An email came into my inbox not long ago from a person I didn’t know. As I was about to delete it, my eyes caught the words, “Mike Tyson” and “I broke my back.” That got me. I didn’t know Mike Tyson, not being a boxing fan (you see, I’ve now looked him up), but anything to do with backs is sure to attract my attention.
Turns out it was not Mike Tyson who was writing about his back, but Mike Balmaceda, who used Tyson’s knockout win in the ring despite an injured back as a preamble to his own injury and the reason he hadn’t been able to keep up with sending out his usual marketing emails to writers. Balmaceda’s injury happened simply because he had leaned forward to give his golden retriever a hug, and that’s what prompted this blog, which brings in my thoughts about stretching, a subject I’ve been intending to write about.
Both Tyson and Balmaceda were put out of commission by serious back strain, and let’s face it, who wouldn’t be? I’ve experienced it myself, where the paralyzing pain in my lower back made it next to impossible to even breathe, let alone move. But whether its acute or of the chronic variety, most of us experience back pain to one degree or another at some point in our lives. Its a serious issue for everyone regardless of what one does for a living, but its one that in many instances preventative tactics can help avoid.
And here is where the subject of stretching comes in.
The image that comes to mind for most people when they think of stretching is something like the photos above, taken from the pages of the StretchCoach: http://stretchcoach.com/articles/stretching/ and http://stretchcoach.com/blog/key-stretch-of-importance-04-sitting-hamstring-stretch. They have good descriptive information about stretching in them, but Iâ€™d like to put my own spin on the stretches shown, which have long been used by sports players to stretch out their hamstrings.
While both positions do indeed stretch those muscles, would you say that the bodies in these photos are relaxed? Clearly, they’re not, yet to increase flexibility in any meaningful way and to avoid injury, its my opinion that muscles need to be fully relaxed. And that means not only the muscles that are being stretched, but all muscles throughout the body must be relaxed.
One reason for this is that the human body is a very unified organism; if it senses tension in some part of it, all other parts will reflect that tension and be unable to let go of it completely. The other reason is that the stretch reflex, whose job is to prevent us from going past our normal range of movement and so protect us from injury, kicks in the minute we begin to stretch. The effect is like a bungee cord holding us back while we’re pulling on the other end, again, not an image of relaxation. Unfortunately our muscles aren’t as resilient as bungee cords and a little too much pull on our end can cause a muscle to tear or make it seize up in a spasm.
A slight variation of the positions in the photos will make all the difference to how the stretch registers on your body. There is no need to reach for your toes or to pull on your foot. Simply by leaning forward and relaxing your whole body over the stretched out leg, as in the photo below, you will relax your hamstrings far more fully. (Big point: Notice that the head is dropped over in this photo so that even the neck muscles are relaxed. This is something many people miss by looking down toward the floor instead of back into their torso.)
As you stay in this relaxed position, close your eyes and scan your body internally. Notice what muscles you feel pulling, or where you register a feeling of discomfort. Those places are where your muscles are tight, and if you simply stay there totally relaxed, the tightness that’s lodged in them will begin to release and you will gradually become looser and more flexible. This will develop your own personal sensitivity as to how far you can take a stretch without injury.
Some will say that this position is bad for the bent knee, and if your knee does feel at-risk, then this variation should be avoided. However, where there is no critical knee condition, having the hip of the straight leg pulled back so the pelvis is facing directly to the straight leg, and the bent leg not too far away from the body, often makes the position comfortable enough for the duration of the stretch. If this position is still uncomfortable, you can do it the traditional way by placing the foot of the bent leg against the inside of straight leg, however, this position doesn’t allow you to drop forward as much, so it’s less of a stretch. And that may be enough for you.
Another way to do this stretch with no risk to the knee is to sit on the edge of a cushioned chair and lean forward in the same way, with the body dropped forward over the straight leg and the other knee bent with the foot on the floor. The main thing is that whatever position you use, you must leave your body completely relaxed (remember to drop your head over!). That’s what quiets the stretch reflex and allows you to go into the stretch more fully, yet without getting injured. This is a great way to stretch your hamstrings when you’re at the office.
Stretching in this relaxed way may still feel somewhat painful, especially if you don’t stretch often, or you have a low pain threshold, but if you always go only as far as you can stay relaxed while the muscles are under pressure (that’s the key!), the pain will become not only tolerable but, in time, even pleasurable!
One last point to making this work in the best possible way is to add a breathing component to it. This, too, may be different from the way breathing is often taught with stretches, as in the following, taken from an exercise on the ‘net:
Breathe in = Stretch and increase the tension in your hamstrings.
Breathe out = Consciously relax the muscle.
Breathing in and holding the breath during the stretch, in my books, increases the tension in the muscles. (The only time I say to breathe in with a stretch is when you’re pulling your body, or some part of your body – your arms or head – upward. Then the above breathing fits with the exercise.)
So here is how to breathe to release tension and to fit in with the relaxation in the above exercise: Take a breath in before you move into the stretch. Then, as you go into the stretch, let your breath out. Breathe normally while you stay relaxing in the stretch (“relaxing” because it continues, rather than “relaxed,” which is stopped), then, as you come out of it, take a full, deep breath. Now you can breathe out again if you go into the stretch a second time.
What you want always to remember with this kind of stretch is to go into it slowly and come out of it slowly so your muscles have time to adjust both ways.
What stretching this way does for you is develop what I call a “buffer zone of resilience” so that, when a movement is done too suddenly or with too much force, you have a “cushion” to soften the impact and absorb the attack on your muscles.
Which brings us around to the “broken back” at the start. Although the exercise described above is essentially to stretch out the hamstrings, done the relaxed way it also gently stretches the lower back. The two areas are connected and both need loosening to develop the “give” of a buffer zone.
To develop this buffer zone of resilience you need time, patience and the ability to relax as in the photo above. It’s something you need to do over a long period of time (so start yesterday!) because, while it is possible to change tight or stiff muscles into more resilient ones, it isn’t an overnight process. But the rewards are great, like not “breaking your back” when you bend over.
Mike Balmaceda, are you there?