Muscle Stiffness

By Coach Dave


Tight muscles, stiff muscles, and sore muscles these are all things we have dealt with at some point in our lives. Sometimes we spend countless hours trying to fix this problem, stretching or foam rolling, but with no results. It might just be because the treatment you chose for your problem isn't the right one to use. Let's explore this further.

Types of Muscle Stiffness

To begin, there are various types of muscle stiffness, each having different causative mechanisms and thus different treatment methods.

In some cases, this stiffness that is felt could very well be due to your anatomy, in terms of shape and length of bones, and where your muscles attach from bone to bone. If a muscle is anatomically shorter based on its attachment points, certain ranges of motion will be harder to achieve. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (I will touch on this later). Performing certain movements may create a lot of tension, as the muscle cannot stretch past a certain point.

Something that is often confused with muscle tightness is neural tension. If a nerve is impinged or is being pressed between multiple structures (muscle, fascia, connective tissue) this can create a sensation that you cannot move a joint past a certain point. Just by releasing this nerve impingement, you can increase range of motion almost instantaneously.

Muscle hypertonicity is one of the few causes for tightness that is directly attributable to the muscle itself. When one uses a muscle excessively (such as hockey players, soccer players and other sprinting athletes using their hip flexors) these muscles will constantly be in a state of contraction and will always be tight. Others who might have jobs that require redundant postures or movements may also deal with this mechanism.

Finally there is tension that we feel when we are done a training session (either immediately, or a day or two after). This tension is related to fascia.


Fascia is a type of connective tissue that surrounds muscles (sort of like a casing). It is very restrictive and is highly sensitive to pain or discomfort related to tightness/stiffness. With any physical activity, as we put more stress on the fascia, it adapts and becomes thicker which makes it tighter. This can be both good and bad. It is good because it makes our muscles stronger and protects these muscles and other structures. It is also bad, because with too much tightness we lose range of motion. Fascia is the main tissue for limiting range of motion or stretch capabilities of a muscle, not the muscle itself.

Contrary to popular belief, the soreness we feel after a tough workout (commonly known as delayed onset muscle soreness DOMS) is not due to lactic acid buildup in the muscle. Studies have shown that it is in fact the tightness and compression on the fascia that causes pain. Stretching, may give a very temporary relief of tightness, but will not fix the problem.

In Part II of this series, we will take a look at some techniques for release.