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How to tell the difference between muscle tightness and tautness
Runners are frequently anti-stretching because they’ve been told it will reduce performance. Yogis, on the other hand, feel like lengthening their muscles is a good thing. Yet both – as well as all humans, whether they’re competitive athletes or more sedentary folks – have imbalances caused by their repetitive lifestyles that can lead to joint instability and, ultimately, pain and injury.
It comes down to this: Are your muscles really tight and needing length or are they taut, meaning poor in tone, weakened, and over-lengthened? Or could it be something else altogether?
Tightness vs. Tautness
The perplexing aspect of the human body is sometimes we feel “tight” when in reality the areas of our body feeling stiff and inflexible are in fact not tight at all. That’s the sneaky issue of mismanaged tensional relationships. There’s always more than one thing going on – it is a relationship, meaning dual issues. Tight, taut, short, long… there’s always two sides to the story.
What’s important is learning to identify instability, compensation, and delays in response time and fixing these aspects we think are muscle problems, when in reality, muscles may be more the victim of neurological protection – a protective response that we sometimes unintentionally override by stretching something that’s holding on for dear life to keep our pelvis aligned or our head carriage upright.
So let’s talk about the difference so we’re all on the same page and can learn to identify whether the muscle is tight, taut, or if it’s actually your fascia simply screaming out for our help.
Well, muscle tightness is simple – two ends of something getting closer together, shortened, or compacted in length can be considered tight.
Conversely, taut is two ends of something getting further apart, lengthened, or stretched – even at rest.
When your muscle is at its resting length and it’s tight or taut, the reaction time, the responsiveness to motor impulse or sensory response can be delayed or inhibited. This can lead to joint injury, tendon or ligament tears, or muscle spasms and strain.
The feeling can be similar whether the area is tight or taut. Unless you fully understand which it is, stretching exercises can actually be harmful and cause more issues down the road.
The role of the fascia
Jim comes to a MELT clinic with low back pain. His trainer said that’s because he has tight hip flexors and that he should stretch his quads every day. The reality is, Jim’s backside is a mess from the number of hours he spends sitting.
He’s at work 9 to 5 and sits 90% of that time, which puts tension and compression on his rear. The back of his thighs are compressed, his low back lengthened, and the stabilizers of his lumbar spine become weakened and inhibited to react when he stands up. On top of that, he has a high-stress job.
Fascia has the ability to adapt over time, and this adaptability helps Jim sit in that posture really well. Yet when Jim wants to take his after-work run, his fascia isn’t really prepared to react, respond, or stabilize his joints properly.
His brain alters the motor responses to his trunk and leg motion. Jim feels sluggish on his run, blames his stressful life and then chooses to run harder and push through those feelings. He comes home exhausted, showers, eats dinner, watches TV, and goes to bed. The next morning he wakes up even more stiff and achy, and his cycle continues.
Stretching wouldn’t make a dent in the accumulated stress and tension his life puts on his body from day to day. By the time Jim seeks help, he’s got a backlog of issues and now has an MRI showing a herniated disc in his low back and the doctors want to schedule surgery.
Neurological instability creates weakness in muscle activation, leading to strain and stiffness. However, this delay in motor responsiveness is often a result of neurological compensation – a way to protect vital aspects of our well-being.
Yet the muscles may be taut, unable to contract, and less able to do their job. Postural restrictions, repetitive movements, and everyday habits may be behind many painful issues like knee, hip, and low back pain. However, these muscles aren’t the culprit – rather they are the victim. The true culprit is the repetitive postures of daily life that ultimately decrease fascia’s supportiveness and responsive qualities.
What’s worse is, if you do stretches with the intention of releasing muscle tension when that tension is a reactive, protective response from the nervous system, you can increase instability and cause more strain on tissue already under tension. An integral element of joint stability is restoring sensorimotor control to the muscles that are inhibited and weak. That process begins at the fascial level- the foundation of MELT.
So before you think your muscles are the culprit behind your aches, tension, and stiffness, consider the global stability architecture that has a key job to sustain joint integrity and shock absorption as being the real issue.
Think beyond stretching by treating your fascia
Through muscle testing, assessment, and evaluation of his body, we would set Jim up to restore balance in his alignment, stabilize his pelvis, and decompress the accumulated tension in his low back using basic MELT techniques.
After that, we’ll add some MELT Performance to his plan. He should plan to commit to 10 minutes of self-care in the morning and about 25 minutes in the evening – especially on the days he wants to engage in physical activity.
If Jim’s life sounds like yours, try adding the Lower Body Length Sequence on MELT On Demand in the morning.
Then, add the Lower Body Stability Sequence or the MELT for Running Map at the end of your day to restore your fascia’s supportive qualities and help you wake up with less stuck stress. Like Jim, you can add a Foot Treatment before you train to improve your stability and grounding connection so you move more efficiently.
Yes, sometimes MELT seems like a miracle. How can something so simple be as powerful a tool as it is? But the reality is the human body is designed to adapt, respond, and react, and fascia is what allows this seamless process to ensue from day to day.
If the issue is in your connective tissue, you just have to learn to release accumulated stress and restore its supportive qualities. Once you see how easy this is, then add MELT Performance to improve the neurological stability of your joints and reduce your risk of injury.
Bottom line: tight, taut, inhibited, weak… whatever your muscles feel like, the supportive infrastructure of your fascia dictates how interconnected and responsive movement will be. So learn to juice up your fascia, then add some strength work and stretching techniques to your workouts for a more balanced and stable body.
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