How can I get more flexible? Is there something better than stressful stretching?
There sure is! Yes, you read that right. There is something better than “stretching.”
Have you ever strained into a stretch? Or, perhaps in a Yoga or martial arts class, you might have tried to keep up with your super-flexible friend and woke up in hobbling pain? Forced stretching is probably the worst approach for building flexibility. There are several reasons for this:
- You can go past your range of motion and damage soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This is especially a concern if you are stretching in a heated room, or if you are Pregnant (because of the hormones that loosen all your joints temporarily).
- Our muscle spindles react to forced stretching by telling our bodies to contract the muscles. Muscle spindles can be found in the fascia, which is a type of connective tissue that wraps around muscle bellies, as well as, individual muscle fibers.
Did you know? Stretching alone often does little to improve your long-term flexibility. How many times have you stretched a sore or tight feeling low back, calf, or set of hamstrings, only to feel as if that tightness quickly returned or simply did not go away? It’s because the source of the tightness was not addressed. What do I mean by that?
It’s your Posture. Let’s face it – the vast majority of us in the industrialized world have developed quite a slouch from years of sitting at desks, in cars, and on comfy couches. And even more so, those who spent a lot more time as kids slouching in front of video games, hand-held devices, and laptops. This creates a lot of chronically tight muscles which impede you from being able to touch your toes or do a backbend. At an advanced level, this also impedes you from being able to reach upper shelves. On top of that, we create less than ideal posture from our footwear (hello, high heels and pointy toed shoes), our favorite sports, (runners often get tight hamstrings) all of which can cause injuries. So let’s say you have some tight hamstrings and you’ve stretched and stretched, but nothing seems to last for a long time. Why not? Because you haven’t addressed the weak muscles. You’ve simply stretched something that feels tight. But it’s more likely than not, that you have some weak hip flexors! Again, that was from your posture. And yes, it is possible to change!
How do we change our posture? Well, my favorite method is Pilates. I tell people all the time how I improved my Scoliotic spine with Pilates. This was by the way, in my late 30s through 40s! Initially with a Pilates teacher, and eventually on your own, you will be able to take a good look at your posture and movement habits and learn some fun exercises to improve. Pilates instructors will also give you feedback on how to reposition your feet, your head, and so forth to help you maintain proper alignment and posture during these exercises. Pilates will help you strengthen and lengthen the muscles acting about the pelvis and lower back to restore better posture and restore normal flexibility.
Pilates also use Dynamic Stretching. Meaning, we keep you moving – and as you move, your muscles will contract and stretch, and contract, and stretch. A dynamic stretch is one of he best means of stretching and this type of stretch can be enhanced even more when working with the light springs on the Cadillac or reformer during a Pilates equipment class.
It’s your Breath. Another thing that has developed in this modern world is shallow breathing. This creates a lot of tension in the neck, chest, and even the pelvic floor. But not just that – shallow breathing also tends to make you mentally and emotionally more tense. I teach this all the time in Pilates class that flexibility, especially in the spine, can be improved with better breathing. Just imagine if you can improve your breathing throughout the day. We breathe approximately 22,000 times per day, 2/3 of that during our waking hours. Imagine how much more quickly you will improve if you simply re-discover how to BREATHE fully.
A combination of Pilates and manual therapy like Graston Technique® helps a lot! Graston Technique is becoming increasingly popular in the athletic training world and has a growing number of practitioners who are physical therapists, chiropractors, and licensed massage therapists. While the science behind this amazing technique is still developing, the idea is that adhesions in our connective tissues can impede muscle function, and the treatments help restore more optimal function. I have been using it to treat chronically tight muscles on friends and clients who are competitive runners and outrigger canoe paddlers. The awesome thing is that Harmony Pilates and Physical Therapy has two physical therapists that can offer this treatment, with a prescription from your physician!
By Lahela Hekekia
Lahela is a licensed massage therapist, certified Graston specialist and a Pilates instructor at Harmony Pilates.
Pilates Method Alliance, Nationally Certified Pilates Teacher
STOTT PILATES® fully Certified Pilates Instructor
Licensed Massage Therapist (MAT #6286), Board Certified (NCBTMB #307766-00)
Certified Medical Myotherapist
Certified Graston Technique® Specialist