The whole “short vs tight” muscles is always a debate between personal trainers, physiotherapists, athletes, and almost anyone else who has any idea about anatomy or biomechanics. Many people think that they need to keep “stretching and stretching” to get rid of any problem they might encounter, but believe it or not, this may not be the case, and it may do more harm than good!
In this case, do you think you should stretch a short muscle or a tight muscle?
I’ll start with explaining what the differences are:
A short muscle is an anatomical differentiation, which causes the muscle to be unable to move to its full extent during movement, and can prevent overall flexibility, despite how you try to treat it. A short muscle can limit your ability to do functional activities such as bending over to pick up an item. Although the term generally used is “short”, it doesn’t always mean that the muscle is actually physically short, it may be able to stretch, but just requires more force to do so. A great example of this is loading a bar to do a back squat and holding in a deep squat position, of doing PNF stretching to release the muscle past it’s pain point.
A tight muscle is when the muscle is under excessive tension and is unable to relax. This can be caused by many different reasons, mainly to do with the muscle being overworked. A tight muscle can cause pain, as well as limit your function. In order to come to grips with this concept, think about how you feel after a workout. Your muscles are generally higher in tone for the first 1-2 days, but should generally subside as the days go by. In this case, the experience should be acute, and doesn’t require a ton of stretching to fix the problem.
If you try to stretch a tight muscle, you are likely just adding to the stimuli that are causing it to over contract in the first place, which can then exacerbate the tightness further.
I want you to remember these concepts for my future articles, and why I may advise for or against certain techniques for certain injuries!
Gleim, G. W., & McHugh, M. P. (1997). Flexibility and its effects on sports injury and performance. Sports medicine, 24(5), 289-299.
Aquino, C. F., Fonseca, S. T., Gonçalves, G. G., Silva, P. L., Ocarino, J. M., & Mancini, M. C. (2010). Stretching versus strength training in lengthened position in subjects with tight hamstring muscles: a randomized controlled trial. Manual therapy, 15(1), 26-31.
Ylinen, J., Kankainen, T., Kautiainen, H., Rezasoltani, A., Kuukkanen, T., & Häkkinen, A. (2009). Effect of stretching on hamstring muscle compliance. Journal of rehabilitation medicine, 41(1), 80-84.
Hill, D. K. (1968). Tension due to interaction between the sliding filaments in resting striated muscle. The effect of stimulation. The Journal of physiology, 199(3), 637-684.