brain will realize that there’s not enough stability in that hip and call on your quads, hamstrings, even your TFL. They’ll tighten all these things to try to make up for the lack of stability that’s in the hip.


Our first response is typically to start stretching our quads, stretching our hamstrings and foam rolling it bands, but it doesn’t have any effect. That’s because the reason that those things are tight is because of the instability in the joint itself. The only true solution is figuring out which muscles those are compensating for and strengthening them up in a progressive resistance training program. 



The other reason that muscles can tighten is stress. Stress can take on many forms and can contribute to why muscles get tight. It can be from lack of sleep. Or it can be from poor sleep hygiene (like drinking alcohol before you go to bed every night and drinking caffeine past 5:00 pm) which just completely disrupts your sleep cycle. Disruptions in your sleep cycle never allows your muscles to fully recover. You can get stressed due to poor nutrition, daily interactions with certain individuals you know, and most of the time that stress can be felt in a particular area of the body depending on the individual. Chances are that if you get stressed, you feel it in an area where you have some sort of physical pain or discomfort already.


If you find that you’re frequently feeling that type of stress, try addressing the components that you actually have control over. While you might not be able to control that individual who cause you stress, there are things you can control. You can start by getting a full night’s sleep, not drinking before bed, get that seven and a half to eight and a half hours for most adults, and avoiding caffeine past 2 pm to help you sleep better. You might be able to speak with the nutritionist to help give you some valuable insights as to your eating habits. Then get frequent exercise. Exercise can help improve your stress and can get the blood flowing to those tight restricted muscles so that they can actually relax and heal so they stay hydrated. Do what you can to avoid stress.


Surgery VS Physical Therapy

You may not have known some of the common causes for muscle tightness and may have related that tightness to something else. A lot of people end up getting unnecessary surgeries because of something that starts as tight muscles and those tight muscles cause compression in the joints over time. That compression turns into arthritis. Then you get convinced to do something for the arthritis. Eventually it ends up being a knee replacement. Chances are it could have been taken care of with physical therapy.


Everything in the body works together. If you’re having any sort of muscle tightness and it is aggravating the heck out of you and any of this struck a chord. Waste no time. Find a physical therapist who specializes in strength. One who specializes in movement. That can really helps you identify what those muscles are and helps them get stronger. This way you don’t have to even consider replacing one of your joints down the road.