Massage and myofascial release are great for temporary pain relief, releasing tension, and to kickstart recovery, but you may need to add functional training to strengthen muscles and relieve tension and pain in the long-run.
The Pros and Cons of Massage and Myofascial Release
If your muscles always feel tight or tense, you’ve likely tried massage. You’ve probably had a friend or loved one give a massage to your stiff, tense shoulders or back. Or you may have even shelled out a few hundred or thousand dollars for massage therapists to fix your knots.
If you’re a gym rat or athlete, you’ve also tried, or at least 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 just going to call this type of work massage too, or self-massage.
But have you ever stopped to figure out when massage is NOT good for you? Or 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 counterproductive, why myofascial release can feel miraculous (sometimes), and what alternative strategies you can use to deal with muscles that feel tight all the time, even after massage.
When is Massage Good for Tight Muscles?
Muscles can get stuck in shortened positions from exertion (like an intense workout or a long day hauling dirt). They can also tense up in shortened positions from being stuck there for long periods of time (like the muscles on the front of your hips after you’ve been sitting in a chair for 10 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 have shortened. 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 how to help you stand upright again.
Massage can be great for addressing shortened and stuck muscles, as well as for improving a muscle’s extensibility.
This means massage helps muscles relax and lengthen, and can relieve a sense of muscle tightness and stiffness. But usually for just for a short period of time.
Massage that targets the right muscles can even improve joint range of motion (i.e. let you bend over or stand up straight in our previous examples).
However, contrary to popular belief, 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, we need to understand muscle tightness and what it means for a muscle to shorten.
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.
But by not moving in those ways, we often suffer from shortened, and tight, muscles.
Muscles in a shortened state cause problems. They reduce your 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 can be uncomfortable or painful.
In addition, a muscle’s strength is affected by length. Left in a short position, a muscle will atrophy.
At a microscopic level, sarcomeres—the little guys responsible for creating contractions in your muscles—will be destroyed when your muscles are in a shortened position for a long period of time. When it comes time to contract in a lengthened OR shortened position, the muscle won’t be able to produce force, in ANY position.
A muscle stuck in a shortened position for a long period 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 it can be from years of gymnastics and dance. Even after exertion or chronic sitting, their muscles magically retain the ability to lengthen.
But these flexible people are not immune to the atrophy of muscle that occurs with chronic shortening and disuse either.
It’s common to see flexible women whose hamstrings feel tight all the time.
They have no range of motion problems whatsoever and can lengthen their hamstrings without issue, but that tight sensation is still a result of atrophy.
Remember, nobody escapes the weakening effect of being sedentary. Even if you are flexible, you’ll lose strength by sitting all day. The thickness of your muscle gets smaller. So even if it is a long muscle, there is not enough mass to move functionally and feel good.
Stiff and tight muscles also indicate weak muscles.
Muscles feel stiff because they aren’t able to lengthen.
The inability to lengthen reduces someone’s range of motion. For example, someone with tight, weak inner thigh muscles will commonly lose range of motion in their hip joints and experience pain when asked to do a variety of hip movements.
Their muscles may feel tight, sore, or achy because they are weak and unable to meet the demands of activities (e.g. standing, balancing on one leg, walking up stairs, stepping over objects, bending over, squatting to pick up a pencil, etc.)
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 to a muscle.
Have you ever spent a whole day gardening in the backyard and then 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.
Massage isn’t a Permanent Solution for Tight Muscles and Joint Pain
Trying to improve the range of motion in your hips?
Massage of the inner thighs 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 every length.
Now, I want to be clear. Sometimes the results of massage can seem permanent, even for fixing a major joint problem.
Let's look at an example of how self-myofascial release seemed to fix a dire problem, and then how that fix could end up causing more frustration in the long-run.
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 the long-run, however, he will need more.
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, where your latissimus dorsi muscles live. For baseball pitchers, this muscle contracts and shortens constantly as they throw.
As a young competitive pitcher, this kid had spent years practicing the 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 (and it’s unlikely coaches and parents have any helpful advice in this area. It’s also unlikely that if they did, kids would listen!).
After a few weeks of regularly massaging this area himself, the young pitcher could relax and lengthen his shoulder. The area was no longer feeling stiff and painful. He was back to throwing fastballs without pain.
