You’re diligent about stretching and foam rolling after each run, lifting session, and Aaptiv workout that you do. You even take Epsom salt baths and get the occasional massage, too. Yet, despite all your efforts, there’s still one stubborn area of your body—whether it’s the glutes, calves, or hamstrings that are always tight and refuses to loosen up. Nothing you can do, right?
Not exactly. It’s absolutely possible for muscles to be chronically tight, says Theresa Marko, DPT and board-certified clinical specialist in orthopeadics at Marko Physical Therapy in New York City. However, that doesn’t mean that you need to suffer or sacrifice effort in your workouts, she says.
Here’s a look at why your muscle groups may always feel tight, and what can be done so that you can find some relief.
Why are your muscles chronically tightening up, exactly?
Some common areas of the body that tend to get chronically tight include the following:
If you’re always trying to loosen up one of the above or another area of your body, there may be a few reasons why, Marko explains.
It might be hereditary
Your genetic makeup may make you more susceptible to tightness, Marko says. For example, if you have a lot of muscle tone vs. someone who doesn’t, you may notice tightness more—(someone with meaty calves vs. chicken legs, for example.) Marko says that this is often the case for people with chronically tight calf muscles.
You aren’t hydrated enough
Drinking enough H2O is important for your muscles and for lubricating your joints. Water helps provide nutrients to contracting muscles and removes waste. This helps you stay loose and ready for your next workout.
You’re holding onto stress
Chronic stress can show up in your muscles, too, whether you’re holding it in your neck or elsewhere.
There’s a muscle imbalance
If you’ve been working one side of your body more than the other or have been moving repeatedly in a certain way for years, that may have led to an imbalance that’s causing a tight trigger point, Marko explains.
There’s an underlying weakness
This is a big one to address if you are chronically tight, explains Jasmine Marcus, DPT from Ithaca, New York. “If you always feel tight in a muscle even after stretching it, it is most likely weak and not tight,” she says. “These muscles will sometimes seize up and guard so they feel tight, when really they are chronically weak and not strong enough to meet the demands you’re placing on them.”
Time to loosen up
If you’re chronically tight, stretching is likely not going to be enough, Marko says. “You must do tissue mobilization,” she recommends. “This means moving the tissue to free it up and release the trigger points. You can do this with your hand, a foam roller, a stick, or jack knobber.”
The other important step is to start to strengthen the area if it is weak, Marcus stresses. “The key is to stop stretching, and to strengthen these muscles,” she says. “The tightness feeling often goes away once the muscle is strong enough to meet the demands you’re placing on it.”
If you aren’t sure how to strengthen a tight area, a certified personal trainer or physical therapist can recommend exercises that can help.
And, while a massage may feel good in the short term, Marcus says it won’t be a long-term solution. “In the situation of chronically tight muscles, a massage therapist would not be helpful,” she says. “Massages feel good temporarily, but offer no long term solution.”
Is it time to see a doctor or physical therapist?
If you’ve been trying to stretch out on your own for a while, but still feel chronically tight, it may be time to work with a professional. This is, of course, a must if you are in pain or think you may be injured.
“The difference between chronically tight and injured is a fine line,” says Jesse Lewis, DPT and owner of District Performance and Physio in Washington, D.C. “Typically, I tell my clients that if the tightness is becoming worse or develops into pain then that’s a sign of injury. More importantly, if the tightness starts to limit or impact how or what you are doing for exercise then it is time to address it.”
Marko explains that a physical therapist can perform an assessment to see if you’re experiencing any muscle weakness or imbalances.
“A muscle is often tight because it is working too hard for another muscle that is weak and not pulling its weight,” she says. “A physical therapist will help you address this weakness, get stronger, and in turn, take load off that tight muscle.”