Tight muscles are a brain problem. Muscles don't just become tight. It's typically a defense response from the brain that could have been caused by all sorts of things. Ultimately, you'll want to find out what that thing is if you want it to loosen up and not come back. Whether you have tight hamstrings, tight hips or tight calf muscles (which I have covered in more depth here), these are the best ways to get them to loosen up.
- Stretch: This is my least favorite by far but technically speaking, you can get a muscle to loosen up by stretching it. If you elect for this option, you've taken the easy way out. Unfortunately for you, this is a mirage. Unless it's a literal connective tissue problem, this fixes nothing. Just temporary relief. Stretching is like taking Tylenol for a broken leg. Maybe the pain will go away for a little bit but it will come roaring back.
- Massage: If you take your elbow and jam it into a tight muscle for long enough, it's going to deflate but we have to re-visit the opening paragraph. Muscles don't randomly become tight. If you want a muscle to shut off, you have to give it a reason to do so. Your elbow is not a good reason. Yes it will shut down but this, like stretching, is not a permanent solution. Sometimes I use massage to give myself a better window to facilitating muscles that will help me keep the muscle loose.
- Meditate: Now we're getting somewhere. Muscles frequently become tight due to external stressors. This is one of the reasons why flying or driving are so stressful despite you just sitting down and doing nothing. Your muscles are tightening as you navigate stressful environments. Meditation is a phenomenal way to let your brain know that the threat is gone and it can relax. I know meditation is tough and not always easy to find time/focus to do it but this is something that you DEFINITELY should make time for.
- Correct Your Breathing Mechanics: I recently worked with a client who had a really tight right adductor. For months the muscle had been barking at him. He tried stretching it a million different ways. I tried helping him turn on his left adductor. All with un-satisfying results. So what did the trick, getting his right rib cage to expand during inhalation. Wow! Who would have thought? Well, me. I would have thought. That's why I asked him to do it. But still. How fascinating! Often times, muscle tightness is a total body project. Always remember, there is a reason for the tension. Now go find that reason. As a strength & conditioning coach, you can look at this list like a career progression. S&C newbies will be spending most of their time at the top of this list but as you get better, the more time you'll spend at the bottom.
- Contralateral Facilitation with Ipsilateral Lengthening: Say that ten times fast! Long story short, lengthen the tight muscle while shortening the same muscle on the other side. In this picture I am helping loosen a right adductor. I've made sure the left adductor is on and noticeable to the athlete. I'm putting the right femur in abduction and using the band to get the right glute to drive home the inhibition. At some point in this process I will want a left ab and a left hamstring to join the party but let's not go there in this article (you can brush up on that here). What I want you to know is that, I made this exercise up. I'm sure I'm not the first person to do this but all I'm doing is attacking principles. I know what the body needs and I find a way to make it happen. I encourage you to have that level of personal freedom. Just because you haven't seen someone else do it doesn't mean it's no good. If you believe in your theories, go get it. I once got a professional baseball player completely neutral by walking around a parking lot with a sawed off broom stick as if he were completely blind.