Category Archives: Stretching

Opening the Chest with Towels and Rest

Slumped posture and rounded shoulders are the result of our sedentary lifestyle with hours spent looking at computer screens. Although there are many components to correcting this multi-faceted dysfunction, passive stretching of the upper thoracic spine can be useful for addressing the pain that occurs mid-back between the shoulder blades. Gravity can do the work for your client along with towels, pillows and supports to open up the thoracic region. After your client experiences the pleasant and relaxing result of lying supine using this prop arrangement, your client will have a powerful tool to address future discomfort through home care.

A slightly posterior thoracic curve is part of a regular healthy spine, but when this curve becomes exaggerated and rounded, called kyphosis, it compresses the chest toward the pelvis reducing space for the organs and can cause back pain, difficulty breathing and nerve irritation. This rounding can occur through consistently slumped posture over time or may be a result of more serious degenerative issues, such as bone fracturing found in osteoporosis. Severe kyphosis may require the use of back braces or even surgery. The following towel technique is only for mild rounding and should be discontinued if any pain occurs.

Items Needed:

  • Extra large thick bath towel
  • Hand towel
  • Reformer Long Box or equivalent
  • Small 1″ or 2″ pillow

Optional Items:

  • Small heating pad
  • Microwavable neck wrap
  • Eye cover

I usually set up the client on the Cadillac, but a mat on the floor will also work. Fold the extra large bath towel in half lengthwise and then roll up opposite ends (like 2 tootsie rolls) until one rolls in about 1/3 of the way in and the other side rolls in about 2/3. The rounded ends should meet rolled in together with one side larger creating an evenly sloped angle, rather than two distinct steps of differing heights. This is going to be the main support under the upper thoracic spine, and your client should lie on this towel corresponding approximately to thoracic segments 3-6 with the lower side toward the neck. A good check is to look at the base of the sternum and make sure the towel is situated above the xiphoid process.  It is important to place this towel correctly to open the area of sternal concavity found in rounded back posture and to avoid overextension of the lumbar region. I use a small heating pad over this towel to help relax the back muscles.

A pillow should be placed under your client’s head to ensure that the neck is in proper alignment and that the cervical spine does not overextend with the lifting of the chest. The size of the pillow will be determined by the severity of back rounding—the greater the rounding, the bigger the head lift. Any pillow should work, but I like the Balanced Body vinyl head cushions since they come in incremental sizes.  The pillow addresses the head height, but does not provide enough cervical support. Fold the hand towel in half lengthwise and then roll it up completely to make a tootsie roll shape. Place this towel under the neck. Be sure you see a gradual descent from the lifted chest to the crown with mild extension of the upper chest to minimize the intensity of holding the position. I sometimes also use a heated microwavable neck wrap going from the back of the neck around the shoulders, but the alignment of the chest, neck and head must be maintained. A lavender-scented eye cover is also nice if your client does not suffer from allergies or claustrophobia.

It is important to elevate your client’s legs to prevent low back pain that could occur from the pressure on the lumbar region in this position. The Reformer Long Box works great for this and should be placed widthwise under your client’s legs comfortably meeting the crease behind the knees. Ask your client what furniture at home might replicate the size of the box (an ottoman, stool, low table or pillows).

Make sure your client is comfortable in this position and make any necessary adjustments—use larger or smaller towels, move towel placement, adjust neck support, etc. Advise your client that if the position becomes uncomfortable to inform you as soon as possible. This open supported position is meant to feel good. Ask your client to breathe deeply creating a little tension in the back muscles and then relax with each exhalation. When the back starts to relax, normal breathing is resumed.

After completing the five-minute period of relaxation, have your client draw both knees into the chest to stretch the low back. When he/she gets up from the table, demonstrate the setup you used, and give any specific instructions related to what you observed to allow your client to replicate the experience at home. Start at home with the same five-minute session and incrementally increase to about 15 minutes provided all goes well. One of my long-time clients uses this towel setup after doing a lot of gardening and housework and says it prevents the muscle tension she used to get after her activities. Between regular private sessions and self-care, she no longer has a pronounced rounded upper back.

Although a Pilates session for a client with poor posture would include exercises to strengthen the core and back extensors, many clients enjoy spending the last five minutes of a session in a recuperative state. I will often use the towel setup along with guided meditation or playing Tibetan Singing Bowls (see “Reward Your Client with Tibetan Singing Bowls“), but peaceful relaxing music works well too. Consistent practice of restful thoracic extension using towels can counteract slumping posture and make it easier for your client to once again straighten up and sit right.

