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Stretching Shortcuts 2/3 - Fascia and Muscle Chains
The main reason why people are put off from stretching is the time it takes. Typically, we have learnt to hold a stretch on one muscle, say the calves, for 30 seconds before moving on to the next group, for example the hamstrings. We were also told that a muscle attaches from one bone to another and that’s it.
Muscles, in fact, are connected to each other and are referred to as muscle chains. These weave and wrap around the body in a variety of directions, creating slings within which the body moves. Fascia is a relatively inelastic tissue which wraps around every cell, muscle and joint binding them together. Both muscles and fascia can become tense, tight and contracted. However, because everything is connected, tension in one area of the sling can cause problems further along the chain.
A typical example of this is shin splints. We can see from the image (Tom Myers - Anatomy Trains), the muscle overlaying the shins comes from the outside of the thigh, crosses the abdomen and passes underneath the opposite shoulder.From here it goes up to the opposite side of the neck and down the back to the inner part of the leg before tracking to the outside of the knee, looping under the foot and coming back onto the shins.
Simply stretching your quads to help with shin splints doesn’t work, we have to think about stretching the whole chain. This is why yoga poses are so time- effective at increasing flexibility - the use the whole body. In this example, the pyramid pose is a with a twist of your upper body towards the ceiling (to incorporate the muscle chain crossing the abdomen), is a really effective stretch for shin splints.
Stretching the entire chain is the best answer for “how to stretch a muscle”. Use your arms to twist towards the ceiling firstly one way, then the other - which feels most difficult? How does it feel if you point your toe in or out, align your feet on a tight-rope or stretch with feet further apart? These little tweaks can be applied to all full body stretches and make the difference between an effective 30 second stretch and just another hamstring stretch. 
What should I stretch? How should I stretch it? When is the best time to stretch?
These commonly asked questions are often answered with the age old phrase "it depends". As an osteopath I frequently see people who have left it too long and are now in pain because of their poor mobility. However, each person is an individual and so I rarely tell two people the exact same thing. This 3-part Stretching shortcuts Series will help to answer these questions.
 My aim is to provide you with some simple concepts to help you to figure out what you need to stretch. If you then follow the stretching shortcuts you will be get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to time spent mobilising.
   The joint-by-joint approach (Gray Cook) describes how the body's joints stack on top of each other, alternating between being mobile and stable. We can see from the picture that the ankle and hip should be mobile and the knee stable. However, these roles are often reversed due to our sedentary lifestyle. Our hips gets tight from sitting in chairs and our ankle gets tight from having the foot on the pedals and walking around on flat surfaces. To ensure you gets some mobility, the knee starts moving more. This excess movement causes pain and is one of the reasons why 1/3 of all doctors visits in the US are knee related. 
 Similarly, the lower back should be stable, the mid back mobile and the shoulders mobile. Again, sitting hunched over a desk our pecs get tight, our overhead position becomes poor and we lack the thoracic extension (upper back mobility) to hold a good position in the squat. Our lower back end up moving too much and we suffer lower back pain.
 The take home message with this is always look at the joint above and below. If your knee twinges when you squat then how mobile are your hips and ankles? Is one side tighter than the other? A painful left knee is often due to a stiff right hip and left ankle. Similarly, if you get elbow pain, are your shoulders and wrists mobile enough, or if your lower back is sore, is your thoracic spine moving or jammed up and stiff?
 Pick the low hanging fruit, if you only have five minutes to stretch, what is most likely to be tight? I would bet on your shoulders and hips. Start here and see how you go. Take note of the difference between left and right and try to balance these out.