Let me dive right into what I see quite often when people are stretching-hopefully after they have worked out. Don’t get me started if you are statically stretching your muscles as part of your warm-up-that’s another can of worms entirely, which can be summed up with please hold your static stretches for after your training session when your body is warm.
With good intentions, people have come to the end of their workout and are now taking a few minutes to stretch out the muscles they have just worked (if you don’t normally stretch when you are done physical activity, it would be good to take a few minutes to do so-you’ll feel so much better!), but not everyone’s alignment is correct and I am writing about some of the most common stretches that people tend to have misaligned.
Why is this important, you might think. What’s the big deal if I am not quite aligned properly? There are many reasons why alignment is important. Misalignments could be hindering any progress you are hoping to make in your flexibility and/or these misalignments could be setting you up for injury.
As with any stretch we should ask ourselves, ‘what am I trying to stretch?‘ and, ‘Am I stretching the muscle I wanted to stretch?‘ But we should also check in to make sure our form/alignment is good and (even for static stretching) that there is some muscle activation of opposing muscles to ensure optimal benefit of the stretch. When we contract/engage the muscles on the opposite side of the joint from the ones we want to stretch, we activate our bodies’ natural reciprocal inhibition where a muscle on one side of the joint contracts and the other has to relax. This contraction also helps ensure joint stability and helps ensure we don’t hyperextend into that joint-especially for those bendy or hyper-moible people.
Here are the 4 stretches I most often see misaligned:
Hands-on-the-wall forward fold stretch: This is often being executed like the photo on the left below, with too much hinge in the shoulder joint, too much flare in the ribs and too much arch in the low back. All of these misalignments are putting a lot of stress on your shoulder, such as impingement of your supraspinatus or your biceps tendon and placing a lot of stress on your joint capsule, glenohumeral ligaments and your labrum, as well as lots of stress on the low back from excessive anterior pelvic tilt and this also means you can’t keep the core engaged with all this arching. Alternatively if you find that your back is more rounded then you are also not stretching the muscles that you hope when performing this stretch.
The Fix: (Photo one the right) Stand arm distance away from the wall and place hands a little lower than shoulder-height on the wall, palms flat and fingers spread out and active. Externally rotate your shoulders-you can think of this as rotating your arms in your shoulder girdle so that your armpits are trying to look at one another. Try not to move your hands as you do this. Next, slightly engage your core and take a few steps back and hinge at your hips to fold forward. This is important YOU want your folding spot to be your hip hinge (a folding at your hips with a weight shift backwards, while keeping a neutral spine and a slight bend in your knees), NOT anywhere in your spine. As you hinge forward and your chest moves closer to parallel with the floor make sure your spine stays neutral and your ribs do not flare-which would be an arching in your back. If your ribs flare, check to see if you have lost your core engagement. In the position of the stretch, you should be feeling the stretch along the outside of your shoulders, through your back and in your hamstrings. If you are feeling something on the top of your shoulder (the area facing up towards the ceiling in this position) or in your armpit, then you are not set up or executing this stretch properly. If you get into the correct final position and are not feeling a stretch, then you are probably not currently tight in the muscles that would be stretched in this position.
Chest Opener: Where this stretch often breaks down is that people tend to flair their ribs and ditch into their low back as you see in the photo on the left. As with the previous stretch, this creates a lot of stress on the low back.
The Fix: (Photo one the right) Stand up tall and slightly engage your core-this is done by drawing in all sides of your mid-section. Try to feel your front, sides and back drawing in towards your spine-not a sucking in of your stomach, but a feeling of contraction. From this engaged position, clasp your hands behind your back, squeezing the palms together and elbows straight, all the while drawing your shoulder blades closer towards your spine. You want to feel the muscles between your shoulder blades and your spine contracting to open the chest. Pay close attention that your shoulders are not lifting up towards your ears. The more you activate the muscles between your shoulder blades, the more you help your pecs relax and you may even feel a bit of a stretch in your biceps. Lastly, you don’t need to raise your arms up too high off your butt either. This stretch is more about pulling back the shoulder blades. When performing this stretch correctly your will feel a stretch across your chest and maybe a bit down your arms in your biceps. There shouldn’t be any discomfort in the low back.
