If you have “tight muscles” or muscles that always feel tense, you’ve heard of massage. You’ve probably had a friend or loved one give a massage to your stiff, tense muscles. You may have shelled out a few hundred or thousand dollars to massage therapists to fix your knots.
If you’re a gym rat or athlete of any kind, you’ve heard of self-myofascial release. You’ve foam rolled your aching muscles to aid your recovery from tough workouts and to improve your range of motion. We’re going to call that massage or self-massage.
But have you ever figured out when massage is NOT good for you? When self-myofascial release might be a waste of time?
In this article, we’re going to look at when and why massage works - and what to do when it doesn’t.
By the end of the article, you'll understand why massaging chronically stiff muscles for months can be so frustrating, why myofascial release can feel miraculous (sometimes), and what alternative strategies you can use to deal with muscles that feel tight all the time.
When massage is good for tight muscles
Massage can be great for improving a muscle’s extensibility for a short period. This means it helps muscle relax and lengthen.
Muscles can get stuck in shortened positions from exertion (like an intense workout or a long day hauling dirt). Muscles can also get stuck in shortened positions from being stuck there for long periods of time (like the muscles on the front of your hip after you’ve been sitting in a chair for ten hours).
If you've spent a few hours lifting weights or moving furniture, you’re familiar with the muscle shortening that happens the day or two after. You feel like you can’t bend over. All the muscles responsible for standing up and lifting heavy stuff are short. They are reluctant to lengthen and allow you to bend over to pick up more stuff!
These short muscles make you feel stiff and stuck.
Because you are stuck.
And if you’ve ever sat on the couch for four hours watching an epic documentary series, you know what muscle shortening is. When you go to stand up, you find it hard to actually stand. Your muscles have learned to keep you in the “couch position.” They need to be reminded how to lengthen and allow the standing upright position.
When muscles are locked in a shortened position, massage relaxes the muscles and tells them to get longer. This can relieve a sense of muscle tightness and stiffnesss. Massage that targets the right muscles can thereby improve joint range of motion (i.e. let bend over or stand up straight in our previous examples).
However, contrary to what massage proponents are trained to believe, massage will NOT fix “tight” muscles in all cases. (*note: I practiced as a bodyworker for years and was a graduate of the Rolf Institute) In some cases, massage will make no difference or make your whole body feel worse.
If you’ve ever had the frustrating experience of muscles that just won’t stop feeling tight despite hundreds of massages and specialized bodywork treatments, keep reading.
Understanding short, "tense" muscles
To understand why massage doesn’t work all the time for muscles that feel tight, we need to understand muscle “tightness” and what it means for a muscle to be shortened.
Let’s look at a clear example.
Many people have inner thigh muscles that are locked into a short position. Whether you’re a man or woman, it’s generally frowned upon to sit or stand with legs splayed wide open. From personal experience, I can say that men don’t like exposing their nuts to random attacks. And it’s rare to see anyone of any sex meandering down the street doing the splits; it’s not an efficient way of getting from point A to point B.
The odds you work in this position are low.
Muscles in a shortened state cause problems. They reduce available range of motion. Short muscles create inefficient paths of movement. A shortened muscle may cause two bones to collide prematurely. This can trap or pinch soft tissue (fascia, muscle, tendon, ligament, etc.) in between those bones which will be painful. This leads to discomfort and paint.
In addition, a muscle’s strength is affected by length. Left in a short position, a muscle will atrophy.
At a microscopic level, sarcomeres will be destroyed (these are the little guys responsible for creating contraction in your muscles). When it comes time to contract in a lengthened OR shortened position, the muscle will be unable produce force. This means the muscle can’t contract as hard in ANY position.
Put another way, if the muscle is stuck short for a long period, it will lose strength AND the ability to achieve length.
Now, there are some people who are hard-wired to be flexible without any dedicated stretching or mobility regimens. Sometimes this is a genetic gift or from years of gymnastics and dance in childhood. Even after exertion and/or chronic sitting, their muscles magically retain the ability to lengthen. These flexible people, however, are not immune to the atrophy of muscle that occurs with chronic shortening and disuse.
It’s common to see flexible women whose hamstrings feel “tight” all the time. They have no range of motion problems whatsoever. The hamstrings can lengthen without issue.
The “tight” sensation is still a result of atrophy.
Remember: nobody escapes the weakening effect of muscles being chronically short.
So when we have a man with short inner thigh muscles, we have a man who has weak inner thigh muscles. Those weak inner thigh muscles can feel stiff and tight.
They are “stiff” because they are unable to lengthen.
