Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The “Cracking Method” of Isometric Stretching

For the last two years I have been developing a stretching technique that I believe has greatly helped my posture and well-being. It involves finding the weakest parts of the body and stretching and flexing into them. I alter my posture and then flex into that position. What I try to flex towards is actually two sensations that are often found together: 1) soreness, and 2) the cracking or popping of the joint. You should notice that as you bring a joint into the range where it cracks it will feel sore if the muscles are held flexed when in that position. Once you have found a position like this, you want to stretch and flex into it. Whether the joint actually cracks is not important, what is important is that you flex into the underused position that is susceptible to cracking.

Stretching has gotten a bit of a bad rap because static stretching has been shown to be less effective for athletes than once thought. Static stretching does not involve flexure, it actually lessens the sensitivity of tension receptors in the muscle, allowing it to relax and stretch to a greater length. Studies have shown that static stretching can actually reduce explosive ability and promote joint instability. In fact, most stretching programs encourage hyper-flexibility of muscles which ironically results in premature arthritis due to mechanical instability of the joints. Also most athletes that stretch are using the same stretch routines time and again overstretching large muscle groups while leaving many smaller, supportive muscle groups completely unstretched. Static stretching increases “passive range of motion.” We are interested in increasing “active range of motion.” To improve posture and strength and reverse tension, we must turn to more active and dynamic forms of stretching. For example, forms of isometric stretching, and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching have been shown to be very effective for athletes. These forms of stretching, unlike static stretching, involve flexing certain muscles during a stretch.

Try to stretch an area of your back or neck to the point right before it cracks, you can feel that it will crack, but don’t push it all the way, don’t let it crack. Instead, hold the posture for five to fifteen seconds just below the cracking threshold. While you are there try moving it around slightly, it will probably feel achy and possibly sore. The areas in your body that feel this way are the first areas that need rehabilitation. In fact, cracking is associated with joint degeneration so searching for areas that crack can provide you with a map of the areas of your body that need help the most. Sometimes I will wriggle and writhe until I actually feel a joint crack, then I freeze, hold that posture, and try to stretch into it for five to fifteen seconds. It is amazing how quickly this rehabilitates tense or atrophied muscles. After a few minutes a day, over the course of a week you may find that you have strengthened the muscles sufficiently so that they do not crack anymore. Cracking provides temporary relief from tension, but does not heal the tension - you want the permanent relief that is provided only by strengthening. This method gives you all of the relief that you get from cracking your joints, but does so in a lasting way.

Take your neck for example. There are many positions that you can put your neck into that are stiff and uncomfortable, that might feel slightly sore and that will crack if pressed in to. Try looking up and to the side, or down and to the side. Try touching your chin to your chest and then looking right and left for several seconds. Hold that uncomfortable position for several seconds while breathing deeply. I gently crane my neck in many different directions every day.  After you are done it is important to allow the muscles to relax, so lie down and allow the flexion to subside completely. You will find that if you do this in a specific position a few times a day, that each day you do it, it will feel more comfortable and you will not only expand your natural range of motion but improve your posture as well.

At first it feels unnatural to hold a posture that cracks for a prolonged period. Usually, you want to feel the crack and then allow the muscles to relax immediately. Avoid this inclination. You might choose to crack the joint after the exercise to reward yourself – this is fine. The first time I went to a chiropractor he made a comment about how tight my neck was. He was able to crack it in several locations. This influenced me to go home and try to flex into the same neck postures that he created when he performed the adjustments. Now, two years later, when I go to a chiropractor they have a lot of trouble cracking my joints. When they try spinal manipulations my joints are flexible and supple and move and bend with the manipulation smoothly without cracking. In fact, I can no longer find a chiropractor that can successfully crack my neck or lower back. Some have told me after feeling the muscles in my neck with their fingers that it is healthy and does not need to be adjusted. This is all due to the method described here.

