Exercise Basics

Muscles: Not Always Easy Getting It Straight

Getting Things Straight

Often we hear in fitness that most of our movements in sports and life involve rotation, bending, flexing, and making circles to warm up our joints.  After all, we are dynamic beings, doing all sorts of things, and need to be able to move appropriately for whatever it is we want to do.  Getting loopy when we exercise can really help us to stay mobile, in so many good ways.   

On the other hand, there are times when straightness can come in handy.  Life is not all circles and loops!  If we never lengthen and straighten out, our muscles can actually get used to being short, and stopping short, literally.  Think yoga and Pilates for example.  Muscle lengthening helps us function better, move better, and feel better. 

Even if you are not doing yoga or Pilates, there are times when setting your body straight can give you a better workout. 

WHY? 

Because it is easy to reinforce less than optimal positions when we exercise or go to the gym to work out.  That’s because those positions feel normal or comfortable.  It’s our default mode, and we have our reasons for it.  Most of the time we are not aware that things could be better unless we take a minute to reflect on what could be better and then take another minute to adjust.  For one reason or another, we may not have access to a trainer who can guide us to a better position and help us feel the difference. 

And yet, if we continue to exercise using our defaults, we will just be reinforcing them.  We may be getting in some good exercise, but doing it correctly can help us create better alignment, balance, bring more energy to us, alleviate some aches and pains, and prevent injury down the road.  

EXAMPLES

So… here are three examples of times when taking a minute to straighten up can get you beyond default mode into the great adventure of teasing your body into new lengths.

1. Hamstring Stretch

The stretch:  In this example, the stretch involves laying on your back, with one leg bent, foot on the floor or straight on the floor and the other leg being stretched is straight up, perpendicular to the floor.  That leg can move closer to the head as it stays straight if possible, but 90 degrees is considered good.  

The tendency:  Often the knee stays a bit bent.  And, fair enough.  Many of us have difficulty getting our leg completely straight.  BUT, the advantage of straightening the knee during this stretch is to lengthen the back of the calf and hamstring muscles where they attach behind the knee.  If you are having your leg slightly bent and then begin to straighten it, you will start to feel this area.  Once you are aware of this, you can begin to straighten your leg each time in order to eventually lengthen that area. Using a stretch strap or a belt can be very helpful.  You can also push gently on the front of your knee to get it to straighten out. 

Why does this matter?  Full length in your leg can lead to a better walking gait, better response during activities, and less tightness in the hamstrings and calves.  Tight hamstrings and calves can lead to low back pain and hip pain, which of course could mean that you may want to walk less or move less. 

2. Overhead Side Stretch

The stretch:  Standing tall, feet shoulder width apart, bring one arm overhead, bend it, and bring it to your opposite side as you bend to that side.  This is a great stretch for your rib muscles, upper arm, hips and shoulder area.

The tendency:  Because we are all basically oriented forward in both our leisure and work hours, many of us can develop a chronically rounded posture.  When we do this stretch, it is easy to be bending forward without realizing it.  The cure for this would be to make sure the arm is going directly overhead and to the side, and the side bend is going directly to the side. One way to make sure you do this is to bring the arm straight up, pointing to the ceiling before bending it directly over your head and to the opposite side. 

Why does this matter?  If you stay oriented forward, you are reinforcing your tendency to be rounded.  With this stretch, there is an opportunity to open out the front of your torso, getting a stretch in the chest.  To accomplish this, you can squeeze your shoulder blades together and draw them down, away from your ears.  These adjustments will counteract the rounded tendency, and the tendency we may have to let our shoulders creep up toward our ears.

3. Planks

For plank:  Place your forearms on the floor or a chair.  The optimal position is to keep the spine neutral, including the neck.  Shoulders need to be open, not rounded.  Just as in the side stretch, shoulder blades need to be drawn together and not creep up toward the ears.  Abs need to be engaged in order to hold this position.  Hold the plank for 10-30 seconds, take a break and repeat.  You can work up to holding for up to 60 seconds.   

The tendency:  Many of us do not open the chest, or keep our spines neutral.  It is very common to look at the floor, which rounds the back of the neck.  This can be fixed by focusing the eyes on a spot ahead of you on the floor.  Another tendency is to raise the butt a bit instead of and bringing the hips down and into alignment with the rest of the body.  If this happens, you are not engaging your core in order to keep your body in a straight line, which is the main purpose of the exercise.

Why does this matter?  Neutral spine alignment is key for spine health.  Spine health depends on a strong core.  If you cannot accomplish the position needed here, it can be a signal that you need to keep working at these and other core exercises, and stretches to open your chest.  In addition, you can strengthen the motion that draws your shoulder blades together by doing rowing exercises with free weights or machines.      

Final Thought

As ever, be gentle with yourself, and remember that you are a “work in progress.”  Once you know where you are headed, you can make small changes that will improve your exercises, and how you function during the day.

All the best,
Kristen

© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Geralt/Pixabay




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