What you need to know: Many healthcare providers and trainers poorly understand why someone 'feels tight'. Dealing with muscle tightness is not as simple as just stretching.
The human body is designed to move and movement requires varying amounts of stability and motion. When movement occurs, patterns of stability and motion can occur in efficient or inefficient ways. As structures accommodate movement, the load placed on everything from joints to muscles and tendons to nerves changes and these changes can produce symptoms. In the process of wanting to avoid symptoms, the body will often develop compensation patterns. A common result of this compensation process is the feeling of being 'tight' or 'tension'. This tension serves a protective role, thus it is referred to as protective tension.
The development of protective tension and the reason behind its presentation is one of the least understood mechanisms in musculoskeletal care. The body is smart enough to constantly monitor loads and prevent excessive load of any given structure to ultimately help prevent injury. If you are feeling 'tight', there is a reason and your body is sending you a signal. However, many people will ignore this signal until more pressing issues develop, such as pain. So how does one handle a muscle that 'feels tight'? Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as just stretching. Stretching often provides temporary relief because of underlying joint dysfunction, stability and/or mobility deficits, or muscular weaknesses that need addressed.
According to research conducted by Dr. Stuart McGill, "People with back pain actually have stronger backs than people without back pain, so weakness is not the culprit." In our experience in both treating and training individuals suffering from low back pain, there are three common factors that seems to play a central role:
1) Breathing Pattern - of all the factors that play a role in back pain, breathing is the one that gets dismissed the easiest or patient's are quick to write-off as irrelevant. Truth of the matter is breathing plays a HUGE role. The diaphragm is our primary muscle for respiration AND serves as a deep stabilizer to the lumbar spine. If breathing is not normalized, no other movement in the human body can be. Breathing is that critical. Learning to properly breathing and integrate proper breathing into movement must be learned or else the rest of the stabilizing system of the spine will remain dysfunctional, continuing to contribute to pain.
2) Core Stability & Endurance - in order to build a resilient spine, the core must be stable and conditioned well enough to handle the demands of either daily living, exercise, or sport. The core does require higher levels of muscular endurance which must first be established before more specific qualities of strength or power can be trained. While training for endurance or strength, it's critical that one is aware of their core as it relates to static and dynamic postures in order to maintain stability that spares the joints and discs of the low back.
3) Hip Mobility - stiffness or tightness in the hips will ultimately result in more motion and stress being placed on the low back. The hips are designed for movement and when they get tight this will cause one to bend or twist too often in the low back region. Repetitive motions such as bending and twisting are commonly associated with low back pain. Simply put, the lower back is not designed for repetitive, excessive motion. Improving hip mobility will begin with proper breathing and the learned skill of proper core stability in posture and movement (do you see the theme here?) Then from there, specialized attention must be given to the musculature of the hips and core to correct imbalances and improve overall function.
To sum up - learn to breathe properly, stabilize the core, develop mobile/athletic hips.
More related reading:
“In North America, athletes start playing a sport as unprepared youth with no background in general conditioning. This isn’t always true, but we have no system to condition young athletes besides just playing the sport. In an Eastern model, camps are held without a sport focus to condition young athletes, and the specialization comes later. In general, early specialization is a mistake. This has been proven to limit progress, lead to early burnout, and increase injury rate.”Certainly in an ideal situation, young athletes would be introduced to general conditioning prior to sport participation. Likewise, prior to the initiation of a general conditioning program and/or sport participation, young athletes should be screened to provide an understanding of any structural adaptations that will require individualized considerations to ensure continual progress in the pursuit of achieving athletic mastery and minimize the risk of serious injury.
"After an injury tissues heal, but muscles learn. They readily develop habits of guarding that outlast the injury" - Janet Travell, MDGuarding after an injury is normal and it is to be expected. However, when left unidentified and untreated, guarding or protective patterns can become common reasons for chronicity and why someone "hasn't got better". This is why we must go beyond structural injury and think function in treatment rehabilitation.