This reduces range of motion of the hip joint and commonly shows up as pain when you ask the man to achieve a variety of hip movements.
The muscles may feel “tight” or “sore” or “achy” because the muscles are weak and unable to meet the demands of the man’s activities (e.g. standing, balancing on one leg, walking up stairs, slightly spreading legs to step over objects, bending over, squatting to pick up a pencil, etc.)
For a very flexible dancer, they can still feel tight. Even though the muscles can lengthen without issue, the muscles are too weak to meet the demands of existing in gravity and moving the affected joints around properly.
How massage can fix stiff muscles
There are many physiological theories about how massage works. New information appears every year to revise our understanding of what’s happening with massage. We won’t delve into those theories because it’s an academic discussion that has no bearing on how we apply massage or myofascial release techniques. The effects are observable, whatever the fascinating underlying reasons.
Massage tells muscles to lengthen and relax.
After an intense bout of exercise, massage can help restore length. A whole day gardening in the backyard and you can’t bend over? Massage could be a good idea! Muscles that got stiff and short aren’t letting you move. Massage will tell those muscles to relax and lengthen again.This will help you get back to your normal range of motion.
Trying to improve range of motion in your hips? Massage of the inner thigh could be helpful up to a point. But it won’t be the panacea that gets you into the Van Damme splits.
Massage can relax and lengthen muscles only a small amount. And the results are temporary. To truly gain range of motion, you need to train muscles to work at that length.
Strength at every length.
Massage as a permanent solution for tight muscles and joint pain?
Now, I want to be clear. Sometimes the results of massage can seem permanent. In a best case scenario, the results of massage can seem like a permanent fix for a major joint problem.
Let's look at an example of how self-myofascial release could fix a dire problem, and then we’ll look at how it end up causing more frustration.
I once got an email from a young baseball pitcher’s mother. Her son had seen some of the top physical therapists in the U.S. to help with nagging shoulder issues.
In her desperate search for help, she came across my free Roll and Release self-massage program. One of the self-massage techniques targets the armpit area. This is where you latissimus dorsi muscles live (you have one on each side). For a baseball pitcher, this muscle contracts and shortens constantly. It’s necessary for the throwing motion.
As a young competitive pitcher, he had spent years practicing this same motion over and over. Like most young athletes, he never learned about proper self-care. Most doctors have zero clue how to care for muscles in the long run; it’s unlikely coaches and parents will have any helpful advice to give (*side note: it’s also unlikely most kids would LISTEN to a parent’s advice!).
After a few weeks of regularly massaging this area himself, the muscles had relaxed and lengthened. The area was no longer feeling stiff and painful. He was back to throwing fastballs without pain.
Of course, this was great news. This young pitcher learned the value of relaxing muscles he’d been contracting and shortening constantly. At that point in his life, given his training schedule and overall life, that was a workable and effective solution. It feels like a permanent solution because the proximal cause of his shoulder issues is the intensity of training the repetitive throwing motion. The constant training kept shortening up the muscles. The massage he’d added to his routine was counterbalancing that.
In the long run, however, he could get get caught thinking that a massage is the only thing necessary to fix the problem.
And thinking massage will fix all muscle and joint problems can be a problem in itself.
If he becomes a working adult with a job at a desk, he could likely experience shoulder pain in the future. But the average desk working adult doesn’t have a problem with repetitively firing the lats at high intensity. Most working adults have short, weak lats from sitting at the keyboard all day. Almost all of their shoulder muscles are weak. Massaging the lats might relieve shoulder pain temporarily.
But he will need to restore muscle balance around the entire shoulder girdle. Restoring strength to all the shoulder muscles will be necessary to restore range of motion and confidence in his shoulder.
Why and when massage doesn’t work for chronically tight muscles.
Remember how a muscle atrophies in a shortened position? Massage will tell the muscle to lengthen. Massage will not build strength in the muscle. The muscle will lack strength to function at the lengthened position.
For the pitcher in his stage of life, it’s not an issue. But for many adults, massage alone won’t fix muscles that feel “tight.”
Think again about the inner thigh muscles. Let’s say we want to get those inner thigh muscles to lengthen. We massage them. And massage them. And massage them. Each time we massage the inner thigh muscles, we get a little bit of extra length for a short bit of time (could be a few minutes, could be an hour, could be a day).
But the stiffness and shortness keep returning. Why? The inner thigh muscles will be too weak to truly own the extra length, and they will usually revert back within minutes or hours.
