What are the quads?
The quadriceps are a group of four muscles (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius) which are located on the front of the thigh. The word is derived from ‘quad’ meaning four and ‘ceps’ which means divisions.1 The quadriceps are responsible for extending (straightening) the knee joint and for stabilising the patella (the kneecap) and keeping it in a straight line.
The relationship between tight quads and knee pain
Tight quadriceps can lead to misalignment of the patella. This misalignment causes strain on the knee joint and instability in the entire leg. Pain in the knee-cap is also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome and most commonly affects teenagers, athletes (runner’s knee) and manual labourers. Patellofemoral pain syndrome can be caused by overuse and softening of the knee cartilage. It can also occur as a result of weakness or tightness in the vastus medialis.
The largest quadriceps muscle (the rectus femoris) crosses over the hip and works with the iliopsoas muscle (a large muscle that belongs to the inner hips) to produce hip flexion. As a result tight quads can also cause pain and impact on the hip joint!
How will I know if I have tight quads
An easy exercise can determine if you have tight quads. Lie on your stomach on a flat surface and take your heel as close to your bottom as you can. If you can’t touch your bottom with your foot or if you feel knee pain as you bring your heel towards your body then you probably have tight quadriceps.
How to fix tight quads
Overworking the muscles
Overworking the muscles and joints during exercise like running or weight training can cause the quads to tighten. Standing and sitting with the knees hyperextended can also cause tightness in the quads.
Solution: Make sure you avoid the tendency to hyperextend the knee joints; keep a micro bend in the knees to prevent the knees from locking back and from putting pressure on the joints.
Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can contribute to muscle cramps and tightness. When we are dehydrated, or when we sweat, we can lose important electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Without these nutrients our muscles can contract and reduce our blood flow and nutrient supply to our muscles.
Solution: Drink more water! The recommended amount of water we should drink in a day is around 8 glasses; however, this may vary if we exercise more, are ill, or have a urinary tract infection. Electrolytes can also be found in food, particularly fruit and vegetables; for example bananas are a high source of potassium.
It can be difficult to keep up with all the electrolytes we lose which is why I would recommend Balance Mineral Drink. It supports muscle function and bone maintenance and is packed with the essential electrolytes potassium, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D.
Sitting at a desk all day can cause your quads to tighten up; it creates muscle tension in the quads as they are in a nearly contracted position. Sitting for long periods of time will not only cause the quads to tighten but it can also tighten the lower back muscles and increase the lordotic curve in your lower back.
Solution: Even if you don’t exercise, tight quads can still be an issue, particularly if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. Practicing regular quad stretches in the morning and in the evening will help to counteract the negative impacts of sitting all day.
Inflammation occurs when we have injured or strained our muscle tissue as a way of repairing the damage. When the quads are inflamed like this it restricts mobility of the muscle and causes pain and stiffness.
Solution: Give your body plenty of time to recover when it is injured. Apply heat to the injured area and wait at least 72 hours before attempting to partake in strenuous activity. Arnica gel can help reduce inflammation, pain and muscle stiffness and it can be used alongside other pain medication.
Not engaging the glutes
Not engaging the gluteal muscles while exercising is another cause of tight quad muscles. Neglecting to warm up and cool down when exercising causes the muscles to stiffen and makes them more prone to injury.
Solution: Engaging the gluteal muscles while doing exercise (particularly running and weight lifting) will help to stabilise the hip and knee joint. Building strength in the glutes and surrounding muscles will help to prevent the quads from overcompensating for weak muscles.
Lack of flexibility
As we recover from a workout our body gets busy repairing and rebuilding our muscle fibres. As the muscle fibres knit together to become stronger, they also become tighter and lose some of their flexibility.
Solution: Always warm up effectively before exercising and consider building flexibility as well as strength. Tight quads can pull on the knee-cap, forcing it out of alignment. Becoming more flexible will loosen tightness in the quads, taking the pressure off of the knee.
A final thought
The quads are an important set of muscles that are necessary for good mobility in the leg. Tight quads can not only cause knee pain but they can also impact other joints and muscles surrounding them. Tight quads can cause pain in the hamstrings, hip joint and hip flexor muscles which can cause pain and discomfort when walking. Tight quads can also cause the pelvis to tip and pull down, resulting in lower back pain and posture problems.