Of course, this was great news. This pitcher learned the value of relaxing muscles he contracted and shortened constantly in practice and games.
At that point in his life, given his training schedule and other life demands, self-massage was a workable and effective solution.
If he becomes a working adult with a job at a desk, he could likely experience shoulder pain in the future. The pain wouldn’t be from repetitively firing the lats at high intensity during pitching, rather it would be from sitting at the keyboard all day, which will shorten and weaken your lats and almost all other shoulder muscles.
Massaging his lats might relieve shoulder pain temporarily, as it did when he was a pitcher, but he’ll need to also restore muscle balance around his entire shoulder girdle, by doing shoulder-strengthening and lengthening exercises. Restoring strength to all the shoulder muscles will be necessary to restore range of motion and confidence in his shoulder.
Add Functional Training to Build Strength
Remember that a muscle atrophies in a shortened position. Massage will tell the muscle to lengthen, but it can’t build strength. A shortened muscle that has relaxed and lengthened through massage will still lack strength to function in that 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 to a shortened position within minutes or hours.
Or take the example of a recent client who suffered from neck pain and tension that led to severe headaches and even bouts of vertigo. She would go to the chiropractor for a quick fix, followed by massage, but the tension would come back in a matter of weeks. The idea of strength training was hard to imagine since she was in so much pain. But when she started exercises that both lengthened and strengthened muscles on the painful side of her neck, she started to access greater range of motion and less tension and pain.
So what is it that makes 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 your new range of motion, you will not keep the range of motion.
That’s why massage won’t help with chronically tense and weak muscles. You’re wasting your time if you think massage alone will make you more flexible.
This doesn’t mean you should remove massage from your self-care routine. If you find it helpful, keep using it!
If you choose to keep using massage to fix your tight muscles, this is how you do it:
1. First do some self-massage on the muscles you want to lengthen. This tells those muscles to relax and lengthen.
2. Then teach those muscles to contract at the new length. One simple way is to use contractions in the stretched position.
Here’s an example related to tight hips and contract and relax mobility work:
The contraction part is key. You should use contractions of varying lengths and intensities to train muscles to be stronger in new positions.
To understand this, make a fist, contracting the muscles in your hand and forearm. Keep it relaxed but still in the shape of a fist. That’s 1-10 percent intensity. Now squeeze and tighten your fist as hard as you can. That’s 100 percent intensity. Now do it at 50 percent. You can apply the same idea to every other muscle in your body.
Start with short, low or medium intensity contractions for five seconds. Aim for 20 to 40 percent 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 to 40 percent range.
As you get better at feeling the right muscles working, you can play with increasing the intensity and shortening the contraction periods. Then, as you get really comfortable, increase the intensity AND the contraction time.
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.
As always, you’re looking to build strength at every length.
Targeted contractions are crucial for establishing a new range of motion. You can also use more complex movements to maintain and improve upon that new range of motion.
This requires a little bit more understanding and thought.
For example, if I have done some contracting and relaxing inner thigh work, I might want to follow it up with a movement like a cossack squat.
This helps me use the new strength and length in a novel and functional way. For example, when surfing on my longboard, I can use a cossack squat to get low to the board and get some serious speed!
When NOT to Use Massage for Tight Muscles
If you massage a muscle that’s already too weak, you may feel substantially worse in that muscle or around the affected joint.
Flexible women who have tight muscles around their hips often report feeling worse after foam rolling their glutes or 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, 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.
Don't get lost in the latest orthopedic diagnoses. They inevitably lead to braces, injections, and surgeries that get exposed as being elaborate placebos decades later.
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 Best Use of Massage for Tight Muscles
In this article, we’ve talked about massage (including self-massage and self-myofascial release). We’ve looked at situations in which self-massage can be helpful, and we’ve looked at times when it can give false hope.
To summarize, massage is best used in these scenarios:
To relax shortened muscles from bursts of exertion (for example, heavy gardening work every few months)
To restore length to muscles that you repetitively contract (for example, pitching baseballs all the time)
To temporarily increase muscle length in conjunction with stretching and 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.
Massage can be problematic when it isn’t done properly. If you think massage can help you, try our free guided program for doing it correctly: Roll and Release.
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.