All sorts of strength-training hang-ups can prevent people from achieving their goals. One such foil that so many of us encounter and just can’t seem to shake? That not-so-fun post-lift feeling of muscle tightness.
Ahead, physical therapists and certified strength and conditioning specialists explain why your muscles can feel tense after hitting the weights—and what you can do to keep your body limber as you make gains.
- About Our Experts: Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., is a physical therapist and the founder of the digital movement platform Movement Vault. Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., is a certified strength and conditioning coach and the head coach and owner of AIM Athletic.
Why You Feel Tight After Lifting
While strength training does not inherently make for tight muscles, there are a few reasons your routine might leave you feeling seriously scrunched-up.
The first is simply the normal recovery process. “Strenuous exercise causes microtraumas and acute fatigue to the muscles used,” explains certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. This may sound scary, but it is through the healing of these microtraumas that the body reaps the rewards of your lifting session and your muscle fibers become stronger. In the time between the initial workout and the healing, though—typically 48 to 72 hours—the body becomes inflamed, which can create a sensation of tightness in the body, says Harcoff.
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Muscle tightness after a hard lifting session also comes down to the body trying to protect itself. “When your muscles are healing from your last workout and feeling sore, your central nervous system (CNS) goes into overdrive trying to protect them from further damage,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. In practice, this means that your CNS helps guard your muscles against further potential damage by intentionally limiting your range of motion, leading to the perceived sensation of tightness, he says.
That said, feeling tight could also just reflect limited mobility, which is your ability to actively move your body through a range of motion (which you do using your muscles), explains Wickham. This is often an issue if you don’t stretch or move often enough and in a variety of different ways. The more time you spend in a single position (like sitting at your desk), the more likely you are to run into mobility issues, he says. Of course, this can then impact how you feel in and out of the gym, especially if it limits your ability to perform certain exercises with proper form.
How To Relieve The Tension
Ultimately, the exact plan of action you take here will depend on the underlying cause(s) of your muscle tightness. Generally, though, all regular lifters will benefit from the below steps.
1. Warm up before lifting
Hate to break it to you, but going right from your car to the lifting cage is going to have consequences on both your lifting form and how you feel after your workout.
A proper dynamic warm-up can help your body regain access to the ranges of motion it did not have access to during your work day or at night while you were sleeping, explains Harcoff. On deadlift day, for example, intentionally activating your hamstring muscles through exercises like hamstring isometric stretch helps prime that back-of-the-leg muscle to move big weight. In turn, this increases your likelihood of accessing your full range of motion while you pull weight from the floor and helps you move the weight with sound form, he says.
2. Lift through your full range of motion
During your working sets, move through the fullest range of motion you have access to—even if that means you can’t lift as heavy.
Wickham explains: It is common for people to put more weight on a barbell than they are physically capable of moving through their end ranges of motion. For instance, a person might be able to squat 95 pounds to their current maximal back-squat depth, but be able to use 135 if they do quarter squats. If the person consistently uses the higher weight, instead of the lower weight that allows them to hit lower squats, they will actually lose access to the depth they can access with the 95-pound bar, he says.
In practice, this means leaving your ego at the door and favoring good form over weight. “Long term, this approach will encourage your muscles to adapt and lengthen, fostering a balanced combination of strength and flexibility that optimizes overall movement and joint health,” says Harcoff. In other words, eventually, you’ll be able to move 135 pounds as low as you can the 95.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Sure. If your programming occasionally implements exercises like the floating deadlift, quarter squat, or other tempo lifts, that is a-okay and will not impede your mobility long-term. What’s most important is that you move through your full range of motion more often than you don’t, says Wickham.
3. Move the day after
As far as your body is concerned, motion is lotion. That’s why the day after a hard and heavy strength training workout, Wickham recommends moving your body in some way, shape, or form.
Some light cardio, for example, can promote blood flow to recovering muscles, which supports the repair process and helps you feel a little more loosey-goosey, says Harcoff. Meanwhile, actively stretching your muscles the day after a heavy lifting session can help signal to your central nervous system that it is safe to access the full range of motion in your joints, according to Wickham.
4. Dial in your wellness practice
If you experience a lot of muscle tightness in and out of the weight room, Harcoff recommends looking beyond your gym routine and taking a holistic approach when addressing it. From a nutrition standpoint, that means eating enough, prioritizing proper nutrition, focusing on adequate protein intake, and drinking enough water to support muscle recovery, he says. Indeed, protein, hydration, and adequate calories have all been linked to improved recovery time. It might also be a good idea to audit your stress levels and consider incorporating certain supplements and self-care practices that can help get it under control.
5. Keep on lifting
Don’t stop believing. “Lifting weights offers a multitude of health benefits; the most notable is its role in building and maintaining muscle mass,” says Harcoff. “Muscle mass supports daily activities, as well as reduces the risk of frailty and falls.” Indeed, research shows that those who strength train as younger adults have lower rates of falls, chronic disease, nursing home admission, and mortality when elderly.
Lifting can also increase bone mineral density, which improves skeletal strength and reduces the likelihood of osteoporosis, which is a condition marked by low bone mineral density, says Harcoff. “Lifting also improves metabolic rate, aiding in weight management and glucose regulation, thus lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes,” he says. Furthermore, resistance training aids in increasing joint stability and flexibility, reducing the potential for injuries and chronic pain, he says.
“The cognitive benefits of lifting should not be overlooked either, as it has been linked to improved mental focus, mood, and overall psychological health,” he adds.