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Using Thera-bands® to Stretch the Possibilities

Stretching leg muscles with a Thera-band® improves flexibility in the legs, but also relieves tension in the hips and low back with minimal time and effort. The Thera-band is a resistance exercise band available in a variety of strengths indicated by color (the thicker the band the stronger the resistance). Bands are often used in physical therapy rehabilitation, since patients can maintain a consistent practice working at home and strength development can be easily monitored with the progressive color coding system. They can be purchased individually or in bulk rolls and are sold under a variety of brand names offering latex and latex-free versions. (I prefer black Cando bands.) The 50-yard roll can be cut into individual bands making it economical to provide multiple clients and mat class attendees with equipment. Although there are multiple uses for Thera-bands in an exercises program, leg stretches yield quick results and are easy for most clients to practice.      

As with any stretching program, consistency with a long-term commitment to practice is essential. Using a pain scale of 1-10 with “10” being the most intense is a good guide to check in and keep clients on track. As a general gauge, “7” on this scale means your client will be actively stretching without strain or pain, but individuals vary and some may require less intensity. Microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers is a risk for overstretching and the scar tissue that develops can lead to a decrease in muscle elasticity so “more” is not always better. If your client has strained a muscle, stretching may cause further harm, so be sure no chronic condition exists prior to starting a new routine.      

Stretching after warming the muscles is preferable so a brief warmup such as a short walk can be useful to elasticize the collagen fibers prior to stretching. Stretches should be held for thirty seconds to a minute and should evolve; as the stretch is held, the intensity diminishes requiring the limb to move into a greater range to maintain the “7” on the pain scale. These stretches will always be a bit uncomfortable (they should not be painful). Regular practice will increase range of motion and the discomfort will be experienced similarly in the newer more flexible range.      

The stretch reflex is the body’s protective tool to prevent muscle fibers from overstretching and helps protect the tendon origins and insertions from being over-pulled. When the stretch intensifies, the muscle being stretched contracts to prevent it from being forced beyond normal range. Putting the muscle being stretched in contraction helps to inhibit this reflex and can make the process safer and more comfortable. For example, when stretching the hamstrings with the Thera-band, press the leg slightly toward the floor to engage the hamstrings while pulling the band with the hands bringing the leg closer to the chest.      

Conscientious breathing will allow the body to relax with the stretch. Breathe into the tension of the stretch on the inhalation and let it go on the exhalation. This push/pull quality (pushing the limb and pulling with the band) applies to all of the following stretches and will make them feel more like pushing through peanut butter or working with taffy rather than the slack feeling of hanging in a hammock.     

Although the following descriptions indicate which hand to use to hold the band, this is a personal choice based on comfort and body limitations. For example, if your client has arthritis a two-handed hold might be more comfortable or Thera-band exercise handles  could be used to reduce grip tension.     

BAND STRETCHES   

  • Calf

The objective is to stretch the gastrocnemius and the soleus  muscles. Place the band with its full width across the metatarsals (don’t let it bunch up like a tourniquet) and hold each side of the band in either hand. Make sure you do not have a “death grip” on the band or your fingers will fatigue too quickly. Inhale—plantar flex the ankle moving the metatarsals (or ball of foot) into a demi pointe (half point) while spreading the toes. Exhale—dorsiflex the ankle and keep the toes spread. Repeat this approximately five times making sure to keep the hip of the stretching leg pressing into the floor, so the initiation of the movement starts at the core with the ankle being the end result. Variations of this stretch include ankle inversion, eversion and circles. Be careful on inversion to press from the fifth (pinky) metatarsal straight from the body without “sickleing” (shifting medially). A sickled foot is an instable ankle twist waiting to happen in the future, because it lacks strength. The objective of this exercise is to develop ankle strength and flexibility in the calf. This kind of ankle work is very useful for ballet dancers trying to achieve more articulation in their feet.  

