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After starting lifting, or perhaps it was from bad posture at my desk job, I got what I think is a muscle knot and I'd like to know more about them.

What causes muscle knots? On both a higher level and a deeper scientific level.

Are there exercises or stretches or something that can be done to remedy muscle knots and why does it work?

Does stretching before/after exercising prevent muscle knots? Is there any other way to prevent muscle knots?

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  • 2
    I think these questions are related and could be answered in a single answer, but if you feel it would be better as separate questions let me know and I'll edit them out of here and post as a new question.
    – Aequitas
    Oct 19 '15 at 21:58
  • 2
    Ee... technically speaking, we're focused on exercise here. I'd suggest that, if you can, you find a way to shoehorn it in, maybe "are there exercises to help me alleviate muscle knots or maybe some way of strengthening my body to prevent them?" Oct 20 '15 at 13:21
  • Are you referring to the "knots" associated with foam rolling?
    – John
    Dec 6 '16 at 8:04
  • They might not exist
    – Joao Noch
    Jan 5 '17 at 7:42
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What is referred to as a "muscle knot" is also known as a "trigger point" or "myofascial trigger point". They are medically controversial little things, because despite being talked about so much and all of the equipment and "specialists" (sorry, I'm definitely gonna have to leave that in quotes) out there that claim to be able to alleviate them, their exact causes or even nature are unknown.

One of the theories is that they are local, painful spots in fascia. The fascia is thin, very tough yet flexible tissue surrounding muscles. It provide compartments for the muscles that protect them, transmits tension and reduces friction. There's probably still quite a bit to learn about them. The idea that these tissues could somehow become "bunched up" or otherwise develop "knots" which could be resolved with massage or foam rolling is contested.

Another idea is that these trigger points are actually localized patches of muscle tissue that are retaining waste metabolites. If true, massage and foam rolling could work by helping disperse these metabolites and improve blood flow to drain them.

Some information about the definition of trigger points can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myofascial_trigger_point

For a thorough, very long but highly interesting read, I'd like to refer you to this article. Paul Ingraham has devoted enormous time to the study of pain, stays on top of the latest information and reworks his viewpoints and articles based on new evidence: https://www.painscience.com/tutorials/trigger-points.php

It would take some time to read through that, but it's a good investment of that time.

Even though the exact nature of muscle knots is not well understood, there are therapies that people report success with. One of the most popular ones is foam rolling, a form of self-myofascial release. The painful part of the muscle is placed on a foam roller, pressure applied (lots of it, usually using a good portion your the body weight) and the area and surrounding tissue are rolled on. A decent foam roller will last a long time (don't go with the cheaper ones, they'll break), it can be used at home or in the gym without assistance and it seems to help for a lot of people. There's still some study required about how to roll effectively and safely. For example, rolling your upper back is fine, but don't roll your lower back. Don't roll directly over joints, but rather over muscle and ligaments near them.

Personally, I've neither found foam rolling or stretching to seem to deliver noticeable benefit on a short term for me, which makes me a bit skeptical. Weight lifting, on the other hand, has provided immediately noticeable results (such as being able to lift more weight consistently with training progression) and seems to have made my body less susceptible to some muscle and joint pains I used to have. So I'd rather put my time into what actually works for me. Your mileage may vary. Of course, being 31, my opinion on this might be very different in 10 years or so.

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  • Awesome answer, definitely going to give that link a read when I've got a spare minute (read: week). I do find it interesting that you say you haven't found foam rolling to deliver short term benefits though, do you mean foam rolling in isolation, or as part of a pre / post training activity?
    – Dark Hippo
    Jan 5 '17 at 11:30
  • @DarkHippo I've tried foam rolling because I've had some issues with pain in my left knee. It does feel kind of good (and foam rolling my upper back after deadlifts is nice) and I've done foam rolling on conjunction with training, but in the end I didn't notice enough of a difference between doing it or not (same for stretching) to invest the time. The knee pain got better with doing squats, and if I take enough time between workouts I'm usually not feeling so stiff that I need rolling or stretching. I'd certainly advice people to try it and see what it does for them.
    – G_H
    Jan 5 '17 at 11:50
  • @G_H You said that weightlifting has helped with your muscle knots -- can you explain what you mean by this? Doing weight training of the muscle that is tight, or opposing muscles? This is counterintuitive.
    – 900edges
    Mar 23 at 20:21
  • @900edges Weightlifting and resistance exercises have helped in alleviating pain in the joint, muscles and/or tendons of my left knee. It's hard to determine which parts exactly caused the pain, all I know is that squats and deadlifts have made my left knee hurt less, not more. I wouldn't call it a muscle knot because as I stated in the answer I'm not even sure those are a real thing. It's just an observation that no amount of foam rolling that leg ever seemed to help with the knee pain while strength exercises have.
    – G_H
    Mar 24 at 17:43
  • @G_H Interesting, for me it's been the opposite. Then again, all knee pains are different.
    – 900edges
    Mar 24 at 17:45
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What you're referring to is possibly a muscle cramp, that is, an involuntary and forceful contraction of the muscle.

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