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.