“Feeling” vs. “Being” Tight (and why stretching doesn’t always help)

“Feeling” and “Being” tight are 2 very different things.

When I learned that, the game changed for my clients.

Early in my career, I had a large group of clients who consistently came in saying they “felt tight”. That they did all their stretches, and that it felt good in the moment. However, relief never lasted beyond that 5 minute stretch circuit. Thinking they were exaggerating, I’d double check their range of motion with that toe touch, neck rotation, hip extension, or whatever body part and movement, and yep…no change. And over time, we tried all the variations and methods of stretching that were out there. We played around with frequency, volume, and timing. And no matter what, I still kept hearing, “I feel tight”, and their assessment stayed the same.

We were all frustrated. The clients, because they thought they were doomed to live like this forever, and myself, because something was clearly not adding up. Stretching was supposed to work to get rid of the tightness, based on what I learned in school.

Fast forward a few years, after diving into some science and continuing ed, I learned that “feeling tight” and “being tight” are definitely different things. 

“Feeling tight” is a perception, and can be for so many reasons…

  • Acute or chronic pain may lead to reactive protection of a range of motion, because the CNS deems a position unsafe, so it becomes inaccessible.
  • There is an inadequate tolerance to stretching because of increased nervous system sensitivity.
  • There’s a joint capsule and/or arthrokinematic limitation, so the mechanoreceptors are giving inaccurate feedback to the nervous system.
  • A muscle compartment may stay in a low grade contraction in an effort to create stability that is lacking elsewhere in the body.
  • Dehydration, deconditioning, and lack of movement/staying in prolonged positions may all lead to altered blood flow to the area, and the metabolic stress can create the tight feeling.
  • Increased tone, spasm and cramping are different from muscle shortening.

The common theme in all of these situations, is that none of them require, or will be helped by, holding some stretches.

Now “being tight”…yes. Stretch*. Because this is a different story.

“Being tight” is when there is true mechanical tension and shortening. When passive motion demonstrates decreased range and decreased tissue glide. 

There is biological tissue quality change (fibrosis), and maybe some atrophy. 

This is a mechanical issue. So a mechanical intervention such as stretching, can help get things started (and this is also where supplemental specific manual therapy comes in clutch, as well).

With time (under tension, as well as frequency/volume) and consistency, range will expand, and therefore, less tightness.

The key is then to follow that stretch with actively using the muscles, to be able to maintain and actually do something with that newly acquired range of motion.

Gaining and tolerating a “lengthened” muscle position means nothing if you can’t get yourself in and out of that position, produce/absorb force in it, and express that range of motion fully and freely.

*ps. performance and health are different – sometimes mechanical stiffness can be a good thing in high performance, and doesn’t need to be stretched so be mindful of the goals and reasoning processes.

So back to the majority of my clients… that tight sensation was simply a feeling. And eventually I realized I was treating the wrong thing, because I either wasn’t getting clear enough in my assessments, or I was misinterpreting what I did find and then was using the wrong intervention.

So we stopped all the stretching.

Instead, we got much clearer in the assessments, and used the intervention that matched up with the cause of that tight feeling. Isometrics, mobility drills, strength training, graded exposure, and occasionally a passive stretch.

Now, we are saving time in their programs, getting way better results quicker, and the clients are much more empowered because they have strategies that work to navigate that feeling of tightness.

These concepts of “feeling vs. being” are very underestimated and undervalued in the training world. Yet, understanding them can make the biggest impact.

So next time you hear “I’m tight”, dig deeper to see what’s more accurate…  Is it “feeling” or “being” tight? Then train appropriately!

Let me know how it goes, and comment/shoot me a message to chat more about this!

And if you want a sneak peak on how to tell if “feeling” tight truly needs stretching or a different intervention, you can download a quick hamstring screen here, or if you really want to take things to the next level with assessing, rehabbing and training clients with persistent symptoms, check out how we can work together here!

Megan Pomarensky is a Certified Athletic Therapist, a Certified Functional Strength Coach, and a Certified Vinyasa Yoga Instructor, with a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Science. She is an internationally published academic author, public speaker, and educator.

Over the past 9 years, Megan has built a successful private clinical practice working with clients from professional athletes looking to improve performance to older adults with chronic pain, and everyone in between. Her mission is to empower every client to better understand their body, get the most efficient and effective rehab and training, make informed decisions about their care, and break the chronic pain cycle.

She also helps therapists and coaches get out of the textbooks, protocols and checklists for better client results, through providing continuing education courses, and clinical/business mentorship.

IG/Twitter @meganpomarensky