Hip flexor: Often when performing this stretch, people seem to think it’s about pushing the hip forward and arching backwards, but this actually is not the case (here’s some deeper insight into why). When we set up into positions like the first two photos below, we are putting a ton of stress on the joint capsule and the ligaments at the front of the hip. Two structures we don’t actually want to be stretching. Joint capsules need to have a certain amount of stiffness to them for joint safety and ligaments are part of the way we keep our joints stable. Once we over stretch a ligament, it doesn’t actually go back to its previous length (unlike tendons or muscles). AND, once the ligaments are stretched out, our first line of defense to stabilize our joint has been taken out of the equation and now our tendons and muscles must tighten up to help stabilize our joint-which is the opposite of what we want when we’re stretching.
**AND before all my yoga people get all upset about their Crescent Lunge & Low Lunge (I am a yoga instructor, too!), it’s all about the set up of the lunge. You can shift your weight forward a bit, but your glutes must be contracted and your pelvis should be tipped under a little bit and not have excessive anterior pelvic tilt-think how a duck’s butt swoops up. (see photo to the right for details)
The Fix: (Photo just above) Come into a half-kneeling position with your front leg in line with your hip with the knee directly over ankle. Your back leg wants to have the knee directly under your hip and foot in line with the knee so as not to be creating any torque on that knee. Squeeze the glute of the back leg as you bring your pelvis into a posterior tilt-think dog as they tuck their tail under. Hold this contraction in your glute for the whole stretch. Draw your ribs down by contracting your abs while you simultaneously place your hands on your front thigh and press down into the leg, this helps contract your abs and deepen the hip flexor stretch. You should feel a nice stretch along the front of the hip of your back leg, you may even feel a stretch down the front of that thigh.
Tricep Stretch: The shoulder joint is a very mobile joint and we don’t want to be cranking it into places it really shouldn’t be going, but often when trying to stretch our triceps, I see either of the first two incorrect positions happening. (see photos left and middle below). This puts a ton of stress on the shoulder joint, potentially: impinging your biceps tendon or supraspinatus, wearing down your labrum as well as placing excessive strain on your joint capsule and the glenohumeral ligaments. Something else I often see is a forward head posture (not shown in the photos below). This is where when someone raises their arms up and the wrists and elbows do not line up in a straight line perpendicular to the floor over the shoulders. Then when this person tries to get their arm behind their head they jut their head forward, bringing the neck out of neutral spinal alignment. This is also no good-please don’t do this. If you can’t get your arm in line with your ear, than place the other arm over the top of your head or use a wall to help you stretch your tricep.
The Fix: (Photo one the right) Stand up tall, with head aligned over spine and find a neutral pelvic position-to do this you can do a few arch and tucks of the pelvis to find neutral-engage your core and draw your ribs down so that they are not flaring. Or just squeeze your glutes really tight and this will put your pelvis in neutral. Raise both arms over head so that your wrists and elbows are directly over your shoulder or to the best of your ability if you are a bit tighter in your shoulders. Arms should be in line with the ears (if you see in the photo on the right my arm is a little bit too much behind my ear-gotta work on that myself ?) Bend your arm at your elbow to bring the hand towards your back. With this alignment you should feel the stretch along the outside and/or the back of your arm-in your triceps.
**Additionally you can experiment with externally rotating your shoulder, this would bring your hand to touch the back of your shoulder instead of closer to the back of your neck. This external rotation may help stretch your Lat attachment. You could also add a side bend (from an engaged core of course!) to feel more of a stretch through your Lats, intercostal muscles, obliques and more muscles on your side body.
Final Note: When we are stretching it is good to know that some days certain muscles will feel tight and on other days they will not. As we say in yoga, each time we come to our practice, it’s a new day. Maybe a pose that was hard yesterday will be easy today and vice versa. We need to try to approach our stretching this way, too. If you get into a stretch and you’re ‘not feeling the stretch’, check your alignment first, but if that all checks out, then maybe you do not need that particular stretch today. However, tomorrow, maybe you will. On the flip side, if you are feeling tight and the properly aligned stretch isn’t stretching the muscle then you probably need to do some soft tissue work like foam rolling to help reduce some of the tension. See my previous blog posts here and here. This often happens to me since I am quite flexible.
As always feel free to reach out with any questions. Share the love (or this article) with someone you think would enjoy it.