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.


Keeping Fit on Vacation

Vacations and traveling can be refreshing and energizing but they can also leave us feeling a bit heavier upon return home. My dad used to tell me, “there are no calories on Holidays” and like so many others I take advantage of times with friends and family or on vacation as times to splurge and not think about eating “right” and just enjoying a good meal and a dessert. And there is nothing wrong with that! The last thing I would recommend is to go on a trip and not experience the food! But vacationing is not an excuse to be less active either….

On most of my vacations I do a lot of walking without thinking about it. Walking is great, and can mean the difference of 1.3 more years of healthy life in terms of cardiovascular disease if you are walking just 30 minutes a day. (according to a 2005 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine)

Living in New York City, I can easily walk 30 minutes a day when I include my commute to work and running errands in my neighborhood. If you live in a more suburban community getting those minutes in might have to be a bit more proactive when you drive everywhere you need to go. But exploring new cities, it should be easy to get in that burst of activity each day- but that might not be enough if you are also eating slightly more- or more richly than normal.

Unless you are at an all amenities included hotel, chances are you are without a gym. Here is when knowing how to get a good work out without relying on machines is most beneficial. Pilates and Yoga are both great to utilize in these types of situations. And getting creative with squats, lounges, and planks can give you a full body workout with limited space and equipment.

I found this article on a ten minute plank work out by Tina Haupert on Health Magazine’s Website. I tried it over the weekend and my abs and arms were definitely sore the next day. It’s incredibly intense and not suitable for beginners to plank workouts but it is telling just how little you need to work up a sweat. A modified version of this workout would be to add in moments in downward dog and child’s pose to rest.

Extra time stretching can also be a great addition to vacation time workouts. Stretching can be very relaxing and much needed after long periods of time sitting (travelling). Long trips on a plane or a car can be terrible for circulation. Try to stand up for a minute every hour or so, and making sure you rotate your ankles, stretch the calves and legs and doing a few straight leg press ups onto your toes can increase blood flow and prevent cramps.

Sit up straight!

Posture is simply the position of the body when sitting or standing. While you might think it would be a rigid position, it should actually be anything but static. Good posture aligns the bones and muscles to work the most efficiently so that it requires the least amount of energy. Any posture that forces certain muscles to strain is going to have repercussions. The body is designed for movement so keep that in mind when “sitting up straight,” it’s usually not a great idea to try to lock joints and muscles into place.

The word posture also has some other connotations dealing with projecting attitudes, often in a way to impress or mislead. This seems fairly logical given that we can read a lot about a person by their posture. And it works both ways. Try feeling confident slouched over in your chair…. Now sit up tall, shoulders wide, chin lifted horizontally- it’s like being a totally different person.

Most of posture correcting techniques or methods deal with breaking bad habits. Once you recognize when you are not in an ideal posture it’s easier to change into a more supported position. Having a sense of body awareness is crucial, not only for correcting posture but also coordination and balance. Body awareness and posture also play a role in overall body language, which sometimes speaks louder than you might think.

But the real kicker with bad posture is that it contributes to chronic back pain. A lot of people spend most of their time sitting in front of a computer. It’s important to make sure you are getting up to stretch your legs and walk around periodically throughout the day. Staying in one position for a long period of time is stressful on the body. In order to improve your posture you will need to strengthen the muscles that run on either side of the spine. These muscles, especially the erector spinae, support your spine in an upright position. The reason why it’s often difficult to keep the back straight when sitting down is because of weak erector spinae.

The baby swan exercises in Pilates targets this muscle. By extending the back without using your hands to push you up, you are forced to use the muscles of the back. Do these exercises very slowly to make sure you are not using momentum or letting other muscles compensate.

Lie down on your stomach, engage your abdominals and place your hands, palm over palm, underneath your forehead. Slowly lengthen your spine to lift into an arc coming up only as high as you can control. Just as slowly lengthen the spine to lower back down. Do 4-6 repetitions and then stretch out the back by sitting in child’s pose or cat pose on all fours.

Good Morning Stretch

One of my favorite things when I wake up in the morning is that great big yawning stretch. It’s instinctual to want to reach out and breath deep to start the day. The mornings that I get up and don’t have time to do a full work-out I’ll make sure to do a bit of stretching, meditating, core work, or whatever else my body feels like it needs that day. It gives me a boost of energy and motivation for the rest of the day and also kick starts my metabolism.

