The muscle stress attacks

Athletes are often given similar tension-relief cues—shoulders back, relax the jaw, neutral spine—for good reason. These are the areas where most of us hold our stress.

But the human body doesn’t do many things accidentally. “There’s a reason why we don’t have achy glutes from everyday life stressors,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.

Here, the science of a stress-holding muscle.

The definition

“‘Holding stress’ in a muscle refers to an area of accumulated tension that builds up in response to things like postural distortions, sleep disturbances, emotional responses, repetitive movements, and dysfunctional breathing patterns,” explains Matt Delaney, a Tier X coach and manual therapist at Equinox Columbus Circle.

A muscle contracts when it doesn’t necessarily need to—even when it’s not being used to move a body part or lift a dumbbell, for example, adds Olson. These unnecessarily tight muscles should be relatively relaxed but over time, they’re taught to tense.

The muscles that bear the burden

The most common areas of accumulated tension are the jaw, upper shoulders and neck, and lower back, says Delaney. The chest can also grow tight, notes Olson. Muscular tension can even creep up in our cranial and skull muscles leading to tension headaches. “Our tendency to hold stress in certain areas or muscles has a lot to do with the type of stress we encounter and the body’s physiological response to it,” explains Delaney. That means everyone can develop different holding patterns.

Habits come into play here. Someone who sits all day may hold more tension in their lower back, for example, because their lumbar spine is stuck in flexion; jaw tension can sneak up from chronic clenching, a common stress response, Delaney says.

And while we’re all born with the ability to diaphragmatically breathe and should be able to access the skill at rest, Delaney notes that society’s demands leave many of us overworked and under-recovered. “Because of this constant over-activation of our sympathetic nervous system, shallow breathing has become the preferred pattern for many of us.” This can lead to tightness and discomfort in secondary respiratory muscles around the neck, including the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, and chest muscles such as the pectoralis minor, he says.

Most of these stress-holding muscles are also related to posture, says Olson. Left to life’s daily pressures, postural muscles can start to feel like they have to “stay tuned on,” Olson notes.

If a muscle feels chronically tight or uncomfortable, you have a reduced range of motion, fatigue quickly, or recover slowly, you’re likely holding stress in a muscle, Delaney concludes.

The solution

Self-myofascial release (foam rolling), massage, and diaphragmatic breathing train the body to access restful, restorative breath, and ease tension all over, says Delaney.

Depending on your particular muscular issue, different stretches can help, too, notes Olson. For example, shrugging your shoulders to pump blood into them and letting them stay in the down position afterward could help reduce upper body tension. Mixing in movements like deadlifts to strengthen the posterior chain are ideal for someone who cycles in a hunched over position regularly, Delany says, and if you sit at a desk all day and have tight hips, focus on loosening them.

If you're in pain and think stressed muscles are to blame, touch base with a qualified trainer or physical therapist to get a personalized plan of action.

Seven to eight hours a night of sleep, though, may be the most healing of all. Says Delaney: “The more stress we encounter, the greater our need for recovery and sleep—our best, but most often overlooked, regeneration modality.”