On Stretching

As a dancer, I can feel my body getting stiffer and less flexible within days of going without stretching. For most individuals it isn’t necessary to be able to touch your nose to your knees with your legs stretched out, so why is stretching so important?

While studying exercise physiology, I have begun to notice that there is a strange lack of consensus for or against stretching. As for preventing injuries and improving athletic performance, the research is conflicting. And although stretching can certainly help to increase and maintain range of motion over time, and this is becomes extremely beneficial as we age in terms of our functional ability to do activities of daily living, there is not a lot of research on what type of stretching works best.

Active or dynamic stretching is most often encouraged. Yoga would fall into this category. This type of movement encourages the lengthening of one muscle or muscle group while activating it’s antagonist. It incorporates slow movement throughout the entire range of movement. For example, lowering into a runner’s lunge will stretch out your hip flexor while challenging the quadriceps for stability and the hamstring of the opposite leg for support.

Static stretching is probably what most people think of when they hear stretching. This would involve the isolation of certain muscle and holding at the end point of that stretch for an extended length of time. For example,  lifting your elbow over your head and using your other hand to pull it toward the opposite side is a static stretch for your triceps.

Setting up for ballistic stretching can be similar to either dynamic and static but the idea would be to “bounce” into the stretch near the end point of that range of motion. One example would be reaching your arm overhead and leaning to the opposite side into a lateral flexion. This side stretch which lengthens the obliques and intercostal muscles of the elongated side is often repeated at the end point, and was popular in aerobic style classes.

There is also  passive stretching which requires a prop or a partner. This type of stretching necessitates for complete relaxation of the joint and surrounding muscles.  In yoga, the use of a strap to help stretch the hamstrings, while lying on your back, can be very helpful for people whose leg cannot exceed a 90 degree angle.

In my opinion, these are all valuable methods of stretching. Figuring out what works best for you will probably require some trial and error. Dance training utilizes all of these techniques, and incorporating a little of each into a routine will probably get you the best results.  And of course it will depend on what your end goal might be; maintaining hip and hamstring flexibility might be a priority if you want to be able to reach down and tie your shoes. For older populations, maintaining shoulder range of motion becomes helpful for activities such as dressing. One thing is for certain with flexibility and range of motion, if you aren’t “going there” today, you can’t expect to be able to be there tomorrow. In other words, if you don’t use it you lose it.

What I like about movement classes, is the fluidity you can achieve while stretching. This would be considered dynamic stretching but it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or pushing toward the maximum stretch. Finding the range of motion in your rib cage and hips can just be about motion, and finding an ease in the joint. Tai Chi is a good example of this, and there have been multiple studies of why this is good for the joints and overall health. The body holds a lot of stress from our day to day lives and practicing some kind of movement technique helps you become more aware of what your body is doing and allowing your self to consciously let that tension go.   Personally I believe this is something we can all gain from, whether you are an athlete or just an individual wanting to become more active and stay in good shape as you age.

If you are not afraid of looking a little goofy, trying a movement improvisation based on circles and spirals in all of your joints might tell you a lot about your movement capacity.

If you aren’t into dancing around in your living room, here is a series of stretches you could do at work that might not attract too much attention.

1. For the front of the chest and shoulders: (great for posture) Find a door jam. Place your hands at shoulder height on either side of the door frame and allow yourself to fall forward opening up in your chest. Keep your core engaged for support and if you can keep your heels down you’ll get a bit of calf stretch as well.

2. For the glutes and lower back: (great for those of us who sit a lot) Sitting in a chair, put one ankle over the opposite knee and round forward into the stretch. Take a nice deep breath and try to relax in your hip socket. Repeat with the other leg.

3. For the neck (great to release tension): Sit up tall in your chair, drop your shoulders down, lift slightly in the sternum to open the chest. Lower your chin toward your chest hold for a few breaths and then begin circling your head. Imagine drawing a circle with the top of your head and be careful not to drop your head completely to the back. Repeat the circling in the other direction.

4. For the hip flexors (great for the front of the hip and the lower back): From standing, take a big step forward into a small lunge. Tilt your pelvis back trying to open up the front of the hip. Make sure your front knee is tracking over your foot and doesn’t go past your toe putting extra pressure on your knee. Stretch your back leg long and reach your heel toward the floor. If you are feeling strong here, you can raise the same arm as your back leg up over your head and lift up and over to the opposite side into a small lateral stretch. This will enhance the stretch of the hip flexor and test your balance.

5. For your obliques (great for the spine and core stability): Stand up with your feet together. Clasp your fingers together and rotate your arms so that your palms are facing away from your body. Raise your arms above your head and slowly reach up and over to the right side. Imagine lengthening the left side while keeping the hips stable and your weight evenly dispersed on both feet. On your next inhale slowly lift back up to standing before starting on the opposite side. Careful to only go as far as you can control, this stretch requires quite a bit of core strength if you are doing it correctly!

