Well, it may not be 50 actual shades, but there are many considerations that go into creating a good, comprehensive stretching program. Over the holidays, I was approached by an acquaintance who asked my opinion on stretching. He said he had been told by his doctor that he should “stretch more” to help with his occasional low back pain. He was considering taking up yoga in the New Year and wanted my thoughts on it. Should he take yoga? Should he go to a trainer and get a stretching program? What would be best for him? These are good questions with no easy answers. Since stretching is at the top of the list of many New Year’s resolutions, let’s explore how to help you find what works best for you.
When embarking on a stretching program of any kind, it’s first important to know why you need to stretch. This may seem obvious, but you need to stretch only those muscles that are actually short and “tight.” By short and tight, I mean, restricting your normal range of motion. For instance, my friend at the party had tight hamstrings, which prevented him from touching his toes. This is problematic for him because whatever mobility he loses at the hip due to the tight hamstrings, his body will find by moving too much somewhere else—in his case, through his lower back. That kind of instability in the lower back can cause pain, and eventually injury. For him, stretching the hamstrings was critical to maintaining stability in his lower back.
In contrast, I once worked with a retired dancer who was too flexible in the hamstrings. You may know someone like her; she can stand against a wall and pull her ankle up by her ear. And yet… she would beg me to stretch her hamstrings. She said it felt so good, and she could really feel the stretch… with the ankle up by the ear (!) The “stretching feeling” she spoke of was actually the muscle being pushed past the end of its normal range. Stretching her past this end range could actually be damaging for her.
A more common scenario is one I see almost daily: an individual has the modern “syndrome” of rounded shoulders, and a head that rides a little too far forward on the neck. This person complains of “tightness” in the upper back and shoulder blade muscles and begs to be stretched there. Many times she comes in showing me that rounding her shoulders is her favorite stretch! In this case, the “tightness” she is feeling is the tension of the muscle being pulled to, or even past it’s normal resting length. Much like a rubber band being pulled to the limit, the muscle under tension is indeed tight, but not because it is too short; it is actually too long. In this position, the muscle is inhibited or “shut off,” and cannot perform its important postural duty of holding the shoulder blades in a more central position against upright ribs. In this case, stretching is important, in fact, imperative for the muscles opposite those that “feel tight.” That is, the chest and front shoulder muscles are the ones that need the stretching to allow the shoulder blade muscles to take up their proper jobs and place the shoulder blades where they should be on the upper back.
How do you know what needs to be stretched in your own body? Get evaluated by a qualified professional. A good physical therapist, chiropractor or medical exercise professional can give you a thorough flexibility assessment. Then get some good instruction on how to properly stretch to improve flexibility and avoid injury.
So what about the yoga question? I personally love yoga and think it is an excellent way to increase strength and flexibility. It is also very easy to get hurt unless you have good instruction and have been taught how to use props. Props allow us (those less flexible, like me) to get into positions correctly without straining. This is essential, since many yoga classes are filled with super-flexible people who make us feel as though we need to “compete” and force ourselves into over-doing and on into injury. A favorite instructor used to repeat the mantra, “props are not because we can’t; props are so we can.” I loved that and strongly recommend it as words to live by.
The answer I gave my friend? First get an evaluation by a qualified professional, then learn how to properly stretch the areas that need it. You can certainly take up yoga, but only with a good instructor and a willingness to use whatever props and modifications are necessary to find the poses without pain or strain. Stretching is a very important component to any exercise regimen, so be sure to approach it with the same focus and care that you give the rest of your exercise program.
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