  • Hamstrings 

The objective is to stretch the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris muscles. After working the ankle in the above exercise remain in the dorsiflexed position. Inhale—press the thigh toward the floor slightly to activate the hamstrings while keeping the band pulled toward the chest. Exhale—pull the leg closer to the chest while retaining some tension in the hamstrings as if still trying to lower the leg to the floor. Never “yank” on the leg. This stretch can be performed with a bent or straight knee. Both are useful and stretch either the belly of the muscle or the back of the knee. If the knee is bent, keep energy reaching through the heel toward the ceiling so the stretch remains active. This stretch is like a tug of war with the heel being one team and the ischial tuberosity (sitbone) being the other. Both sides need to actively pull on the rope.  

  • Inner Thigh/Adductors

The objective is to stretch the adductor magnusadductor longusadductor brevisgracilis and the pectineus muscles.  It is sometimes more comfortable to hold the band in the same hand as the working leg—left hand holds the band when opening the left leg so the right shoulder can stay open and relaxed on the floor. Open the leg laterally while externally rotating the hip joint. The opposite side of the pelvis should remain on the floor and the body should not roll toward the open leg. If your client is unable to keep the opposite hip down, bend and externally rotate the knee of the leg on the floor to provide a little more leverage in the counterbalance. Be sure the chest presses into the floor and the abdominal muscles are actively engaged. If the abs are not engaged and the ribs lift off the floor, your client may push the head into the floor for leverage creating a discomfort in the neck and shoulders. Use the same push/pull tension strategy as explained in the previous stretches (inhale while creating tension and exhale as the stretch increases). As the leg moves wider and externally rotates, the foot moves closer to the ipsilateral ear, but the hip should remain anchored and the pelvis square. There is a tendency for people to hike the hip in an effort to achieve greater range of motion. A hiked hip does not stretch the inner thigh more—it is like the tug of war image used before except one team walks forward and the other walks backward as they pull apart. The hip must remain down to get the oppositional energy flow.   

  • Outer Hip/Abductors

The objective of this stretch is to stretch the gluteus mediusgluteus minimus and tensor fasciae latae muscle down into the illiotibial tract. Move the leg medially across the center of the body until the hip slightly lifts off the floor, but not so much that a full twist occurs in the lumbar region. It is not important for the leg to reach across the body very far, the stretch occurs when the hip pulls back into the floor (the foot in the band remains held in space and the hip pulls downward in opposition). Having the band in the opposite hand of the leg that is stretching contributes to this opposition. Inhale—pull on the band slightly and press the leg laterally into the band to create tension. Exhale—keep the foot held in space and drop the hip toward the floor using the internal obliques to rotate the spine. Be sure to also lengthen the waist by pulling the head and tailbone apart.     

  • Circles

The circumduction of the hip joint reviews all the previous stretches. The image of an ice cream cone can be a useful tool to mimic the conical pathway. The emphasis should be to press the hip into the floor where the ice cream would go at the tip, and then draw the lip of the cone either on the ceiling or on the walls if your client has greater range. Keep that feeling of pushing through taffy and guide your client to make sure that each hamstring/adductor/abductor position previously stretched is addressed. The leg must externally rotate each time the leg moves laterally to guide the ball in the socket of the hip joint comfortably. Correct the pathway or limit the range if your client experiences clicking in the hip joint.  Be sure to circle both clockwise and counter-clockwise three to five times each.   

  • Splits

The objective is to energize and lengthen both legs while simultaneously activating the core. The feeling should be like doing splits on the ceiling. Hold the band in both hands with an underhanded grip to encourage the shoulders to stay down. Split the legs apart with the lower leg off the floor and lift the head off the floor as well (if your client has neck discomfort keep the head on the floor). Inhale—press the thigh into the band as in the previous hamstring stretch. Exhale—pull the top leg slightly toward the chest while preventing the hip from hiking and deepen the belly scoop. Draw in the transversus abdominis deeper on each exhalation.  Hold for three to five breath cycles.

The improved range of motion from regular stretching may help decrease injuries by preparing the body for a variety of activities.   Mayo Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Edward R. Laskowski, M.D. says,   

 “If your joints are not able to go through their full range of motion because of muscle tightness, sports and exercise activities may put an excessive load on the tissue and contribute to injury. Think of a runner with tight calf muscles and a tight Achilles tendon running up a hill. This activity requires that the ankle bend up to accommodate the slope of the hill. But if it can’t because of tightness, the runner may be at risk of getting Achilles tendon irritation and injury.”    