Even if flexing into a certain position doesn’t cause it to crack, but does have the same sore sensation, try to flex within that posture. I have become addicted to pursuing those sore sensations everywhere in my body. The soreness corresponds to overused, tense muscles. These are muscles that are so overused that they have begun to stiffen and atrophy, and you generally have lost all control of them. Pursue them and give them the exercise and the circulation that they are asking for. However, if you experience a tight pinching or burning sensation then there could be an injury or nerve damage so discontinue immediately. After 6 months of this method I could crack dozens of joints throughout my body at will. I could crack several in my neck without even touching my neck. I couldn’t do this before for two reasons: 1) the muscles were too tight and weak to allow me to reconfigure the positioning of the joint, and 2) I developed much better proprioception, knowledge about where my muscles are in space and how to move them to get a great stretch. But being able to crack joints is not the intention, the intention is to improve your posture and eradicate the tension that constrains it. Yoga practitioners often describe stretches as “delicious” or “yummy.” Flexing into and strengthening postures that crack is the best way to teach yourself how to create a savory carriage for the head and spine.

I spend a lot of time stretching whether I am at home or out in public. When I take yoga classes I alter the stretching poses to create novel postures to flex into. I believe that most of the benefit that I get from yoga comes from the additional flexing work that I do throughout the class. You may also want to try flexing into postures of strength on the trampoline. I will bounce up and down while flexing my gluteus, while flexing my chin to my chest, and while pulling my shoulders back and down. The accelerations and deaccelerations from jumping can help you gently flex deeper into some of your biggest problem areas. You should also combine this method with massage and compression. The sore muscles are much more apparent and easy to flex into after myofascial release.

After a few months of using this routine I found that I was cracking all over. I could crack joints easily all over my body, and because I knew that my posture and physique had improved tremendously I began to tentatively conclude that cracking might be good and that it might be the overall goal. After another year of this routine I found that much of the cracking subsided. Many of my joints were much healthier; they cracked less and less until they stopped cracking completely. This made me realize that cracking is a means to an end. In other words, as you employ this technique you can expect to go through three phases; an inability to crack, excessive cracking, and then a cessation in cracking. I wasn’t able to crack my joints at first because I did not have the strength in the surrounding muscles to leverage my way in to the very unhealthy muscle. The joints didn’t crack because I couldn’t even flex the muscles surrounding them. After six months my joints were cracking a lot because I finally had some strength in the muscles that would support my efforts to flex into the weakest muscles. After another year of employing this method, the cracking subsided because even my weakest muscles and joints were no longer degenerative. The point is that you want to stretch and flex into sore joints all over your body, using cracking as a diagnostic tool. As you do this the joints will stop hurting and stop feeling like they need to be cracked.

Lift Light Weights, Dynamically, Without Bracing

For the past few years I have not allowed myself to lift heavy weights. Doing yoga and pilates and a lot of isometric stretching has shown me that lifting weights that are too heavy causes muscle strain and cramping all over the body. I used to lift heavy weights every day and it took a huge toll on my muscles. In fact, I used to wake up every morning in disturbing amounts of pain. My chest, my shoulders, my neck and my back felt like they were “locked up” and the pain was often “crushing.” I felt like I was in a straight jacket and I knew that it was not natural to feel this way. It got so bad, and the flexibility of my upper body became so poor that I knew I had to change something soon. Upon waking I would try different stretches and this helped, but to reverse the cramping I had to stop my unhealthy lifting routine.

I would lift weights that were too heavy for me, and I would breathe very shallowly. Lifting heavy weights causes the muscles that you are using to grow in size in the short term, there is no question about that. But it can actually be bad for those same muscles in the long term. Several masseuses have pointed out to me that I have silver dollar sized patches of scar tissue along my pectoral muscles. I developed these from bench pressing too much weight. I actually have inflammation, muscular knots, and scar tissue all along my shoulder girdle. Excessive weight puts too much strain on the muscles responsible for the motion but it can be especially damaging to the muscles responsible for stabilizing the weight. Every exercise involves stabilizing muscles which contract isometrically, keeping parts of the body steady so that the primary muscles can do their job. These muscles are integral to posture; they literally hold you together. Excessive strain makes them painful, tense, reduces their oxygen supply and leaves them more susceptible to injury.  In fact, I sprained my shoulder in a fall from a skateboard and I am sure that the muscles that I injured were the muscles that I had strained from lifting weights improperly. Because of the shoulder injury I had to stop lifting weights and my upper body muscle mass atrophied very quickly. However, the pain, the tension, the knots, and the scar tissue remained as if I had never stopped working out at all. What this tells us is that lifting heavy weights has benefits that are easily lost, but comes with costs that persist. The muscular bulk comes and goes very quickly. You can quickly lose all of the bulk but retain all of the strain. I felt that I had to get this tension out of my upper body, and so I developed an alternate way to lift weights.

