Painful, stiff, and tight feeling muscles are a plague for many people. Some experience so much tightness that it interferes with sleep and affects their overall quality of life.

Most think that the solution is stretching or massaging the area, however, this isn’t always the best remedy. This week we’ll look into what causes muscles to feel tight and what to do about it.

Cause of tight muscles

The feeling of tightness in certain muscles like the traps, neck, and hamstrings is mostly just that, a feeling rather than a structural change in muscle length and tension [1].

A lot of people go straight to stretching a tight feeling muscle to find relief. However, there are often cases where the muscle is already in a chronically lengthened state where stretching would actually do more harm than good.

Stretching has an analgesic, pain-relieving, effect so it provides temporary relief [2].

Due to this many people think they are doing the right thing only to have pain and tightness comes back even greater since they contributed to the problem. This is not to say that stretching doesn’t help in some cases, but every situation is going to be different.

Typically the feeling of tightness is caused by inflammation and poor circulation to the affected area. These problems can be brought on by weak muscles being overworked in certain positions or movements, lack of movement itself, stress, and general lifestyle factors including poor diet. Knowing the cause now we can get to the solution.

Change your posture

Often times addressing postural issues can provide a long term solution to tight muscles. For example, a lot of people with a forward head posture experience tightness around the base of the neck due to an overactive levator scapula.

In this case, the muscle is in a chronically lengthened state, constantly fighting to bring the head back into position.

Addressing the forward head posture gives the levator a break and typically resolves the feeling of tightness. Fixing posture over the long term requires time and dedication, however, there is a postural change you can do immediately that works wonders.

Simply change the position you are in. Then after a few minutes change it again. Change your posture frequently and don’t get stuck in any one position for too long.

The movement will provide increased blood flow. It will also give a break to any one area that may get overloaded from maintaining the same position. The best posture is your next posture. 

Engage in resistance training using the full range of motion

Arguably the best fix for chronically tight muscles is to strengthen them.

As mentioned above the feeling of tightness is often caused by poor circulation or inflammation. Resistance training addresses both of these things by increasing blood flow and pumping out inflammation in the working muscles.

It will also help strengthen weak muscles that are chronically overloaded and unable to handle the demands of certain positions and repetitive movements.

Special attention should be paid to using the full range of motion and a slow eccentric tempo. This will ensure that muscles will adapt to become stronger in lengthened positions.

The healthiest muscles are long and strong. Using proper loads is very important here as to not cause damage to already strained muscles. It’s never a good idea to push through pain, so if that’s something you are experiencing during exercise it may be best to check with a physical therapist first. 

Train your breath

Learning to properly breathe through the nose and diaphragm can have a big impact on improving your blood circulation and general health [3].

Breathing through the nose increases nitric oxide in the bloodstream which in turn boosts oxygen delivery throughout the body. As mentioned above poor blood flow can directly influence the feeling of tightness.

Nasal breathing also helps to balance the autonomic nervous system which helps to alleviate stress. Studies have shown that stress alone is enough to cause tightness even without the dysfunctional activity of muscles [4].

Learn how to regulate breath and you’ll learn how to regulate stress. There’s also evidence suggesting that overactive traps can be linked to an underactive diaphragm.

The diaphragm is designed to be the main muscle used in breathing so when it’s not doing its job, the chest, shoulders, and traps have to pick up the slack.

Check out our blog on breathing techniques if you are looking for a good place to start training your breath 

Eat anti-inflammatory foods

Needless to say, a good diet can influence nearly every function of our body and the feeling of tightness is no exception [5].

Eating anti-inflammatory foods such as those high in omega 3s and antioxidants can help improve circulation. Foods like fatty fish and many fruits and vegetables fall into this category.

At the same time reducing foods that cause inflammation is going to be just as important. Although the best diet to follow is going to differ for everyone staying away from heavily processed and refined foods will typically help keep inflammation lower. 

* Post Credit to DTH Coach Alex


1. Andersen H, Ge HY, Arendt-Nielsen L, Danneskiold-Samsøe B, Graven-Nielsen T. Increased trapezius pain sensitivity is not associated with increased tissue hardness. J Pain.

2. E De la Peña, S Sala, JC Rovira, RF Schmidt, C Belmonte. Elastoviscous substances with analgesic effects on joint pain reduce stretch-activated ion channel activity in vitro

3. Dr. Alan Ruth

The Health Benefits of Nose Breathing 

4. Vasseljen O Jr, Westgaard RH. Can stress-related shoulder and neck pain develop independently of muscle activity?

5. Marta F. Bustamante, Meritxall Agustín-Perez, and Monica Guma. Design of an anti-inflammatory diet (ITIS diet) for patients with rheumatoid arthritis