2 Types Of Muscle Tension

Posted on in Back Pain, Fitness by Dr. Graham Norton

muscle tension

We’ve all experienced muscle tension – for some its a chronic issue (maybe in the neck, back, or hamstrings) and for others it comes and goes.

In last weeks blog we talked about the difference between flexibility and mobility and how MOBILITY is king! We also pointed out that if you are spending lots of time stretching seemingly tight muscles, you may in fact increase your risk of injury while simultaneously getting no real change in your ability to move well. (Here’s the link incase you missed it).

I forecasted this weeks blog in our last article and I think it’s a really neat topic that could be of great benefit to you whether you are trying to rehabilitate your spine or you are looking to get a better edge on your performance.

There are 2 types of muscle tension:

1) Your “stereotypical” short muscle: Maybe you are someone who is sedentary and your body hasn’t spent much time going through a full range of motion. Naturally, the brain will learn that it doesn’t need to keep that range of motion so the tissues will shorten up and stiffen up to conserve energy. This would be considered non-neurogenic tension. Use it or lose it.

2) Neurologically derived muscle tension: This is where things get interesting. Sometimes the reason you have tight muscles is because your nervous system has decided that they NEED to be tight in order to maintain the safety and health of your muscles, joints, bones, nerves, etc.

You can think of the muscle tension as a protective mechanism.

Your brain is creating tension to support and protect your body parts because it perceives some threat when you go beyond that range of motion. I know I can resonate with this one. I had chronically tight hamstrings for YEARS…it wouldn’t matter how much stretching I did, it would never change, and frankly it hurt to stretch them.

With #1 it’s possible to get some (short term) results with stretching. But with #2, your stretching and even basic mobility protocols likely won’t be sufficient…Why?Because often the second type of tension occurs because of a lack of stability, not flexibility.

This is really important and can be a big missing link for people…It won’t matter how hard you try to lengthen the soft tissues. If you have a stability issue across a joint in your body, your brain is NOT going to let the tissues that surround them lengthen. And thank goodness. Because if it did, you are most likely going to end up with an injury.

So what exactly is stability?

Stability is a healthy resistance to movement to ensure the safety of a joint complex within the body. It’s achieved through healthy soft tissue activation, healthy bone/cartilage and good nervous system control.

Assessing whether or not a mobility or stability issue is contributing to your movement deficiencies is obviously beyond the scope of this article. That being said, I wanted to provide you with a self stability screen you can do for your spine/core at home. The cool thing about the screen is that you can often use the same screening pattern as your stability exercise homework. This makes it easy to monitor your progress. 

Use the button below to download the video.

Hi! I'm Dr. Graham and I am passionate about delivering the most comprehensive and results driven spine care available. I love working with people who want to make a real and lasting difference in their health. I love travelling locally, outdoor activities like road biking and skate skiing, good coffee, and my family (Dr. Marie, and our two wonderful daughters Zoey & Eloise).