Regular exercise can lead to muscles getting tight. Whilst tightness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, too much can impair muscle function resulting in poor movement patterns and injury risk. Getting on top of excessive muscle tightness can be a great way to prevent injury.

Here in this blog, we will discuss some quick and easy self-release tools that you can use to help relieve those tight muscles. To start off, let’s explore the mechanism of action that is likely going on during the self-release process.

Sensory receptors in the skin and connective tissues act like signallers to the nervous system. And in turn, the nervous system responds to that signal with an instruction or action, for example moving your hand away from a perceived threat. Furthermore, there are specialised sensory receptors called mechanoreceptors, which respond to touch and pressure. During self-release, these mechanoreceptors can be stimulated appropriately to allow the nervous system to respond favourably such as reducing muscle tone or tightness. So let’s look at a combination of self-release tools and their specific techniques to exploit these mechanoreceptors.

Please note that this is a 3-step process. It is recommended to go through all the steps (not to skip one) to get the most out of these techniques for releasing tight muscles.

  • Light touch
    Calming down the fascia is the first and most important step. Just beneath the skin is the superficial fascia, which is the connective tissue that surrounds the entire body (think glad wrap). This superficial fascia has much more sensory receptors than the deeper tissues in the body, and so is highly responsive and information travels very fast. Light touch of the skin over the area of the muscle has calming effects not just locally but can lead to global muscle relaxation. To perform light touch, apply slow and light strokes using the entire surface of the hand across the length of the muscle (think petting the back of a cat). Repeat this technique with alternating hands for up to 5 minutes.
  • Massage sticks and spikey balls
    The second step is to use self-massage tools to specifically target the muscle. There are many types available such as massage sticks, spikey balls and tennis balls. Some are more suited to certain muscles, but having a variety on hand means most problem areas can be addressed. To use the self-massage tools correctly, it is important to assess the tissue first, using the “bounce test”. Push your fingers into the tissue to feel for a bounce (think trampoline). If it feels tight and lacking bounce, this is your focus area. When applying the self-massage tool, sustained pressure is required to release the local tissue. Continue with this technique for several minutes. Re-check bounce to see if this has changed, it should feel supple.
  • Light cupping
    The third step is to use light cupping to release any residual tissue tightness. During muscle contraction, the surrounding soft tissue layers have to slide over each other. With regular exercise or overuse, these layers can get matted and prevent this sliding capability. Light cupping attempts to correct this by picking up all soft tissue (muscles, nerve, fascia) and with movement restores this sliding motion. To perform light cupping, you will need silicone cups and massage cream (a quick search online will help). Apply massage cream to the target area and then place the silicone cup on.  From there, move the cup along the length of the muscle as well as side to side. Movement of the cup is key to avoid bruising the tissue.

Understanding the interplay between sensory receptors in the soft tissue and the nervous system will mean that we can utilise correct application of self-release tools and techniques and thus they can be more effective in reducing muscle tightness. When utilising self-release tools, keep in mind the 3-step process. First to calm down the fascia with light touch, followed by specific muscle release with self-massage, and lastly encourage soft-tissue layers to slide with light cupping. Keeping to these self-release principles will not only improve muscle function but are also a great strategy for helping preventing injury.

If these self-release techniques have no effect on muscle tightness or causes further discomfort, please seek advice from a trained health professional.

Ray Gesta is a Sports Lab Massage Therapist. He’s passionate about all things recovery and injury prevention, as well as finding new places in the outdoors to explore.