AN INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST POST IN A BLOG SERIES OF INFORMATION I REGULARLY SHARE WITH CLIENTS
We are relational beings. Nothing replaces touch from another person – indeed touch is vital for survival and health. Professional massage provides skilled touch grounded in anatomical knowledge. Therapists gather information from history and context you share, observed feedback such as movement ability and range of motion, felt feedback such as tissue texture, temperature and color, and intuition. Using this information, therapists identify opportunities to facilitate balance in your muscular, connective tissue, and nervous systems.
However, you are ultimately responsible for caring for your body and your well-being. You know yourself better than anyone, and there are numerous easy things you can do to care for yourself in between massages.
There are various concepts and ideas that I regularly share with my clients, and apply to a lot of people. This is the first in a series of blog posts to share this information with everyone. I’m sure something in here will apply to you!
As a massage therapist, I do not diagnose, nor can I directly recommend exercises or lifestyle modifications for you. However, I can share information that has been effective for me personally and that I have observed help other clients. I also am operating in an additional capacity as a licensed Level 1 MovNat trainer and a health educator through the NHI Neuromuscular Therapy Program. It is your sole choice if you wish to pursue these ideas. I am not responsible for any effects, positive or negative, that you experience.
STRETCHING AGAINST RESISTANCE
Why do you want to stretch?
People often have the sensation that a muscle is “tight,” or that their mobility is limited. Static stretching (gradually lengthening a muscle to the point of discomfort and holding there) often feels good, and I encourage you to do things that feel good in your body!
But static stretching doesn’t usually change the length of a muscle quickly or satisfactorily, and recent research suggests it may even impair athletic performance. This is because muscle length and your perception of it is governed by your nervous system.
Your muscles may become stuck in a pattern based on how you use them. “Tight” muscles may be locked long (like your neck when you look at your phone all day) or locked short (like your hamstrings from sitting all the time). You may also feel tension if you didn’t warm up properly before an activity or you overused something. Think of these signals as clues for how to care best for your body.
How does stretching against resistance work?
Stretching with resistance communicates to the nervous system directly, letting the body know that it is safe to reset or lengthen a muscle. According to the Ki-Hara method of resistance stretching, when “muscles are … contracted and lengthened at the same time” you are communicating to your nervous system that your “muscles are strong THROUGHOUT their ranges of motion.” By stretching muscles “only … as far as they [can] resist, [you] keep stretching safe and effective.” This helps ensure balance between strength and flexibility.
How do I do it?
Depends on who you ask! Similar techniques (with more or less complexity) go by a variety of names like PNF – proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, contract-relax, and resistance stretching.
However, here are some simple principles that I have found to be immediately effective. As long as you identify what you want to stretch, you can do this technique!
- Start with a static stretch of a muscle, gradually moving the muscle to a lengthened position until you feel a slight stretch.
- Without moving, contract the muscle with about 10% of your strength against external resistance: the floor, the wall, a doorway, a resistance band, or your own hand or arm.
- Hold the contraction for a few breaths.
- Relax the muscle moving slightly out of the stretch on an exhale.
- Inhale, then exhale and move gently into a stretch slightly further than the initial position. You will likely find the intensity of the stretch has lessened and you can move further.
- Repeat steps 2-5 two to three more times.
A specific example for the hamstrings:
- Lie on your back on the floor. The leg you aren’t working on can rest flat on the ground or with a slight bend.
- Put a strap or band around your heel. Bring the leg you want to stretch straight up in the air and move your leg towards your head until you feel a slight stretch.
- Without moving the leg, pull the band to bring the leg further towards your head while simultaneously contracting your hamstring by pushing your heel towards the ground.
- Hold the contraction for a few breaths.
- Relax your leg moving slightly back towards the floor.
- Inhale, then exhale and bring your straight leg towards your head again for a slight stretch. It will likely move easily and a bit further than your initial stretch.
- Repeat steps 3-6 two to three more times. Then move to the other leg.
Check out this video to see someone demonstrating a similar technique! He gets more precise about timing – I have found that the exact seconds matters less than getting the basics down.
Check out this video for an explanation of how to do the same technique against the wall.
And finally, if you already get the basics of stretching against resistance and want to go deeper into it, check out this video of Ki-Hara resisted stretching for the calf and hamstring. Ki-Hara is more complex and builds on the basic technique listed here.
Considerations on when to stretch
You may wish to identify your overall tendency on the spectrum between strength and flexibility. When you are strong and flexible in all ranges of motion, you are considered highly mobile. Mobility allows you to engage in a variety of physical tasks and adapt to unexpected situations without injury.
Are you someone who is very flexible but not strong? You may want to strengthen and move lightly before and after activity to address tension rather than stretch. Overly flexible people or people who overstretch their muscles may put extra strain on joints leaving them prone to injury or degeneration. This is where I fall in the mix. I have found a ratio of about 5:2 strengthening exercise (like Pilates) to stretching exercise (like yoga) is best for my body. I also have had great success with stretching against resistance when I feel tension in parts of my body that have been working hard.
Are you someone who is strong and stiff? Strength without flexibility can leave you prone to muscle strain or sprain. Stretching against resistance is for you. Be aware, if you are stiff because you don’t move often, moving more often in a variety of ways will likely be even more important than stretching.
These principles can be applied to muscle groups within your body as well. Are your shoulders tight from sitting hunched over a lot and are weak? Exercises that strengthen your shoulders or changing your desk setup may be more effective than stretching. Or are your shoulders tight from lifting at the gym and not stretching? Time to do some stretching with resistance!