Take deep breaths during your stretches and if you start to feel pain back away. Some stretches are more uncomfortable than others but you should never feel sharp pain, this may be a sign that you are stretching too far.


A Popular Mistake

I recently read an article in fitsugar.com, about common mistakes for Pilates Mat beginners. I couldn’t agree more with Susi May’s pointers.

The first mistake she mentioned, not going deep, has got to be the biggest. When I was doing my observation hours during my training, I watched a lot of group classes. It was refreshing to see people enthusiastic about coming in week after week, but it was disheartening to see some of them not putting the work in while they were there. I didn’t want to see them as being lazy because it could be that they just hadn’t figured out how to connect with their deep abdominal muscles.

The problem with group classes is that it really depends on the teacher giving the right cues, and lots of them. Constant reminders about scooping in the abdominals and pulling up the pelvic floor is necessary, especially for the beginners. What I like to tell my clients is to “find the challenge”. If you are doing an exercise and thinking, “wow, this is easy” you probably could be working a lot harder!

What helps me when I feel like I’m losing that connection is imagining the movement initiating from the deep core. Really focusing in on the abdominals first to bring the limb or torso to move will ensure that desired engagement.

If you are having difficulty locating the transverse abdominis, the inner most abdominal layer that wraps around the waist helping with that “flat tummy” appearance, spend some time practicing that connection before your next workout.  Lay down on a mat with your knees bent and place the palms of your hands on your lower abdomen. Take a big inhale and on the exhale think about drawing the pelvic floor up and the navel in toward the front of the spine. Try to keep that engagement and take another big inhale expanding the rib cage wide and then exhale “ha-ha-ha.” You should feel the lower and deep abdominals engage to produce those quick short breaths. That is the transverse abdominis, the cinch belt that will help keep you from bulging the muscles outward when you do core work.

Once you get used to finding and engaging the deep core easily you begin to understand a lot more of the Pilate curriculum and it will actually make the exercises more challenging! The key to exercising effectively is to know what muscles to engage and to keep the ultimate goal in mind.


Just Breathe

Is there a “right” way to breathe?

While no, there is not a singular “right” way to breathe, taking a look at what muscles you are using to breathe will tell you a lot about where you hold tension. And yes, there are more efficient ways to breathe that minimize excess tension and stress.

The diaphragm is the major muscle involved. A large, dome shaped muscle that lays horizontally separating the stomach and intestines from the heart and lungs. When the diaphragm contracts, the dome pulls downward, and in cooperation with the intercostal muscles of the ribs this allows the lungs to expand, resulting in a large inhale. Exhaling releases the diaphragm and relaxes the ribs back down.

As simple as that sounds other players want to bring themselves into the mix. The most common are muscles of the neck/shoulders and elevators of the collar bones. Take a deep breath right now. Did your shoulders lift? If they did, you are most likely relying too heavily on those accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm. Being able to keep the neck and shoulders relaxed as you breathe will help decrease muscle tension.

Lay down on the floor and put your feet up on a chair so that your lower back is relaxed. Close your eyes and keep your arms down by your sides with your palms turned up. Now focus on your breath. Don’t try to change anything, just take note of what is moving, where your tension lies and how deep/shallow or fast/slow you are breathing. After a few minutes redirect your focus on your belly. On the inhale, let your belly expand and on the exhale let it fall down. Soften your throat, neck and shoulders. Imagine your shoulders gently falling open, widening against the ground.

Now let your rib cage expand wide as you inhale deeply and then forcefully exhale while engaging the deep abdominal muscles pulling them up and in toward the front of the spine. Take a few more deep breaths like that, feeling the expansion and contraction of the ribs and the rise and fall of the belly. Diaphragmatic breathing allows more of the lung to absorb more oxygen which in turn allows the heart to slow down and the blood pressure to decrease. The opposite of belly breathing would be quick shallow breaths which will automatically start to speed up the heart rate and increase the blood pressure to make sure you are getting enough oxygen to the rest of the body. Shallow breathing also leaves one feeling anxious, and on-edge where as slow, deep breaths promotes calmness and centering.

In Pilates, diaphragmatic breathing is used in combination with a technique called posterolateral breathing. The goal is to really allow the rib cage to expand wide so that the abdominal muscles are able to stay engaged while taking deep breaths. This is important to be aware of while you are exercising. The Pilates movements all heavily rely on use of and initiation from the core muscles, if you were only using diaphragmatic breathing  you would have to let go of the abdominal tone and compromise the exercises.

The best way to benefit from this type of breathing is to practice. In the morning, before bed, or whenever you get a few spare minutes during the day, take a moment to sit quietly and focus on your breath. You’ll be surprised at how calming it can be. And hopefully the next time your “fight-or-flight” response jumps in remember to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down and battle whatever comes at you with a clear head.