When the Tail Wags the Dog — Part II
Last time, the concept of the “tail wagging the dog” was explained, wherein inflexibility of the limb muscles and/or joints causes hypermobility of the trunk, which may in turn lead to spinal column injuries. The failure to stretch tight leg muscles obviously contributes to this problem; less apparent is the notion that improper stretching may compound the picture.
Take, for example, the most popular method for lengthening the hamstrings: the hurdler’s stretch. This decades-old exercise is almost sacred, a part of running folklore, the conventional wisdom of coaches and athletes alike. Go to any track meet or road race and you’ll no doubt see dozens if not hundreds of runners trying to loosen their hams with this stretch. But watch carefully next time, and you’ll notice that the ones with the tightest hamstrings will be the ones flexing their low back to the greatest degree in an effort to be able to grasp their feet or put their head on their knees. Look closely and you’ll also see how rotated their trunk becomes. What they are doing is compensating for the tight leg muscles by overstretching the back muscles and lower spine ligaments. They are creating a hypermobility in this area rather than overcoming a hypomobility of the hip by failing to isolate the tight muscle group when stretching.
Another example involves the opposite side of the coin – tight hip flexors. If these muscles in the front of the hip are tight, the pelvis is pulled down in front (anterior tilt), which then leads to an increase in the lordotic (inward) curve of the lumbar spine. Such a faulty posture can eventually cause early degenerative joint changes (arthritis) in this area. And how do most runners stretch this area? By using the lunge or “fencer’s” stretch, in which one leg is placed forward of the trunk with the knee bent and the other is placed behind with the knee straight, all the while keeping the trunk upright as a fencer would while lunging forward to strike. The problem with this is that if the hip flexors are too tight, the movement will take place by tilting the pelvis forward further and increasing the spinal lordosis!
How to avoid these faulty stretching techniques and lengthen these muscles properly? For the hamstrings, try the stretch I described a few months ago. Sit in a chair or on a table with your back in good alignment (sit up straight!), then while holding the inward curve of your low back, straighten on knee at a time as far as possible without letting your low back flatten. Hold 10 seconds and repeat 3-5 times each leg. Or, stand and bend forward at the waist, keeping your knees straight, as if you were going to touch your toes, only don’t let your low back bend forward. Keep it straight, as a waiter would while bowing. Hold this “waiter’s bow” stretch for 15-20 seconds and repeat 3-5 times.
For the hip flexors, sit on the end of a bed, with the edge hitting mid-thigh. Lie back, holding one knee as close to your chest as comfortable. The other leg should be resting on the surface of the bed with the knee bent, foot toward the floor. You should feel the stretch in the front of that thigh from the hip to the knee. Again, hold 15-20 seconds and do each leg 3 times.
By stabilizing the lower spine in the manner described, the leg muscles are properly isolated, which makes for a safer (for your back) and more effective stretch. The same principles apply to the arms/upper back and neck. More on that area next time.