March 4, 2014

Tight vs Loose: What’s your set point?

I’m currently in playoffs, and I’m seeing a lot of tight bodies on my team. I’m seeing players going to trainers with sore backs, or sore hips, or sore shoulder. The most common thing that they say is “I’m tight”. I’m finding it a battle myself to keep all my tissues loose and relaxed with so much game play. 

In this article, I want to talk about the benefits and costs of having your muscles have a set point that’s loose vs tight.

The reason I actually want to write an article is because the answer to the above problem isn’t just to become loose. You need a certain amount of tightness to be effective. In fact, it’s extensively researched and supported that static stretching, where you relax a muscle, causes an athlete to decrease their power and strength output. So, too loose is bad.

In fact, I took this information to an extreme in my 20 year old season, where I completely stopped stretching. I figured if tightness was necessary for good performance, then I would make myself tight. I’d make sure I had strength in the range of motion I’d be using in games, and not bother stretching any further. 

This wasn’t the correct approach, because even though I didn’t get injured, I experienced a lot of tightness and discomfort during my day-to-day life.

So to your standard athlete, this information all might seem a bit confusing. This guy, Jason, is saying that too loose is bad, but tight is sometimes good, but also sometimes bad. So what gives?

Before I explain what is optimal, we need to make one distinction: between flexibility (Range of Motion – ROM) and tightness.

  • ROM: The angle through which a joint can move (for example, can you touch your toes?)
  • Tightness: How tight your muscles feel upon palpation – the amount of electrical current going through your muscles while in a resting state. Think of your bicep while relaxed versus your quadricep while relaxed. Does one feel like a rock? Does the other feel loose? One of those is tighter than the other, and this is a different quality than ROM.

Here’s what I think is ideal:

  • You have a set point that is loose. Your muscles have ample range of motion, and are not tight in your day to day life.
  • Before games and practices, you teach your body to become tight. You are tight during games and practices so that your muscles are like springs to optimize your performance.

If you are tight all the time (games and day-to-day life):

  • You will put mechanical stress on your joints, ligaments and other tissues ALL THE TIME. This sets you up for strains, and sprains and pulled muscles because if your connective tissue and joints are repeatedly under low stress throughout the course of your day, when your body is under high stress in a game, some of your capacity to handle stress is going to be compromised.
  • You will have a metabolic cost because tight muscles do not receive as good of blood flow as loose muscles. So when you’re trying to recover in between games, having tight muscles will prevent optimal recovery. Also, the decreased blood flow makes muscles more anaerobic, thus they will always be slightly more acidic…making your more prone to fatigue.
  • Linked to the above point: it will just take more effort to move around in a day. Going up stairs, walking, lifting things up, putting your pants on just take more effort with tighter muscles
  • Most importantly: If you are tight all the time, it takes a very long time to become loose. It will require daily attention with a trigger point ball, myofascial release, massage, stretching, yoga, etc.

If you are loose all the time:

  • Simple tasks are easier to do. (After my first time doing trigger point I couldn’t believe how easy it actually was to walk up stairs!)
  • You feel better because there is less stress on your body day-to-day.
  • It is much easier to turn on tightness. Just do a dynamic/explosive/strength-based warm up.
  • Your body is able to recover more quickly.

Figure out where your set point is. Determine if you should spend time making your set point more loose. Engage in techniques necessary to make your set point looser. (Trigger point, massage, myofascial release, stretching, yoga, IMS, whatever). But remember to make yourself tight for games, practices and workouts.

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