Neurological vs. Mechanical Tightness: How to Know When to Stretch

Neurological vs. Mechanical Tightness: How to Know When to Stretch

Are you constantly stretching your chronically tight muscles with no results?  Stretching might actually be doing you more harm than good.

The brain is always trying to look out for us: making sure we breathe when we sleep, making us pull our hand away from a hot object, or the millions of tasks performed daily on a microscopic level to make sure our body stays in perfect balance.  One way of letting us know that we have certain muscle imbalances is by giving us the feeling of “tightness”.  But is stretching these muscles always the right thing to do?

The two types of tightness.

There are two types of “tightness” known as mechanical and neurological.  Mechanical tightness is when the muscle has become adaptively shortened, and needs to be lengthened.  This type of tightness is common in the hip flexors as well as the pectorals and subscapuaris muscles.  Stretching this type of muscle will help relieve the tightness. The second type of tightness, neurological, happens when the muscle is constantly being overstretched.  When a muscle is overstretched, the brain sends impulses down towards the muscle to “contract” to help keep the body in balance, which in turn feels like the muscle is tight.  Stretching this muscle it will only make matters worse.  Areas commonly associated with neurological tightness are the hamstrings, low back, and lower trapezius muscles.


How do I know what kind of tightness I have?

Because of the world we live in we spend a lot more time sitting.  Whether it be in the car commuting, in our desks at work, or at home on the couch, the amount of time we spend with our muscles placed in shortened or over lengthened positions starts to take a toll.  A common area that feels tight on most people is the hamstring muscles.  This is usually due to shortened hip flexor muscles.  When we sit our hip flexors are placed into a shortened position.  If we sit for extended periods of time, day in and day out, our hip flexors will adaptively shorten to the new length that we have been placing them in.  What results is an anteriorly rotated pelvis, which in turn causes the hamstrings to be lengthened.  The hamstring muscles feel tight, but it’s the hip flexors that need stretching.  The same problem occurs in the upper half of the body.  Due to poor sitting position, the pectorals and subscapularis muscles become adaptively shortened pulling the shoulder blades up towards the head.  The lower trapezius becomes lengthened trying to pull the shoulder blades back down.  What results is a tug-of-war between these two groups of muscles as well as a feeling of tightness in the mid back and shoulders.

What to do now?

If you’re constantly stretching out an area that’s always tight, chances are there are certain muscle imbalances or postural issues that you are unaware of.  My advice would be to see a trained professional, such as a massage therapist, to receive a proper assessment and get on the right track with stretching and strengthening the appropriate muscles.

Clayton Giles, registered massage therapist, is an expert in assessing and differentiating muscle tightness and prescribing the proper home stretches for his clients.   To book your treatment with Clayton call 604-974-8999 or book online at