Sore backs, stiff necks and painful joints are often the results of tight - and weak - muscles. This tightness stems from either injury, movement inefficiency or imbalances, and are often down to our lifestyles and daily routine. We are not designed to sit for long periods of times and stare at screens all day. When this happens over a prolonged period of time we end up with the aforementioned ailments - sound familiar?
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So, how do we go about fixing the damage our desks and screens have done to us? There should be a three-pronged approach to the issue:
Improve your habit to avoid prolonged sitting and bad posture - Move more, get up and walk around, take part in sports, sleep better.
Strengthen muscles which become weakened due to this - Hamstrings, glutes. mid and upper back, "core" muscles.
Stretch tight muscles - Muscles such as the hip flexors, piriformis, neck and hamstrings.
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This last point is one which we will address in this article. Here are three simple tricks to improve flexibility in problem areas:
1. Stretch Wherever Possible
I touched on this in a previous article and it is a point I would like to reiterate. Any chance you get to stretch, take it! It could be sat on the sofa, watching TV, taking an escalator or doing the housework. How? Well, try this.
(Hold these stretches for 30+ seconds)
When seated on the sofa perform a seated piriformis stretch.
Place your right foot on your left knee, allowing your right knee to relax down. Apply slight downward pressure to your right knee and sit tall. Lean forward from the hips until a stretch is felt deep in the buttock muscles. Repeat the other side.
When watching TV perform hip flexor stretches on the floor.
Kneel on your right knee with your left foot on the floor in front. Sit tall and squeeze your right glute muscle and imagine "tucking" the hips upwards. Maintain this hip position and then push the hips forward slightly until a stretch is felt in the front of the hip. Repeat on the other side.
When taking the escalator perform a calf stretch.
With your right foot, stand with your toes on the edge of the escalator step and your heel off the edge. Your left foot should be on the same, or a higher, step. Push your right heel downwards until a stretch is felt in the calf. Repeat on the other side.
When doing the housework perform hamstring stretches.
Any time you need to use your hands on the floor ie. sweeping, picking stuff up. hold a hamstring stretch. Ensure the lower back and upper back remain neutral. Allow a slight knee bend to feel the stretch in the back of the upper legs. Do not round the upper or lower back.
Stretching is all about relaxation. There is no point performing stretches where you "fight" the stretch, it will simply not work.
Science lesson! The stretch reflex is a natural safety mechanism whereby muscles being stretched automatically contract to oppose the stretch. This protects the muscle from a perceived danger of over-stretching and subsequent damage as the muscles cannot accommodate the forces placed upon it. This is also why weak muscles tend to be tight. By relaxing in a stretched position, the muscle "understands" that it is not in danger and eventually relaxes the contraction, allowing it to be "stretched".
So, when you're stretching in a try to relax as much as possible. Focus on your breathing and imagine the muscles relaxing.
Another great tip is to consciously contract the muscle being stretched and then release it. By doing this you are trying to force the muscle to relax and "short-circuit" the stretch reflex. This is called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation - or PNF for short.
3. Hold the Stretched Portion Of A Resistance Exercise.
One of the best ways to increase flexibility is to do so whilst you are exercising with resistance. What this means is you are technically using the resistance (weight + gravity) to push you in a stretch. What would this look like? Any exercise which puts you into a stretched position at the bottom portion can be used as a stretch:
Squats - Hold the bottom portion of the squat and focus on posture, pushing the knees out and getting deep in the squat.
Press-up or chest presses - Hold the bottom of weighted press movements and focus on stretching the working muscles. Perform press-ups with the hands raised in a way the chest can move below than the hands and hold the bottom position.
Deadlifts - Focus on the downward portion of the exercise and feel the hamstrings stretch and subsequently contract on the way up.
Rows/Pulling exercises - Allow the weight to stretch you at the bottom of the exercise and, again, feel the muscles which are being worked.
Holding these positions in between reps or at the end of a set is a fantastic way to improve flexibility and the performance of the exercise. It is also a great way to increase muscle growth and reduce the risk of injury! Win-win-win-win!!
Stiff muscles are often a result of bad habits and daily routine. Being seated too long, being inactive and staring at screens all day take their toll. Improve your flexibility by stretching where possible, relaxing in your stretches and holding the bottom portion of exercises.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Maitland is a personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience. He has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.