Category: Stretching

Got a Bendy Back and Tight Hip Flexors? Try this Short Workout

Five years ago I wrote a blog post titled The Curse of the Bendy Lower Back that laid out many of the difficulties facing people with a naturally bendy lumbar spine. One of the most unpleasant consequences is shortened, weak, painful hip flexor muscles.

This phenomenon has been well documented. In 1979 Dr Vladimir Janda coined the term “Lower Crossed Syndrome” to describe the postural condition where the back arches and the pelvis tilts forward. This results from and further contributes to tight muscles in the lower back and the front of the hips, and lengthened muscles in the abdominals and glutes/hamstrings.

At the root of the problem is inefficiency. Our bodies are designed to move from a stacked spine where the S-curve rests directly on top of a vertical pelvis and very little muscle is required to hold us up. When our spine is not neatly stacked the muscles and connective tissue have to work much harder to hold us up, resulting in angry, resentful, tight muscles.

In the case of the bendy lower back, the spine pulls the pelvis into a forward tilt (and sometimes the pelvis pulls the spine). This makes the back muscles have to work very hard to hold up our upper bodies, and compresses our illiopsoas, the largest and deepest set of hip flexor muscles. It also aligns us in a way that makes it our quadriceps muscles over work and makes it harder to use our abdominal muscles and glutes. Left unchecked over time this creates chronic postural problems, tightness, and pain.

I’ve had a pretty severe case of Lower Crossed Syndrome for most of my life. I do exercises every day to counter its effects and it has decreased my back and hip pain and increased my hip mobility. I’ve also seen these exercises help other people with the same issues, so if you’re in the same boat, perhaps they will prove useful for you too!

The video below contains specific exercises that I find useful, but here are some guiding principals that can help you design your own workouts and adapt your current workouts to make sure that you aren’t reinforcing your imbalances.

1. Know Your Dominant Muscles and Try to De-emphasize Them

For many folks with bendy back issue, the quadriceps muscles are bossy as hell. When designing your exercises, find ways to reduce input from the quads in favor of the illiopsoas, glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles. Basically, anyone but the quads. It may mean going lighter with your effort in order to find those quieter, shyer muscles.

2. Just Because a Muscles is Tight Doesn’t Mean it’s Strong

The back and hip flexors do not want to lengthen. They may feel tight as a bridge cable, but that doesn’t mean those muscles are good at contracting either. Often those muscles are just stuck at one length, not getting shorter or longer. When that happens, I recommend working on contracting the muscles first, before trying to stretch them. It is easier to make a muscle contract than relax, and once you get them to contract they gain some confidence and are more amenable to relaxing and stretching.

3. Just Because a Muscle is Long Doesn’t Mean it’s Weak

Those glutes and abs may be stuck in a long position, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong in a long position. When I was doing backbends all day my abs were very strong, they just didn’t want to get shorter. The key to making sustainable change was to get away from the crunches that I was used to and find exercises that forced me to use my abs when they were in a shortened position, with my spine in forward flexion. This resulted in lots of shaking, and some sustainable improvement in my bendy back issue. Putting a squishy ball or pillow under the hips for ab work is a great way to start.

4. Changing Posture is a Daily Practice

Posture doesn’t change overnight. It’s likely you’ve had this posture imbalance for much of your life so doing exercises once in a while isn’t going to make a noticeable difference. Changing posture and maintaining that change means doing exercises to address the imbalance almost every day, possibly for the rest of your life. But hey, at least you’ll always have something to do.

For my fellow hyperlordotic (bendy lower back) friends, I hope that some of these tips and exercises are useful for you. I know many of you may be dealing with back and hip pain, and all I can say is that there is hope for relief with consistent dedication to this small, undramatic, exercises.

Happy Bendings!

 

Spinal Anatomy for Back Benders

Back bending is one of the most challenging areas of the flexibility arts. The spine is an extremely complex structure consisting of bones, cartilage, connective tissue, and tons of nerves. You are essentially bending your brain’s tail.

Back bending is also special because most of the flexibility gains come from shortening the muscles of your back. Most flexibility training focuses on lengthening muscles. That is why back bending feels so different than other types of stretching and why it requires a specialized, primarily active (strength-based) approach. For ideas on strength-based spinal mobility check out the Video Club series.

Back bending is intense! Moving those bones and nerves around can create all sorts of unexpected responses. Dizzyness, euphoria, nausea, headaches, intense emotion, muscle spasms, and exhaustion are all common responses to back bends. My coach used to say that one hour of backbending taxes the nervous system like eight hours of normal exercises.

And of course back bending can be dangerous. Overtraining risks the possibility of fractured vertebrae, herniated discs, pinched nerves, and chronic pain.

Lest I sound like a total downer, I still love to teach and practice back bending. I just have strong feelings about the need for education and safety around the pursuit of the back bend. So let’s start with understanding the basics of how the spine is constructed.

 

The Three Segments of the Spine

Outline of the Spinal Anatomy

The spine is made up of 24 boney chunks (vertebrae) that are hollow in the middle to allow the spinal cord to pass through. In between each vertebrae is a squishy disc to allow for movement and protection, and there are tough cords of ligaments that keep everything held together. To nerd out more deeply on the anatomy of the spine check out this good introductory article from the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Vertebrae change shape as they go up the spine. Based on that shape the spine can be divided into three different sections. Each section has a different kind of movement function.

Lumbar Spine

The Lumbar SpineThe lumbar spine starts at the sacrum, a flat shield-shaped bone that attaches to the pelvis. The five lumbar vertebrae (some people have six) are the largest of the three sections and naturally curve into a back bend shape. Some people have a lot of natural curve, some people have less.

The primary muscles supporting the lumbar spine are the illiopsoas, transverse abdominus, obliques, and the pelvic floor muscles. The muscles in the back that need to shorten for backbends are the multifidi, quadratus laborum, and the large muscles on either side of the spine that connect the spine and the ribs.

The shape of the lumbar vertebrae makes them more mobile going forwards and backwards although they also allow for twisting and side bending. Your lower back is part of the support system for your entire upper body, so it is important to keep it strong and mobile even if backbends aren’t your passion.

If back bends are your passion, beware over-using your lumbar spine. Because it has a natural back bend curve it’s easy to dump into your lower back, especially if you have a lot of natural curve and/or tight hips and upper back.

 

Thoracic Spine

The Thoracic SpineThe thoracic spine is the longest section of the spine, starting in the mid back and extending up to the base of the neck. The shape of the vertebrae differs considerably from the lumbar spine allowing for less mobility. The thoracic vertebrae are also the anchors for the ribcage, further limiting movement potential.

The muscles that support the thoracic spine in backbends are primarily upper back muscles including the lower and mid trapezius, the serratus anterior, and the rhomboids. The diaphragm is also involved in upper back bending and a tight diaphragm can limit upper back mobility.

The thoracic spine has a natural forward bend that is often exaggerated by modern posture. This is why learning how to find a backbend in the thoracic area is valuable even if you aren’t a back bender. And if you are a back bender it is extremely important to develop the muscles that reverse the natural curve of the thoracic spine to avoid over-using the lower back and neck.

The thoracic spine is very good at twisting, so one entry point it to work on twisting motions.

Cervical Spine

The cervical spine is in the neck, providing the bridge between the skull and torso. There are seven cervical vertebrae designed for maximal movement in all

Cervical Spine Illustration

directions: forward, back, tilting, and twisting. This is necessary for us to have the mobility we need but it does mean that back benders (and everyone else) need to take very good care of our necks.

Like the lumbar spine, the cervical spine also has a natural backbend shape. That makes the neck another vulnerable place for back benders. I often teach backbending without including the neck at all until some amount of thoracic bend is present to lessen the pressure on the cervical vertebrae. Strengthening the neck muscles is also essential, especially for those planning to practice chest stands (locust pose) or shoulder stands.

 

It is important to strengthen all of the neck muscles evenly because it is so mobile. Don’t just work the back bending range, work forward, tilt and twist with resistance. That head weighs about 11 lbs. It’s heavy!

 

 

Know Your Bend

Understanding the sections of the spine and how they work will aid you in improving the beauty and ease of your backbend and making sure that your back stays healthy and pain-free.

Pro Tip:
Take some photos of your backbend. Notice where you are bending: which areas of your spine are doing the work? If you notice that you are only bending in a few spots and other areas of the spine are not bending at all, or eve bending forwards, this is a good indication that you should focus your training on evening out that bend before going deeper into your flexibility.

Please watch the video below for you visual learners, and check out our video workouts and workshops for ideas on how to safely approach back bending.

Happy Bendings!

What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Flexibility?

There are two different ways that we can measure our flexibility in any joint: active flexibility and passive flexibility. It is important to know the difference between them and how to use them to achieve your flexibility goals.

Active Flexibility

Active flexibility is the amount that we can use our own muscles to move into an end range position.

Active Flexibility Illustration

The active range is how far you can move into a stretch using your own muscles

So if I want to lengthen my hamstrings and the back of my leg, my active flexibility would be the amount that I could use my hip flexors to bring my leg closer to my body without touching it.

 

Active flexibility is the measurement of the shortened muscles’ ability to contract when it gets very short, which can be very challenging at first. Often active stretching doesn’t feel like a traditional stretch, it feels more like a strength exercise. Most of us aren’t used to strengthening our joints at our end range.

Active flexibility is essential for building strength and flexibility together, and keeping our joints stable. It’s important for addressing alignment, and correcting muscle imbalances that could be causing chronic tightness. It is also valuable for preventing injuries and making sure that our flexibility is helpful and useful for our chosen activities.

 

Passive Flexibility

Passive flexibility is the amount that we can move into an end range with help from an external force, whether it’s pulling with a strap, pushing from a coach, or gravity pressing us to the floor as it does in a split.

Drawing showing that passive flexibility is greater than active flexibility

Passive flexibility, using help to stretch, will almost always be greater than active flexibility.

 

 

To find my passive flexibility in my hamstrings/back of the leg, I would pull gently on my leg with my hands or a yoga strap, or have a knowledgeable coach push the leg into a deeper stretch.

Passive flexibility means that the resting length of your muscles and connective tissues is longer, and that your nervous system is comfortable with a larger range of motion. Passive stretching will increase those two factors and facilitate a feeling of relaxation and decreased pain.

Finding the Balance

It is very important to find the proper balance between active and passive stretching for your body and your goals. Passive stretching is often over-emphasized because it is better-known. Too much passive stretching can create unstable joints, less useful flexibility, and possibly injury, especially in hypermobile people.

If you are experiencing joint pain, difficulty with strength movements, or you are struggling to make any progress in your flexibility quest you may not be doing enough active stretching.

If there is a very big difference between your active and passive flexibility in any particular joint, incorporate more active exercises to decrease that difference. You will always have more passive flexibility than active flexibility, but it is our goal to minimize the difference in order to ensure the health of our joints and prevent injury.  FaB courses and Video on Demand service offer a variety of workouts combining the many approaches to stretching for optimal results.

 

Important Factoids about Active vs Passive Flexibility

1. Don’t let the name fool you, passive flexibility isn’t all about relaxation. When you are in a passive stretch you still need to engage your supporting muscles to hold your form. It is extremely rare that you want to be completely relaxed in a stretch as this can compromise your joint alignment and you may miss the tightest muscles that really need the stretch.

2. When it comes to passive stretching, more pressure does not mean more progress. Unless you are extremely muscled you don’t want to be pushing super hard on your stretches. Light to medium pressure is sufficient in almost all cases and more pressure can just cause tears and strains.

3. One of the reasons that active flexibility is so important is that the limiting factor in our flexibility isn’t always the muscle that’s stretching. Sometimes it’s the muscle that’s shortening. So that tightness in bringing your leg to your chest may be the result of hip flexors that don’t want to get shorter! If that is the case, contracting those muscles in an active stretch can be immensely helpful.

4. Active and passive stretching don’t have to be done separately, they can be combined. Play with alternating between the two, adding an active component to a passive stretch, and using movement in your stretches. For lots of ideas on how to do that check out our classes and video library.

Read more about the benefits of different varieties of stretching in this blog post, and check out the video below for all you visual learners who want to see these concepts in action.

Happy Bendings!

Kristina

How to Get More Flexible: 4 Basic Tips for All Levels

When I tell humans out in the world what I do I’m often asked—usually after a glum confession to being “the tightest person in the world”—what a person needs to do to get more flexible. It’s funny, because people don’t usually ask that about how to get stronger, or how to get faster, or better at a sport.

But flexibility is still cloaked in mystery. The old school approach to flexibility, suffering in a stretch until you get sick of it and give up, is understandably unpopular and lots of people don’t know what to do instead.

So here are four tips that can help to improve your flexibility without stretching. If you add some stretching on top of that (our classes and videos can give you some idea how to approach it in an effective, safe way) then that’s gravy. But these four tips alone can increase your range of motion and reduce pain and tightness.

1. Improve your Posture

Our posture has a huge effect on muscle functionality, tightness, and flexibility. Most of us only spend a small percentage of our day training, and for the rest of it we are mostly sitting and standing. So the way that we sit and stand is inevitably influential on our training.

Optimal posture stacks the body with the major joints in a straight, vertical line. This takes advantage of the bones balancing on one another to minimize the amount of work that our muscles have to do to hold us up. When we deviate from that vertical line with a forward thrusted head, an over-arched back, or forward rounded shoulders, muscles are called into play to offset that weight shift. After a while, the muscles get resentful and will become tight and cranky.

Learning how to stack your major joints as best as you can—ear over shoulder over hip socket over knee over ankle—will reduce tightness and thereby improve flexibility.

2. Move!

Our bodies are designed to move. Modern lifestyle has created immense conveniences that enable us to be sedentary and supported most of the time. This convenience takes a toll on our bodies by reducing the amount that we use our full capabilities.

It is extremely beneficial to move through your body’s full range of motion every day. This isn’t some big deal deep stretch session, it’s a gentle exploration of the ways that your body moves comfortably. Circle through every joint in your body, allowing them to move to their end range. I find that this is particularly effective when you first wake up to counter the stiffness of sleeping.

If you go for long enough without using a range of motion, you start to lose it, and losing range is a major cause of long-term pain and that general creakiness we associate with age. Check out my Full Body Stretch: Mild and Mellow for a super gentle full body ROM routine.

3. Targeted Strengthening

The myth is that strength and flexibility are opposing forces and you have to give up one to get the other. In fact, weakness can be a root cause of tightness. Many chronically tight muscles are not tight because they are too strong, they are tight because they are weak. Or they are tight because other muscles around them are weak so they are overworked and resentful (see the previous section on posture).

Figuring out which muscles on your body are sleepy, unenthusiastic, and just generally under performing and gently strengthening them through their full range of motion can make dramatic changes in your flexibility. Our video workouts and classes at Fit & Bendy include targeted strengthening for parts of the body that are commonly underperforming on a lot of our clients. This strength training enhances our active and passive stretching.

4. Water!

Every structure in our body is coated in a thin layer of fascia. This fascia also creates our tendons and ligaments, and separates one muscle from another. In a healthy, hydrated body there is a nice slimy layer of goo coating the sheets and cords of fascia, allowing the muscles and tendons and ligaments to slide along each other for ease of movement.

When we are dehydrated, this goo dries up and turns into more of a paste. The fascia doesn’t slide very well, and it can get completely stuck together. If you leave it stuck for too long it becomes increasingly difficult to unstick it. There are various techniques for unsticking fascia including ball rolling, myofascial release massage, and Structural Integration. But the best thing you can do is stay juicy by drinking lots of water. The minimum is 8 glasses per day, but you should consider more if flexibility is a goal.

Plus there are so many additional benefits to being hydrated. It’s an all-around win!

These four steps are useful for anyone concerned with flexibility and improved body mechanics, whether you are training like a maniac, brand new, or anything in between. Take the time, using these tips and as a jumping off point, to get to know your body and the root causes of tightness. Everyone is different, so if you understand your own body well, you can find the methods that will give you the best results.

Happy Bendings!

 

3 Things You Should Know About Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain

When I first injured my right shoulder in 2010 I joined the ranks of circus performers, acrobats, dancers, and athletes with shoulder injuries. I was bummed out, but far from alone. It is one of the most common sites for pain and injury for anyone who engages in vigorous upper body activities from aerial arts to lifting groceries out of the trunk.

And it’s no wonder. Shoulders are a complicated piece of equipment and, even though most of us have them, they didn’t come with an instruction manual. When I started to learn more about how shoulders are constructed I was amazed, and immediately changed the way I was training, stretching, and thinking about shoulder movement.

So here are three things that I wish I had known before I injured my shoulder that have helped me in my rehab process and informed the way I address shoulder pain in my clients.

The Shoulder is Not 1 Joint… It’s 4 Joints!

1. The Sternoclavicular joint is the place where your clavicle meets your sternum, right below your throat. We aren’t going to worry to much about this one because there aren’t a ton of muscles that affect it, but it’s important to know that it exists!

Stylish skeleton showing the sternoclavicular joint

Where the clavical meets the sternum and is attached by some ligaments.

2. The Glenohumeral joint is what we traditionally think of as the shoulder joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket. It is pretty mobile, controlled by the rotator cuff, deltoids, pectorals, and lats. However it is vital to know that the glenohumeral joint, if no other joints are moving, cannot lift your arm above about shoulder height and is pretty limited at bringing your arm behind your back.

Adorable skeleton showing the movement of the glenohumeral joint

The Glenohumeral joint where the Humerous meets the Scapula and Clavical in a ball and socket joint.

3. The Scapular joint is the most mobile part of your shoulder. There is nothing but muscle attaching your scapulae to your back. No bones, no connective tissue, just muscles. The scapulae is primarily controlled by the trapezius (upper, lower, and mid), the levator scapula, the serratus, and the rhomboids. These muscles coordinate in an intricate dance to move the scapulae all over your upper back to position the shoulder socket for optimal arm movement. It is this versatility that gives the shoulder its mobility but also makes it extra tricky to control and understand.*

Adorable skeleton drawing showing the scapulae moving around the back

The scapulae have no bones or ligaments attaching them to the back so they can move around all over the place!

4. The acromioclavicular joint is where the scapula and the clavical come together. Since we don’t have a lot of musclular control of this joint I’m not going to bog us down but it is important to mention that this is another area that can have pain and strains if you aren’t using proper shoulder mechanics.

 

Only 2 Muscles Attach your Arm to Your Torso, The Rest Attach to the Scapula

So here is this wild, wiggly scapula floating around on your upper back, and the kicker is that the stability of the shoulder is deeply dependent on the stability of this very mobile joint. Only two muscles go directly from the arm bone to the torso. They are big, important muscles though: the pectorals run from the arm bone to the sternum and the latissimus dorsi run from the arm bone all the way down to the base of the spine and the pelvis. These are great muscles for big movements like push-ups and pull-ups, but they aren’t stabilizer muscles.

All of the muscles that provide finer control of the shoulder (the rotator cuff muscles and the deltoids) attach to the scapulae. And that means that no matter how much you strengthen your rotator cuff or pump up those delts, if you don’t have control over your scapulae then you are anchoring those muscles to an unstable surface.

This is why any campaign to improve shoulder health and address shoulder pain must include the muscles of the upper back.

 

We Must Improve Our Strength, Control, and Mobility in our Upper Back

Almost everyone I work with, myself included, could improve the strength, control, and mobility of our upper back muscles. The scapulae are theoretically capable of amazing ranges of movement and can act as a gorgeous base for shoulder strength and mobility. But poor posture, lack of attention, and just not being aware of what is going on in the back side of our body has a cumulative affect of creating tight, weak, unenthusiastic scapular muscles.

When our scapulae don’t engage and move properly it has a profound effect on the ability of the shoulder to do its thing.

One common example of this is when the scapulae are stuck in an elevated forward rounded position (computer hunch). This means that when we lift our arms over our head to do a pull-up or put dishes away after dinner, our glenohumeral joint, which doesn’t work well one it’s own once the arms are above shoulder height, has to strain past its happy place because it’s not getting the help it needs from the scapular joint. Over time this can lead to the miserable condition known as shoulder impingement and even to tears in the supraspinatus tendon.

That is just one of many sad stories about what can happen with the scapulae aren’t strong and free to do their job.

What I took away from learning all this was that I need to spend much, much more time thinking about my upper back and my scapulae. And that extra time has paid off in reduced shoulder pain, increased stability and mobility, and improved performance overall.

If you are curious about what has worked for me and for my clients, the shoulder series included in the Video Club Membership has a lot of the exercises I love to coordinate between the shoulder joints and build scapular awareness.

Happy Bendings!
Kristina

 

*OK, you anatomy experts know I left out the scapuloclavicular joint. This is where the scapula and clavicle come together but since it has very little movement I don’t want to muddy the waters with excess information. But if you have a burning desire to get deep into shoulder anatomy, this is the fourth joint.