Muscles that are chronically tense and knotted need more than passive stretching to regain flexibility. Since tense muscles are a main cause of chronic back pain and other pain conditions, it is important to be aware of how to relieve muscle tension.
Muscles become chronically tense due to injury, poor posture, repetitive use or improper training. Knots called trigger points often develop in tight bands of muscle fibers and the connective tissue surrounding muscles called myofascia. Trigger points are isolated spasms of tissue that can cause localized and referred pain, as well as making it even harder to relax the tense muscle.
Passive stretching, involving the use of a body part or other surface to hold our stretched muscle in position, is ineffective at relieving chronically tense muscles and trigger points. Examples of passive stretches are splits, where the floor is supporting the legs, or the popular quad stretch in which you hold your heel up to your buttocks with your hand. If anything, the spasmodic knots may tighten up even more in reaction to the attempt at lengthening the muscle fibers; this can be a form of self-protection to prevent tearing.
It is possible to restore length, strength and flexibility to tight muscles with the following techniques.
Myofascial release can be sought from a practitioner or self-administered. A specialist trained in myofascial bodywork can locate trigger points and use hands-on techniques to release the spasmodic bundles of tissue. Bodywork techniques are also employed to lengthen the whole muscle.
Self-myofascial release (SMR) involves the use of a foam roller or other dense, round object. To practice SMR, you roll over the tense muscle with the roller between your body and the floor. Pause on the tenderest spots (the knots) and hold for 30-45 seconds. Done twice a day and before and after workouts, SMR can provide sufficient relief to some.
Active stretching employs the principle of reciprocal inhibition. This principle plays out between what are called agonist and antagonist muscles. These muscle groups are situated on opposite sides of a joint and facilitate opposing motions. An example of such opposing muscles is the hamstring and quadriceps; the quadriceps extend the knee whereas the hamstring flexes it. The principle of reciprocal inhibition states that activation of an agonist muscle causes inhibition of the antagonist through nueronal communication. When the quadriceps activate, a motor neuron signal is sent from the quadriceps through the spinal cord to the hamstring inhibiting its activation. This encourages the hamstring to relax and stretch.
Active stretching has an added advantage of strengthening agonist muscles (the ones being activated in the stretch). Muscle imbalances involve strength and length differences between muscles; the tighter muscle is shorter and stronger than the opposing muscle, which is weak and overstretched. In reality, both muscles are weak, since a strained, tense muscle cannot work hard. Active stretching restores length to overly tight muscles, which will lead to strength, and strengthens weaker opposing muscles by activating them.