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8 Typically Tight Muscles That Cause Muscle Imbalance

muscles that cause muscle imbalance

These are 8 Muscles That Cause Muscle Imbalance

Take a look at this picture. The muscles pictured on the right are the deeper muscles. Yes there can be more than 8 muscles that cause muscle imbalance, but I am focusing on the ones of the upper anterior(front) of the body that I deal with on a daily basis.

Out of these 8 muscles I would say most people really only feel tension or tightness in the traps and MAYBE the levator scapula. The other 6 usually are not felt unless pressure is placed on them. Their response will always be, “oh I didn’t know I was tender there”. Just because you don’t feel the tension and tightness doesn’t mean it’s not there.

That is exactly why I make posts like this so going forward you will know what muscles need to be addressed and why. It is important to know that pain is often a result of the larger, primary mover muscles becoming dysfunctional or weakened over time or due to injury, which causes the smaller muscles (made to assist with movement and provide stability), to become overworked.



You actually have 3, anterior, middle and posterior and they typically cause referred shoulder, forearm, wrist, hand, side of the chest, mid and upper back(along the lower edge of the shoulder blade) pain. These muscles can also cause headaches when trigger points are present.

The best way to release these muscles is through self massage using either your hand or a theracane, followed by stretching,(pull your head back towards your shoulder blade). Remember to hold each stretch for no less than 45 seconds.

Levator Scapula

levator scapula

Ooh this muscle is a doosey. It has attachments on the cervical spine and shoulder blade so you can imagine what happens when this muscle becomes tight. If you have no idea, shrug your shoulders ;). Tension in this muscle almost goes hand and hand with upper trap tension. If your upper traps are tight there is a high probability these muscles are tight as well.

Pain referral from this muscle includes neck, upper/mid back, and back of shoulder. This muscle is also a huge headache causer if trigger points are active.

Best way to release the levator scapula is self massage, using cupping therapy (we’ll talk about that in another post) and stretching, pulling your head to your shoulder and also pulling your head down towards your right or left pec.

Sternocleidomastoid (SCM)


I must admit I used to neglect this muscle during massages which was a big no no especially for clients that have desk jobs and sit several hours throughout the day. As awkward as it is to massage, it provides a lot of relief to both the neck and base of the skull where it attaches. This muscle flexes, rotates and laterally flexes the neck so it stays pretty active throughout the day.

Pain referral from this muscle includes the side of the chest, top, side and back of the head, jaw, ear, eyebrow region and neck. Yes this muscle also causes headaches with active trigger points present.

This muscle is usually pretty meaty and easy to grab.. Self massage this muscle using your hands and stretch pulling your head back towards your shoulder blade. Cupping also works well for these muscles.


deltoid (anterior)

Anterior deltoids are often paired with pecs when tightness is involved. The function of the anterior deltoid includes flexing your shoulder (raising arm in the front), rotating your shoulder inward, and lifting your arm to the side. As this muscle becomes tighter and more dominant, it causes more stress on the rotator cuff muscles. An overactive deltoid essentially prevents the rotator cuff muscles from being able to function properly which in turn causes shoulder instability.

Pain referral from this muscle includes the front and back of the shoulder and down the front of the arm.

To release the anterior deltoid you can use a lacrosse ball or foam roller. You can place the ball on the wall or on the floor, whichever you prefer and roll out any tender spots you feel.

Upper Traps

upper traps

The upper traps are the muscles where many people hold their stress. It’s no question that the upper traps are the cause of many stress headaches and tension headaches. Now, when the upper traps are tight, they force the middle and lower traps to be under constant stress while trying to oppose the upward pull the upper traps are giving. This causes them to weaken over time if no strengthening is being done. The rhomboids begin to weaken as well. Weakness in those 3 muscles will cause pain and knots in the upper back and neck.

Pain referral from this muscle includes neck, mid back, head, side of the head, eye/eyebrow region, jaw, and upper back. Very similar pain referral pattern to the SCM.

To release this muscle please refer to How to Foam Roll the Traps. You can also use a theracane or a lacrosse ball to apply much more pressure.

Pectoralis Major/Minor

pectoralis minorpectoralis major

The pec major and minor both effect the shoulder differently but both muscles over power their opposing muscles more frequently than not. Rounded shoulder posture is almost a true indicator of pec tension and as I have mentioned previously, pec tension is usually not felt until pressure is applied to the muscle. If you sit at a desk for hours at a time during the week, you most likely have pec tension. On top of that, if you have a desk job and you do a lot of pec and shoulder exercises without doing much upper back exercises, you probably have extreme tension in the pecs.

For you bench pressers, here’s something you can try. As you bench press, take note where you are feeling the majority of the force. Is it your pecs? Or is it your deltoids? If it’s your deltoids you probably have over tight pecs. When you have muscles that too tight, they are not going to be able to fire properly during certain movements. There won’t be enough muscle fibers activating because of the lack of blood flood and oxygen going to the muscles. This will in turn force your body to use the secondary muscles to perform the action.

That is why releasing the muscles is so essential for proper muscle function AND growth. They can’t grow if they aren’t firing properly. So I encourage you to take the time to foam roll before and even after your workouts. To ensure your muscles are primed for some action.

Pain referral for this muscle includes front of shoulder, arm, elbow, upper torso, fingers, and hand.

Refer to How to Foam roll the Pecs to release the pecs. For stretching, you can place both arms between the doorway and push your chest forward.


subscapularis rotator cuff muscles

I posted an article on this rotator cuff muscle. In that article I mentioned how tension here almost mimics pec tension due to the medial (inward)  rotation of the shoulder function they both share. This is one muscle that is very tender to touch and I always warn clients before I massage there. If you are experiencing any shoulder pain or discomfort, this muscle absolutely MUST be addressed. Make sure you tell your massage therapist to massage this muscle if you do have shoulder pain. In some cases you will  feel instant relief after this muscle is released.

Pain referral from this muscle includes back of the arm, shoulder, into the forearms and hands.

To release this muscle it’s pretty tricky. The best way is to use a massage roller stick or something similar to access this muscle. Place one end of the tool against the wall and the other along the inside of your armpit right beside the pec. Push your arm forward to apply more pressure.

Best way to stretch this muscle is to stand with your shoulder against the wall, raising your arm straight up and pushing your chest forward. Note that it’s likely you’ll feel more of a stretch in your pecs.

Those are the 8 typically tight muscles that cause muscle imbalance. It is imperative that these muscles be stretched and released on a daily basis until you notice a significant difference in tension and tenderness. Along with releasing the tight muscles, you MUST strengthen the opposing muscles that become weakened as a result. I will post those typically weakened muscles and the exercises in a later post so stay tuned!

“Now that you have this information, what will you do with it?”


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