Whether it’s your shoulders constantly creeping up to your ears, hamstrings so taut you can’t touch your knees (let alone your toes), or cranky hip flexors causing you to walk like the Tin Man, tight muscles make all sorts of everyday movements (and, of course, workouts) uncomfortable. And though we tend to associate tight muscles with intense exercise and athletics, they can affect just about anyone, from those who work physically demanding jobs to those who aren’t active at all.
In some cases, muscle tightness is nothing to worry about and disappears with a little time or the help of a foam roller or solid yoga flow. There are other instances, though, when tight muscles are a sign from your body that something’s not quite right.
Here, experts reveal some of the main causes of muscle tightness and what you can do to ease the tension.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac., of Acupuncture Jerusalem in Israel, is a licensed acupuncturist, yoga instructor, and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., is a strength and conditioning coach and the founder of Beyond Fitness. Jordan Hosbein, C.P.T., is a personal trainer certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
1. You’re dehydrated
Believe it or not, simply not drinking adequate amounts of water can lead to muscle stiffness and tightness. In order for your muscles to perform optimally, your body needs to maintain a proper balance of fluid and electrolytes—namely calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium, explains yoga instructor and acupuncturist Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac., of Acupuncture Jerusalem in Israel. “These electrolytes help our muscles to function normally without becoming stiff or cramping,” she says.
To stay hydrated, many experts recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces of water per day. Bacharach also recommends incorporating mineral water into the picture. Mineral water, which comes from natural bodies of water (like underground reservoirs and springs) contains natural salts and electrolytes to keep you hydrated and muscles functioning healthily. You can also try adding a hydration drink mix to your H2O; these tasty powders are formulated to support proper electrolyte and fluid balance.
2. You worked out too hard
Whether you hit the gym every day or partake in a workout once in a blue moon, any tightness you experience after could be a sign of muscle fatigue, which occurs when your muscles are subjected to repetitive or strenuous activities, explains strength and conditioning coach Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., founder of Beyond Fitness. “These activities can lead to the accumulation of metabolic byproducts, such as lactic acid, that cause muscles to feel tight, heavy, and potentially achy,” he explains. You might notice muscle tightness within a few hours of the workout, but it may not show up until 12 to 24 hours afterward, which is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Another possible explanation for the post-workout tightness is rooted in the nervous system. “Our muscles are made up of muscle fibers that contract and relax in response to motor neurons,” explains Bacharach. “Sometimes sustained signaling from motor neurons, due to injury or overuse, can cause sustained muscle contractions.” Exercise injury or over-straining can also cause tiny tears in muscle fibers, then impacting that muscle’s ability to perform day-to-day tasks as usual.
Stretching after workouts can help soothe muscles and prevent them from getting tight in the first place, notes personal trainer Jordan Hosbein, C.P.T. “A minimum of 30 seconds is needed to override the body’s natural contraction signal and should help provide temporary relief from tight muscles,” he explains. So don’t rush through your post-workout routine; your muscles will thank you.
It’s also important to incorporate recovery days into your workout regimen. You can still partake in active recovery (think light cardio such as yoga or walking) to keep your body moving and help prevent stiffness.
3. You’re Super-stressed
Most people deal with some form of stress, whether it’s due to the demands of their profession or household responsibilities, such as raising children. In addition to making your head spin, this stress often manifests as symptoms in the body, which can include muscle tightness, explains strength coach and chiropractor Allen Conrad, D.C., C.S.C.S., owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in Pennsylvania. “Emotional and mental stress causes the body’s fight or flight responses to kick in, which may cause muscles to tense up,” he explains.
To help your body cope with stress and its effects on the body, Bacharach recommends yoga, which is a great way to ease tension, particularly in the back, neck, and shoulders. “You can practice yoga at home or join a class, whichever you are more comfortable with,” she suggests. Even five minutes before bed can make a difference.
4. You suffered an injury
Injuries to your muscles are most common during exercise or hard labor, such as construction or farming, explains Bacharach. “When a muscle, tendon, or ligament sustains an injury, the surrounding area may become tight in response to the trauma as the body turns to immobilization to prevent further damage,” she says. “When the body is injured, the brain sends signals to the affected muscle to increase muscle tone, making the affected muscle feel tight and stiff.”
While you can often still keep active while giving an injury time to heal, it’s important to lay off that particular part of your body and check in with a professional (like a physical therapist) who can help you move safely and create a rehab and strengthening plan that’ll get you back in action quicker and prevent future injury once you’re back in the game.
In the meantime, you might also try alternating between hot and cold therapy, which can help ease muscle tension and inflammation, suggests Bacharach. “Take a warm shower for 15 minutes; the heat will increase blood flow throughout your body and help your muscles to relax,” she says. “Directly after this, use a cold-packed cloth for the same amount of time to reduce the pain and alleviate inflammation.”
5. You have a nutrient deficiency
Your body needs a variety of vitamins and nutrients in order to function properly. Unfortunately, many people don’t get their fair share—and falling short on certain nutrients can contribute to that annoying muscle tension you can’t shake.
One nutrient of particular concern is vitamin D, which an estimated 41.6 percent of Americans are running low on. In addition to helping your body absorb calcium to keep your bones strong and healthy, vitamin D seems to play a role in muscle health. In fact, studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency may cause muscle stiffness.
If you’re not sure where you stand on vitamin D, ask your doctor to do a metabolic panel, which can identify if your levels are insufficient and inform how much additional vitamin D you may need to get back into a healthy range and potentially help reduce muscle stiffness, Conrad suggests.
Low magnesium (a mineral that plays a role in helping muscles relax, among many other functions) can also leave you feeling tense and tight, so make sure you’re consuming lots of mag-rich foods, such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans—and consider incorporating a supplement.
6. You have Scoliosis
Certain degenerative conditions, such as scoliosis (which affects the curvature of the spine), can lead to muscle tightness, according to Conrad. “Scoliosis makes the spinal column bend to one side, which puts additional pressure on certain muscles in the back that attach to the spine,” he explains. “As a result, these muscles are prone to stiffness when exposed to repetitive activities.”
If you’re dealing with pain related to scoliosis, Conrad recommends seeking out chiropractic care, which can help improve joint restrictions. “When a joint is stuck, or misaligned, it affects proper joint mobility,” he says. “By realigning the spine with a doctor of chiropractic, you can reduce muscle stiffness while helping the attached muscles to function properly.”