When you lift heavy weights there are a lot of muscles that never rest in between reps. This is especially true of the weaker, stabilizing muscles (such as the muscles surrounding the scapula during bench press). As you do each repetition you want there to be moments where even the weakest links in your muscles can relax. You can sense the overused muscles because they will usually feel sore and tender as you are doing the rep with low weight. You will feel a pinch. Now I go to the gym, sit on practically every machine on the floor, and use the lowest weight setting to do between 20 and 80 repetitions trying to achieve, and work through, that subtle pinch. For example, there are muscles around the periphery of the scapula that are very tense. During a deep tissue massage these will be very painful. You want to make it so that during each repetition there are moments where these painful muscles both rest and flex. When you work out with very heavy weights, only the strongest muscles are given a chance to rest between reps, the weakest muscles are forced to stay tense the entire time. This overuse is what forces them into a low metabolic state that is painful, causes them to get weaker, and inevitably destroys our posture.

There are even muscles that don’t even rest in between sets. These are the stiffest, most painful and most susceptible to injury. These muscles generally stay tight even when we sleep. If we can get these to relax, then we can exercise them and strengthen them, but lifting heavy weights will only keep them atrophic. The best way to get them to relax and become stronger is to use the machines at your gym at a very low setting in an attempt to stretch and flex in to them. Pinpointing them with low weights will get them to open up. Bulldozing them with heavy weights will force them to close down further. My goal is to slowly build up to lifting heavier weights, and since I started my routine I have been able to increase the weight a little every month.

Most everyone lifts weights from a compromised position. When you lift weights that are too heavy, you brace and lock up your entire spine. Most people perform, not only their bench press, but all of their exercises with their spine and shoulder girdle in the same invariant position each time. This is crippling, and leads to weakness rather than strength. If you reduce the amount of weight you can lift without bracing yourself. Now you can alter and vary your posture with each rep, changing the distribution of weight loading, and stimulating growth in areas that are usually stiff. I used this method to reach the weakest points throughout my neck, shoulders and spine. Notice where these weak points are, and try to engage them. Exercise them until you can “feel the burn” lightly.

I spent 6 months lifting very light weights and have slowly moved up to moderate weights. I try to do it athletically, with perfect posture and perfect breathing. While going through the repetitions I stretch constantly, pushing and pulling, twisting and bending. I flex kyphotically and lordotically throughout my spine while lifting. I do a few reps with my neck flexed to each side, then again with my chin to my chest, with my neck retracted, with my neck flexed backwards. In a way it is like yoga for your upper body. It is also an intense, high energy workout, for the little muscles. In another blog entry I try my best to describe the feeling of high muscle tension and how to flex into these particularly sore muscles. You can read more about that here.  

I used to always tilt my neck a little bit to the left so that I could come across to others as nonoffensive. This lead to a soft tissue injury that I could only exercise while doing pull-downs in the gym. I would position my neck at that angle and perform the pull down slowly and easily. It took weeks to work through it. There are many orientations of skeletal muscles that reveal these types of weakness, we must work through them.

When you build muscle from lifting heavy loads your create tension in your muscles. Whether your chest and arms grow from bench press or your glutes and legs grow from squats, you are also introducing strain into these muscles as well. This strain makes the muscles painful and unhealthy. It also makes it so that the muscle can quickly and easily atrophy back to its original state. You want your muscles to be large but you don’t want them to be hard and tight because hard and tight muscles atrophy quickly once you stop lifting. Compression, massage, deep breathing, and light weight lifting complement your workout routine, removing the excess strain and making your gains less temporary and more permanent.