There is a correlation between leg stretching and improved posture in the spine. Tight hamstrings will encourage a posterior pelvic tilt eliminating the necessary lumbar curve for lifted posture (see article The Use of Imagery to Help Your Client Find Lift Through the Core). The lumbar lift and core stability available in a neutral pelvic placement is diminished with the downward pressure of the tucked pelvis. If your client experiences low back pain, leg stretching with a band may be one component in a program to improve this condition.      

Regular leg stretching with Thera-bands can improve mobilization at the hip and ankle joints better preparing your clients for whatever activities they choose. Bands are portable and require almost no storage space and are great for traveling. The leg stretch series also increases blood flow, which facilitates the body’s ability to heal and repair itself. Have your client notice the energy flow into the stretched leg prior to switching sides. Your client should be able to perceive the asymmetry of the stretched and unstretched leg. Noticing an immediate difference for the effort exerted is a great motivation to keep stretching and will keep your client consistently practicing at home. Better posture, improved range of motion, healthy blood flow…what’s not to love!

Addressing Trigger Points to Facilitate Range of Motion

It is common knowledge that stretching can help elongate muscles and reduce stiffness, but there are cases where stretching can actually worsen the situation and increase pain. Stretching a muscle that is already “knotted” and is pulled taut can further irritate it. It can be helpful to release the trigger point (knot) prior to stretching for ease of movement and better range of motion. Although you can refer your client to a massage therapist specializing in myofascial trigger point work, using trigger point release in a Pilates session can expedite improvement for immediate results.

The pioneers of trigger point research, Janet G. Travell, M.D. and David G. Simmons, M.D., define a trigger point as “a highly irritable localized spot of exquisite tenderness in a nodule in a palpable taut band of muscle tissue.” Since we have multiple muscle fibers and these fibers are bundled together to serve a united purpose of joint movement, some of the fibers can remain in a contracted position without all being affected. Releasing the culprits causing irritation can allow the group to work better as a whole. The nodule is very tender to the touch and will elicit a response of discomfort and/or pain when touched depending upon its severity. The pain can be localized to the trigger point or referred to a seemingly unrelated location.

trigger point book picAn excellent user-friendly resource for studio or home use is The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief by Clair Davies. This manual takes you through the process of how to find and release the trigger point with diagrams depicting the areas of referred pain. If you want your client to consistently address trigger point release at home, it can be helpful to show your client a picture of the affected muscle and where the referred pain can be found.

Although pressing your fingers into the affected spot can release the tightness, there are tools available that can make this process easier. A tennis ball, Thera Cane, Wooden Knobble, myofascial release balls or foam rollers can all be useful. Doing the work without equipment can improve your ability to find the trigger points by touch, but over time using tools can prevent excessive wear and tear on your hands. In addition, the tools encourage more consistent practice, because your clients are able to use them at home.

Although it seems counterintuitive to press on a spot that provokes pain, the discomfort diminishes once the trigger point has been loosened. The muscle fibers are holding for a protective purpose, which may have been applicable during a situation of stress, excessive load or trauma. Once that situation has changed, the muscle sometimes needs an outside stimulus to break the loop.

It is helpful to have an ongoing dialogue with your client during trigger point release. Since everyone has a different level of pain tolerance, it is worthwhile to have your client communicate with you throughout the process. Let your client know that the pain should register about a “7” on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most intense. As you press on the trigger point, you can have your client count you in “5, 6, 7” so you don’t push beyond the appropriate level of tolerance. If you press in the intensity of a 9 or 10, you will not have good results because the body will resist, and, if you do not press hard enough, there will be insufficient pressure for release to occur.

You can also coach your client to inhale and tighten the muscle breathing into the pain and then relax the muscle during the exhalation. Instead of holding the trigger point consistently throughout, pushing on the trigger point on the inhalation and releasing pressure on the exhalation can at times make it easier for the client to let go. You know if the process is working when you continue to press with the same intensity and your client’s perception of the intensity decreases. It also gives the client a level of comfort to know that going INTO the discomfort has actually DECREASED the feeling of pain providing a positive experience.

Trigger point release in a Pilates session is a means to an end. Your objective is to release the offending trigger points, so that the chosen exercise can be performed with greater ease and range of motion. If the work required is extensive, refer your client to a massage therapist trained in this method. Although it does take time to get the “feel” for trigger points, knowing how to release them can provide immediate benefits to your clients.