Just because a muscle feels tight doesn’t mean it is

Posted on May 4, 2018

(Last Updated On: May 4, 2018)

In a recent post on different massage techniques, I mentioned it’s crucial to differentiate between tight muscles and lengthened muscles when forming an exercise program or treatment.

One of the more common ways people and various fitness professionals (personal trainers, massage therapists, physical therapists, etc.) perform this differentiation is by asking the client/patient, “What feels tight?” In my experience this is often a poor way to do things and here’s why:

How often do you ever say something is tight when just lying in bed? For example, you just had a good leg workout. It’s unlikely you’d be lying in bed the next day and say to yourself, “Man, my legs feel tight.”

However, get out of bed, bend over to pick something up and you’re much more likely to think to yourself, “Man, the back of my legs are tight.”

In other words, you rarely ever notice a muscle being tight until it is stretched.

Therefore, sometimes when a client says something feels tight that’s because that muscle is actually stretched out, chronically. As this can often be a site of pain, this means the worst thing to do would be trying to stretch the muscle even further!

The most common example of this I see is with the neck and shoulders, especially in women. All the time women will say to me their neck feels tight and attribute it to stress. However, look at their neck/shoulders and they often resemble this:

Low shoulders

Low shoulders

Hanging shoulder

Only on right shoulder in this case

Looking at one of the muscles that attach from the neck to the shoulders (upper traps) we can see how the shoulders are hanging low compared to normal.

Depressed traps

Neutral position of shoulders on left, depressed position on right

Therefore, the upper traps are “looser” than normal. Meaning they are chronically stretched. Hence your neck feels tight, but it isn’t.

Trapezius and neck pain

Trapezius muscle

Like I said, I see this more in women due to things such as carrying purses, carrying children, the pull of bra straps on the outside of the shoulders (especially in women with larger breasts). Basically they engage in lots of activities that pull the shoulders down.

In this case, to help get rid of the tight feeling we actually want to tighten the upper traps. In fact, a lot of times you can make the person’s neck feel better by just lifting their arm up so their shoulder is closer to their neck, proving that scrunching the neck (form of tightening the upper traps) will give them pain relief. Or if the person is sitting, placing something under their elbows, so their arms aren’t hanging, will make them feel better.

This helps reassure the client that you’re not just talking out of your ass as they have probably never had their neck issue approached in this manner before.

Interestingly enough, look again at these pictures and you can see tape on the girl’s shoulders. That’s actually helping to pull the shoulders toward the neck (tightening effect). Reading her write-up here. She mentions this helped alleviate her pain tremendously. However, while she believes it to be related to the tape relaxing her upper traps, it’s really due to the tape helping the upper traps contract (tighten) better.

Notice the bra straps pulling the shoulders down



<–  Notice the line of pull of the tape is very similar to the line of pull of the traps –>





This helps illustrate how doing a stretch like the below, which is often prescribed for those with neck pain or neck “tightness,” is a terrible stretch in this case. The following stretch would actually be doing the opposite of what the tape is doing, stretching the neck even more!


If you’re performing various activities that pull the shoulders downward, the last thing you want to do is a stretch/exercise that pulls the shoulders down even more.

The stretch may feel nice in the interim, but that pain isn’t going anywhere long-term.

You can’t always go on how you feel.


Helping yourself isn’t as easy at it appears at first. Get one on one help from me instead.


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Posted in: Neck Pain, Pain