Rest Once the First Muscle Group Reaches Fatigue

As you take part in various exercises and activities, different muscles will reach fatigue before others. Once the first muscle group has fatigued, it is extremely important to stop what you are doing and wait for that muscle group to return to baseline. This allows it to rest and allows fresh blood to pump into it so that it can do more work. Far too often we continue to push ourselves in physical activities until the large muscles groups fatigue and we can no longer perform the work. When we do this, some of the smaller muscle groups go into deep fatigue where they can be damaged. When we ignore the weakest links and force them to keep exerting they become chronically strained, and enter a weakened metabolic state that causes them to atrophy. This also leaves them extremely susceptible to injury. Many people find it annoying to have to interrupt a workout, but it usually only takes 5 to 30 seconds for these muscles to regain their strength and blood supply. We all keep walking, ignoring the fatigue in our feet and knees. We keep dancing, ignoring the pain in our ankles. We keep lifting weights ignoring the pain in our shoulders. We keep sawing, driving nails, or carrying loads ignoring the pain in our wrists and elbows. We keep sitting ignoring the pain in our lower back. We keep typing ignoring the pain in our neck. Even in the yoga studio there are many muscles that remain tight throughout multiple postures. This is why I take regular breaks. While doing yoga I try to ignore what everyone else is doing, and lie down for a minute or two at least twice per session in order to reinvigorate the overused muscles in my neck and back.  

In the past, I would go all day without resting my neck. I guess I didn’t realize how fatigued it would get. Today I lie down for 1 to 3 minutes every time I feel any kind of strain in my neck. I believe that most everyone accumulates neck strain from failing to give their neck any respite over the duration of their waking life. As you toil all day, the flexibility in the neck, and the blood flow to the muscles diminishes, compounding the strain. Today I try to rest my head at least 3 times a day, even if I have to lie down on the floor. I lie down, wiggle my hips and my shoulders a little and concentrate on letting every muscle go limp.

In fact, the muscles surrounding our entire spine take on a stubborn inflexible contour that doesn’t shift much throughout the day. Then when we finally lie down to sleep, this contour doesn’t match the contour of our bed and the muscles remain stiff all night. I recommend that you have a roommate, family member, or spouse press down on the back right before bed. A good masseuse will do this to begin a massage. Have them use two hands, and press down firmly in at least 5 different locations between the neck and the lower back. It will feel very tight at first in certain places, but you will notice the muscles loosen up.

In order to get the muscles to relax, sometimes you have to stimulate them in a different way. After a workout, I always go for a walk, holding my arms straight up in the air for several minutes at a time and also swinging them around in order to engage all of the deep muscles and tissues in my upper torso. I try to work the little muscles in the shoulder girdle to exhaustion, and then give them equal time for complete relaxation. This helps to both exercise and relax the collateral, and stabilizing muscles that were not targeted directly by the work out. My shoulders used to remain fixed in a permanently raised position. Now I make sure to walk several minutes every day with my shoulders, back, arms and chest limp and drooping. You can actually let your shoulders go limp while still retaining good posture by standing straight, keeping your head up, and rolling your chin toward your chest. It is important to practice walking while completely relaxed in this way because this is how you want to sleep so that your muscles can recover overnight.

I used to have bad elbow pain from doing bench press and swimming. I did not know how to get rid of the problem. If you look it up online, you find out that it is called tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, or epicondylitis. The disease is supposed to be chronic, degenerative (enthesopathy), and idiopathic, meaning no one knows what causes it. Worse yet, most of these painful conditions that involve the muscle, tendon, and bone have a poor prognosis and no real treatments besides rest, pain relievers, and surgery. The problem is often easy to fix, you just have to work on relaxing the muscles. When I first tried massaging the muscles around my elbow, I realized that they were constantly sore and painful, regardless of whether I exercised them or not. I used to leave the swimming pool after doing laps in an extremely tense state, without even realizing it. I would even go to bed like that. I wondered why my elbows hurt so much in the morning, and I naively attributed it to aging. Now, when I swim or lift weights, I stop completely every few minutes. I take a full minute to monitor the accumulating tension in my arms, focus on going limp, and allow the tightness the mental attention it needs to subside. Afterwards, I will squeeze and compress these muscles to reduce the tension. My elbow pain was bad, yet now I haven’t had any elbow pain in years.

Here are a few of the muscle tension relief products that I use regularly: