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Can My Body Be Strong and Flexible at the Same Time? Yes!

One of the most common misconceptions about training is that you cannot train to be strong and flexible at the same time. This isn’t true. Just watch any luminaries of circus, gymnastics, or yoga and they will demonstrate a gorgeous combination of strength and flexibility, which is necessary in any of those disciplines.

Two woman back to back in standing fron splits

The standing front split is an example of a common pose in contortion and yoga that requires strength and flexibility.

 

The training method that makes this combination possible is active stretching.

Active stretching means using your own muscles to move your body into your end range of motion. It feels more like a strength-building exercise than a traditional stretch sensation.

To learn more, check out “What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Stretching?”.

In a passive stretch, gravity or some other outside force causes the joint to move into a stretch, so no effort is needed. This is very good for lengthening muscle, and done repeatedly over time (recommended to do at least three stretch sessions a week for best results) muscles will accommodate greater and greater ranges.

However the issue with passive stretching alone is that it doesn’t teach your body how to support that new range of motion. An over-emphasis on passive stretching often means that the body is able to achieve positions where no muscles are able to work to support the joint. This can lead to a situation where you achieve flexibility at the cost of your strength.

Of course, the converse is also possible. Muscles build only and exactly how you use them, so if you are lifting weights and doing strength-training exercises in a small range, over time your body will start to be limited to that range and either wont move beyond that range, or will feel unstable and prone to injury when it does. The more strength you build in a limited range, the harder it will be to move outside of this range, thus sacrificing flexibility for strength.

Active flexibility strengthens a muscle through its full range of motion, with a particular emphasis on its shortest position. Muscles can only do two things: shorten or relax. They cannot actively lengthen themselves. That means that the most vulnerable position for a muscle is when it is at its shortest length, helpless.

When we stretch passively, an outside force squishes muscles into shortened positions, and the muscle becomes powerless and possibly very resentful. In an active stretch we only move the joint as far as that muscle is able to contract on its own. Over time, with repetition, the muscles becomes more competent at shortening and the range increases.

Flexibility earned by active methods will almost always be less than passive flexibility. However, active flexibility will be more comfortable, safer, more sustainable over time, stronger, and require less warm up. Active stretching builds strength, awareness, and control of the joint and is a powerful tool to prevent injury, degenerative disease, and chronic pain.

Being strong and flexible isn’t just important for contortionists and gymnasts. It is a component of healthy movement for all of us, keeping our bodies responsive, supple, and able to enjoy the world. The good news is that this type of stretching is available to all bodies at any age or fitness level. It is safe, effective, and can be done with minimal fuss, equipment, and warm-up.

Active stretching can take many forms and levels of challenge and can be applied to any skeletal muscle or joint in the body. It is one of the primary components of our work here at Fit & Bendy. For a super gentle full-body workout using a large number of active stretches, check out this free workout. Other full-length workouts are available through our Video Club or you can get live instruction through our courses and classes.

Happy Bendings!

 

 

Stretch your Shoulders without Pain or Pinching

 

It is possible to stretch your shoulders without pain, pinching, or compromising the strength and integrity of the shoulder joint. This range of motions is necessary for a whole host of activities that require you to bring your arms overhead including weight lifting, handstands, aerial arts, yoga, and contortion… and just getting a plate off a high shelf!

Pinching or pain in the shoulder joint is often caused by sub-optimal shoulder alignment. When the bones aren’t in the right place you can create compression in the shoulder socket which can, over time, lead to injuries like impingement and tears.

Plus you wont make good progress on building your mobility and strength.

Coordinate Your Shoulder Movements

Remember that with all shoulder movement we are managing two different areas of mobility: the glenohumeral joint and the scapula. For more about shoulder anatomy please check out last month’s blog post, 3 Things You Should Know about Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain. Understanding shoulder mechanics is essential to mastering shoulder positioning for optimal movement.

The glenohumeral joint and the scapula each have an important job to do. And just like a choreographed duet between two dancers, if either one of them isn’t in the right place the whole thing falls apart.

I’ve broken the process of finding the correct position into three steps—and for you visual learners there is also a video below.

Step 1: External rotation of the Glenohumeral Joint

External Rotation of the Shoulder

External Rotation of the Shoulder

Internal Rotation of the Shoulder

Internal Rotation of the Shoulder

 

The glenohumeral joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket, should be externally rotated when stretching. External rotation creates spaciousness in the shoulder socket and puts the arm in a more supported position.

It is much easier to achieve this position if you start with rotation before you’re in the stretch.

There are some overhead movements that call for internal rotation like the clean and jerk, but you never want to do anything at your end range of motion in internal rotation. This can lead to the dreaded pinching feeling.

If you’re having a hard time finding your external rotators, check out How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff.

Step 2: Pull the Scapulae Apart

Illustration of Pulling the Scapulae Apart

Pull the scapulae apart creating space in the upper back.

The scapulae are capable of tremendous mobility since nothing is holding them onto your rib cage except muscles. Restriction in scapular movement comes from neglecting upper back mobility, and poor posture can make it worse. However time spent on scapular mobility has big pay-offs. In this case you want to pull your scapulae straight out to the side, away from your spine. It is easiest to do this with your arms in a T position. Don’t forget to keep that external rotation!

Note: If this is a new range for you, you may feel a deep, nervy stretch down your biceps, elbows, forearms or fingers. If this is you, GO SLOW. Don’t push into that stretch, just gradually work on it little by little over time and don’t stay in the stretch for more than a few seconds. Nerves are easily pissed off and hard to calm down. Don’t upset them!

Step 3: Upwardly Rotate the Scapulae Keeping Them Wide

Drawing showing the upward rotation of the shoulder blades

The scapulae move apart and rotate up in order to move the arms overhead for stretching.

The last step is to bring the arms overhead. This phase of the movement is highly dependent on the scapulae rotating out and up; imagine the upward rotation of a bird’s wing joint as it gets ready to fly. If the scapulae do not rotate upward sufficiently, pointing the shoulder socket towards the sky, then the shoulder muscles will have difficulty functioning properly and the glenohumeral joint will be overworked, resulting in the previously mentioned pain and pinching.

It is vitally important when upwardly rotating the scapulae to maintain steps 1 and 2 so that you don’t lose your external rotation or the width between the scapulae. Once you have all of these pieces in place, you’re ready to rock your shoulder stretch.

When you have all of the bones aligned properly, you should feel the stretch through the back of the arm, the armpit, and possibly down the side of the body. There may also be stretching through the chest (see Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching Your Pecs!). But keep in mind there is a lot of variety in anatomy and different people will experience this stretch in different places.

If you are feeling pinching, stabbing, blocking pain in the shoulder socket itself, keep working on improving your ability to do the three steps above before going deeper into the stretch. If the pain persists, I recommend seeing a doctor or PT as there may be an injury in the shoulder that needs to be addressed before stretching.

For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.

Happy Bendings!

 

 

 

Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching your Pecs!

Tight shoulders restrict athletic performance and our daily activities. A key aspect of upper body health is to have full shoulder flexion, meaning you’re easily able to lift your arms straight up over your without arching your back. If you are interested in contortion, handstands, or advanced yoga poses you will want even more range, building the ablility to move your arms behind your ears with strength and good form.

There are a number of different structural and muscular factors that can restrict mobility here including the ability of the scapulae to rotate upward and correctly position the shoulder socket (see my blog post on shoulder anatomy for more info about this), instability in the rotator cuff muscles leading to tightness (see the rotator cuff post for more info), and tight lats, among others.

But today we are going to talk about a reasonably common cause of decreased mobility with a relatively easy short-term fix (yay): stretching the pectoral muscles.

What is the Pectoralis Major?

The pectoralis major muscles connect the front of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the bones of the front of the rib cage and the clavicle. It is one of only two bones that connect the arm to the torso rather than the scapula, and it’s a big, powerful muscle capable of lifting a lot of weight. This is the muscle that leads the way for weighted movements like push-ups and bench presses.

The pec major is a pretty common muscle to be highly active and over-worked. Lots of people train push-up style exercises without doing a corresponding amount to work the back of the body. Exercises like benching heavy or continuous sun salutations bias these muscles. If your form is off and your back muscles aren’t active, or your shoulders are forward rotated because of poor posture, those pec muscles can get very stressed out and tight.

Cute skeleton girl with a glowing pectoralis major muscle

Pectoralis Major can contribute to tight shoulders

How Does the Pectoralis Major Effect Shoulder Flexibility?

Since the whole job of the pec muscle is to pull the arm in towards the body, it makes sense that they could get in the way of that overhead shoulder flexibility. Tight pecs will pull the arm bone in and down, creating a concave chest, hunched shoulders, and forward rounded scapulae. Then when you try to stretch your arms overhead they may feel very heavy, blocked, or pinchy, and it will be hard to straighten your elbows and find external rotation.

For folks with chronically tight pecs, a relatively quick stretch of the pectorals can immediately confer a satisfying increase in range of motion of the shoulders. For my favorite pec stretch (I call it the clock stretch) check out the video below. All you need is a wall to do it, and it targets all the different fibers of the pectorals and even gets a little bit into the pec minor which runs underneath the pec major and is a big contributor to hunchy shoulders.

This is a Short-Term Fix!

Pro tip: the gains provided by the clock stretch can potentially feel miraculous, but they do not address the root causes of your tight pectoralis muscles!

If you find that the clock stretch provides a noticeable improvement in your shoulder flexibility I highly recommend that you take a look at your posture and training regimen in order to figure out why they are tight.

Passive stretches like the clock stretch are great quick fixes. They can feel good and provide windows of opportunity to try out greater ranges in our joints, but they don’t change our bodies’ fundamental configuration. Sleuthing down the root causes of tightness will give you a more sustainable change and ease of movement in the ranges you desire.

For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.

 

How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff Muscles

When I received my MRI back from the doctor’s office it just said “rotator cuff tear”. What a tease!

There are four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder and each of them does a different, vitally important role. Even medical professionals tend to lump them together into one poorly-defined category. But the better you know each one and can strengthen them with precision, the easier it will be to keep your shoulders happy and healthy.

The rotator cuff muscles are responsible for the rotational qualities of your arm bone in your shoulder socket. They are also vital to the stabilization of the arm bone since the shoulder socket is very shallow and the bone has the potential to slip out of place without muscular support. This means that the balance of each individual muscle is necessary to keep the arm bone centered in the joint.

So let’s meet the team!

Subscapularis

The subscapularis is responsible for internal rotation and stabilizes the arm bone from slipping forward in the shoulder joint. This is a very important job since the most common shoulder dislocation is in a forward direction. The subscap attaches to the front of the arm bone and runs along the underneath side of the shoulder blade to attach along its inside edge. This means it’s very difficult to poke at your subscapularis since it’s mostly an internal muscle.

Illustration of a glamorous skeleton with a glowing subscapularis muscle

The Subscapularis Muscle

Supraspinatus

The supraspinatus is responsible for rotating the arm bone up in the socket and protects against the arm popping sideways out of the socket. It attaches to a boney ridge on the top of the shoulder blade and runs through a little hole in between the shoulder socket and the arm bone to fasten to the outside of the arm bone. This journey through the little hole between two bones makes the supraspinatus especially prone to sadness because improper shoulder mechanics can crush the tendon and over time lead to tearing. Since it’s right underneath the powerful deltoid it is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.

Cute skeleton with a pony tail and a glowing pink supraspinatus rotator cuff muscle

The Supraspinatus Muscle

Infraspinatus

The infraspinatus is responsible for external rotation and stabilizes the arm bone from slipping backwards out of the shoulder socket. It attaches to the outside edge of the shoulder blade and runs along the top of the shoulder blade to fasten to the back of the arm bone. Since modern posture biases internal rotation of the shoulder, most of us could use a little more external rotation love from the infraspinatus.

Teres Minor

The teres minor is the bff of the infraspinatus and they do everything together. The teres minor is a smaller muscle that sits just under the infraspinatus and reinforces the external rotation and stabilization role. For our purposes you can think of the teres minor as the Robin to the infraspinatus’ Batman.

A skeleton with cute hair and star earrings and a glowing infraspinatus and teres minor rotator cuff muscles

Infraspinatus and Teres Minor Muscles

 

Compared to the big, beefy deltoids, biceps, and triceps, the rotator cuff muscles are relatively small. If you only do shoulder strengthening with heavier weights it is very easy to go right to the bigger muscles since they are designed for the big, dramatic movements. To feel and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles it is better to use light weight, or even no weight at all, to make sure that the bigger muscles aren’t called into action.

The video below shows three unweighted, easy isometrics that you can use to experience each of your rotator cuff muscles and develop your relationship with them. Once that relationship is established you can add weight and movement to build their capacity. But you can’t strengthen a muscle that you can’t find or feel so this is a great start in getting to know your shoulders so you can all be friends!

Spend time getting to know your rotator cuff team. It’s a relationship you will value for the rest of your life.

 

Improve Middle/Straddle Splits and Hip Stability: How to Do a Highly Effective Clamshell Exercise

 

I’ve often said that if I were stuck on a desert island and I could only bring one exercise, the humble clamshell would be a strong contender. This exercise is gold for targeting one of the most important and under-utilized muscle groups in our lower body: the deep butt.

The deep butt are six little muscles that run horizontally under the gluteus maximus, connecting the head of the femur to the pelvis at various points and angles. These muscles (the obdurator internus and externus, the gemellus superior and inferior, the quadratus femoris, and the famous piriformis) are external rotators and are vital to stabilizing your pelvis for positions like middle splits and straddles, as well as for life.

But the gold in clamshells is very much in the details. It’s so easy to swish through a set of clams utilizing non-targeted muscle groups like the obliques, the hip flexors, opposite butt muscles, and even the spinal extensors. The gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius) are working but not the primary targets here. The first time I figured out how to get all those other helpers to pipe down and really focus on the deep butt muscles I was shocked to find a tiny range of motion and shaking like I was hefting an olympic barbell. But it was just my thigh bone. So exciting!

How to Set Up for Success

Even Out Your Hip Bones: If you have a difference in the diameter of your waist and hips, which most people do, when you lie on your side your top hip will tip up towards your rib cage making your hips uneven. Use your waist muscles to lengthen that top hip out towards your heels until the top hip bone is directly above the bottom hip bone. This will make it harder for your obliques and back muscles to “help out”.

Slight Lean Forward: Very slightly rotate your pelvis forward as if you were considering rolling forward onto your belly. Lengthen your top knee out just past your bottom knee. Feel like that top leg is lengthening out of the hip socket. You are going to maintain this lengthened feeling and forward tilt throughout the exercise to minimize the participation of the gluteus minimus and medius and hip flexors.

Stack the Insteps of your Feet: Make sure that the feet are stacked one directly on top of the other with the insteps lined up and pressed together. That slight press down with the top foot is going to encourage the external rotators to be more enthusiastic.

Tips for Optimal Execution

Nothing Moves but the Knee: Try putting your top hand on your top hip. Don’t let that hip bone move at all. The only movement is the lifting and lowering of the thigh bone.

Bottom Leg Stays Relaxed: It is so tempting to push that bottom leg down to lift the top leg up, and some amount is inevitable. But really try to keep it as relaxed as possible.

Keep it Small: Most of us don’t have a huge range in our external rotation. If you are doing a giant movement where your knee points towards the ceiling every time you are likely bringing pelvic and spinal rotation into it and no longer isolating those deep butt muscles. Keep it small, keep it honest.

Feel the Burn: For most people this is not an isolation we do every day. Those deep butt muscles should be singing! You probably wont need more than 10-20 reps to get to shaky, crampy, maximum. Feel free to do multiple sets but when you get too tired to isolate, take a break.

For you visual learners check out the YouTube video below!

Pro Tip: The standard way to do this exercise is with the hips at about a 45 degree angle and the feet lined up with the hips but that isn’t the only way to do it. You can emphasize different muscles but doing the same set up with the knees tucked up towards the chest or in full extension with the feet back behind me like you were hanging upside down from a trapeze. These exercises are great for improving hip stability at every angle.