Because the vertebral disks have a tendency to swell a bit during your sleep, it’s not always comfortable to begin stretching immediately after waking up. I prefer to walk around my apartment a little, get a glass of water, sit for a few minutes and then when I’m feeling a bit more awake I’ll get started. It won’t help me if I decide to meditate only because I want a few more minutes of sleep…

My fifteen minute routine:

-First, child’s pose taking slow even breaths

-Gently move into downward dog (staying in that pose I’ll tread my feet to work through the ankles and get the blood flowing)

-Go back into child’s pose and then move into a plank position (Here I’ll focus on pressing into my hands so that my rib cage doesn’t sag away from my shoulder blades and I’ll either hold this for a few seconds or do a couple push-up depending on my energy level)

-Back to child’s pose and then tucking my toes under I’ll shift my weight into a low squat and then slowly straighten my legs, hanging my torso over. This is an intense stretch on the hamstrings and if you are able to release the muscles of the back, it’s a little bit of traction on the spine)

-Very slowly, roll up to standing. (you can repeat this sequence if you’d like before moving on to the core)

-Next, grab a swiss ball and lay back on it with arms wide to open up the chest. (If you don’t own a swiss ball, think about purchasing one, they are great exercise and stretching tools and relatively inexpensive. Most manufacturers have height charts because they come in a variety of sizes and you’ll want to get the appropriate diameter for your height.)

-Crunches on a swiss ball are challenging so you can do fewer reps with the same effect. (If you can extend your legs and keep your balance this will inhibit the hip flexors making your abs work harder.)

-Walk your feet out slightly so that you are in a supported bridge position with the ball under your upper back you can bend and straighten your knees to work the glutes and hamstrings.

-A deep runners lunge will stretch out the hip flexors. (If that is too intense you can put your back knee down into a kneeling position and gently press the pelvis forward to open the front of the hip.)

-End sitting on the floor, bend the right leg and cross it over the left. Use your left arm to pull the bent leg close to you to stretch the glutes. Reach back behind you with your right arm and twist your torso to increase the stretch. Sit up tall and take a few deep breaths before switching sides.

Feeling Tense?

Sometimes as I’m walking down the street, or sitting at my desk I”ll suddenly become aware of my shoulders hiked up by ears. The muscles that elevate the shoulders (rather the shoulder blades) are the upper Trapezius, the Levator Scapula and the Serratus Anterior. The upper Trapezius being the largest muscle of that group is considered the main culprit. Our bodies tend to tense up as we get stressed, as we pent up emotions or just out of habit. Many of us hold this tension in our neck and shoulders, it is a little instinctual. Constantly elevating the shoulders causes the muscle to become tense and short which is why a good shoulder rub can feel so good!

To relieve some of the tension in the upper trapezius, take both hands and grab hold of the fleshy muscle on top of your shoulders and pull them forward. For an added stretch tilt your chin up and let your fingertips gently massage the muscles. You can also sit up tall, pull your shoulders down and back slightly then drop your head forward letting the weight of the head stretch and lengthen the upper trapezius, which attaches at the base of your skull.

The best thing to do when you realize you hold tension there is to become aware of it. Notice when your shoulders are up and consciously bring them  back to neutral. Roll your shoulders back opening up the chest and gently pull the scapula down using your lower trapezius and your Latissimus Dorsi (these are the largest muscles of your back, the traps and lats). You should automatically feel a little taller and maybe even a bit more confident! Take a deep inhale without letting your shoulders ride up and a long exhale imagining the tightness of the shoulders melting away.

Don’t Forget to Stretch!

After a conversation with my coworker Jonathan Welch, who is starting to lift weights again, I realized the importance of stretching might not be common knowledge.

Jon’s arms and chest were seriously sore for the previous day’s workout with free weights and I suggested to lay back on a swiss ball to stretch the muscles on the front of his chest. He then asked a great question, “Does it make sense to stretch the muscles if you are trying increase the muscle mass?”

Stretching muscles after toning exercises is crucial unless you are going for the hunched over, and immobile look. The physiological changes that occur when exercises are complex but here is the simple picture. In order to build muscle the fibers must first break a little and then rebuild. This is part of the reason why  muscles get sore. You are actually producing micro tears in the body of the muscle. If you continue to exercise regularly, the repaired muscle fiber layers increase, which in turns increases the size of the muscle and the power behind it.

Contracting a muscle while lifting weights shortens the muscles. Stretching prevents the muscle from staying in that contracted state. While it’s true that the contracted muscle is often what body builders are looking to gain, it definitely puts a damper on your flexibility. While it’s true there is a little bit of an either-or in the ratio of flexibility vs. strength, (as in you can’t get maximum strength and maximum flexibility at the same time), I would assume the average person doesn’t want to sacrifice mobility for brute strength.

Anyway, this is all very generalized, if you are interested in the science of muscles this site is a great place to start. Brad Appleton’s document, Stretching and Flexibility, is full of great information for beginners on the subject.