Muscle Stiffness After Exercise

Today we have a great question from Sue Mitchel on muscle stiffness and what to do about it.

Thanks for the great question. It reminds me of my somewhat comical and dry response when I see children playing, rolling on the ground, and doing cartwheels. I usually say,

“Wow, look what you can do when your body is all cartilage.” …Ahh, to be young again!

So what is muscle stiffness?

Muscle stiffness is certainly an issue with all exercisers, but becomes especially noticeable as we age. Our muscles tend to lose elasticity over the years mostly due to increased joint stiffness, changes in our connective tissue, and osteoarthritis.

For example our back muscles will lose about 50% of their range of motion between 20 and 70 years old. Stiffness is the most common complaint of older people. And all tissues are affected including your tendons, ligaments, fascia, joint capsules, and muscles.

The three big factors that cause muscle stiffness as we age are; first, we begin to accumulate extra collagen tissue inside and outside our muscles; second, the composition of our connective tissues and collagen actually changes; and third, there is a breakdown of our articular cartilage that increases our arthritis in all major joints.

Remember that connective tissue is composed of collagen, which has much less give than muscle. As we age, the ratio of collagen rises in our muscles. This collagen is also not, “young person’s collagen”, it is much less extensible and resists any stretching you may put upon it. And this collagen also loses the water-holding material called chondroitin sulfate, so that the collagen again, is less elastic without this extra water inside.

In addition to the natural stiffness we get as we age, our muscles become weaker. This requires us to use more force to do the things we did when we were young. For example, the next time you see an oldster trying to get out of a chair, notice how much they have to push against the stiffness in their muscles and joints just to rise up and stand.

Well then, what can we do about this stiffness?

For my stiffness this is what I have found to be effective.

I have a foam roller which is about 26 years old, ( and certainly shows its age), which I use to manually massage my back, shoulders, thighs, ileo-tibial band, and calf muscles. This will stretch the muscles and connective tissue. It is nice to do this after your workout or before bed.

Then drink 16-20 ounces of water to rehydrate your tissue. You can follow this with a hot bath or spa before bed which sounds like you are doing already.

Then, in the morning I always take a limbering walk outside, usually with my dog for up to 35 minutes. I include limbering arm swings, spinal twists, and 3 sprints of about 100 feet during the walk, usually toward the end. I then follow this with 30 second stretches using a kitchen timer, including an inner thigh stretch, a hamstring stretch, a quad stretch, and a back stretch.

You may also want to look at other elements which may be adding to your muscle stiffness. Try to maintain good posture during the day. I will usually remind myself by imaging a string coming out of the crown on my head and pulling up. This cues me to look up, bring my shoulders back and stand tall.

Look at your bed which may be adding to stiffness with some lack of support to your hips and back. Also think of your sleeping posture, i.e. placing a pillow between your knees, using a supportive pillow for your cervical spine and head.

And remember to breathe fully whenever you remember to during the day. Good breathing practices will relax your cervical, back and chest muscles
Hope that helps!

Doug Schrift

Doug Schrift is a Physical Therapist, Certified Geriatric Specialist, and senior fitness coach. Doug helps seniors become strong and stable even if they have never exercised before.