So what can you do to make muscles better at staying long? You need to contract muscles in lengthened positions. This will start the process of adding sarcomeres and building muscle strength at length. It teaches your brain how to talk to the muscles. It trains your body to own the new position.
Put another way: If you do not train your body to use the new range of motion, you will not keep the range of motion.
That’s why massage won’t help with chronically tense, weak muscles. You’re wasting your time if you think massage alone will make you more flexible.
This doesn’t mean you HAVE to get rid of massage from your self-care routine. If you find it helpful for you, keep using it.
If you choose to keep using massage to fix your tight muscles, this is how you do it.
First do some self massage on the muscles you want to lengthen. This tells those muscles to relax and lengthen.
Then you teach those muscles to contract at the new length. One simple way is to use contractions in the stretched position. That's the idea behind techniques like contract/relax.
Using contractions to build flexibility
The contraction part is key. You should use contractions of varying lengths and intensities to train muscles to be stronger in new positions.
The intensity of a contraction is how hard you try to contract the muscle. To understand this, make a fist. Keep it relaxed but obviously a fist. That’s 1-10% intensity. Now squeeze and tighten your fist AS HARD AS YOU CAN. That’s 100% intensity. Now do it at 50%. When doing it with your fist, you’re contracting muscles in your hand and forearm. You can apply the same idea to every other muscle in your body.
When you start with any muscle group, start with short, low/medium intensity contractions of 5 seconds. Aim for 20-40% of your max effort.
If you have trouble feeling the right muscles, you may want to lengthen the contraction period to 30 seconds and keep the intensity on the lower end of the 20-40% range. Sometimes holding it longer will help you feel fatigue gradually build up.
As you get better at feeling the right muscles working, you can play with increasing the intensity with shorter periods. Then, as you get really comfortable, increase the intensity AND the contraction period.
Again, to truly get better at a new length, the muscle must learn to contract there. This builds strength that the muscle can use in the lengthened AND the shortened position. You’re looking to build strength at every length.
Other ways to solidify new range of motion
Targeted contractions are crucial in establishing new range of motion. You can also use more complex movements that require your new range of motion.
This requires a little bit more understanding and thought.
For example, if I have done some inner thigh contract/relax work, I might want to follow it up with a movement like a cossack squat.
This is a cossack squat.
This helps me use the new strength and length in a novel and functional way (as of writing, one of my goals is to do a nice clean cossack squat while surfing my longboard).
The key is to think about how you can challenge your target muscles to use their new length and strength.
Now let’s talk about the worst time to keep massaging a “tight" muscle.
If you massage a muscle that’s already too weak, you may feel substantially worse in that muscle and/or around the affected joint. Flexible women who have “tight muscles” around their hips often report feeling worse after foam rolling their “tight glutes” or “tight hip flexors.” In these cases, the women have weak glutes and weak hip flexors.
These muscles have no problem with getting long. They just aren’t strong. Telling those muscles to relax more creates instability, and the body starts to complain. You may feel pinching, intense sensations, and/or a sense of looseness or laxity. This can be scary. You might get so afraid you think you need surgery.
Remember that muscles are the organ of movement. They determine your ability to move and position your body. If they don’t function well, you SHOULD feel it. It’s a feedback mechanism so you can manage and tend to your body! It doesn’t mean you’re broken or damaged and need drastic fixing.
By telling weak muscles to relax more, you disturb a delicate balance. To fix the problem, you don’t need surgery or MORE massage. You need to bring strength to the muscles! You need to build strength at every length.
The final word on massage for tense, stiff, weak muscles
In this article we’ve talked about massage (including self-massage / self-myofascial release). We’ve looked at situations where self-massage can be helpful, and we’ve looked at times where massage can give false hope.
To summarize, massage is best used in these scenarios:
Relax shortened muscles from bursts of exertion (heavy gardening work every few months)
Restoration of length for muscles that you repetitively contract (pitching baseballs all the time)
Temporary increase of length in conjunction with stretch/strength work
Massage can be frustrating or make things worse when:
You expect massage to permanently lengthen a muscle (it won’t)
You keep massaging a “tight” muscle that’s actually weak
Remember that massage can be a great tool to help you as you train your body. However, massage is only one tool to help you become a human that moves right and feels right.
Ultimately, you need strength in your muscles to feel capable and confident in your life.
Seek to develop strength at every length.
Train your body to be more flexible, strong, and resilient!
We are dedicated to helping the world think right, move right, and feel right.
We are movement coaches and researchers who help people beat chronic pain without drugs, pills, or unnecessary surgeries. We use practical, safe, and effective exercises to build confidence and resilience.