Most of us have sore spots in our bodies that we have the urge to either stretch, take a yoga class, or go get a massage to release out some of the tightness and tension. But what if I were to tell you that maybe the muscle actually doesn’t need to be stretched but to be strengthened? Sounds like a far “stretch”, doesn’t it?
Many of us have some type of muscular imbalance where we may be continuing to strengthen muscles that are already too strong (tonic) and stretching or massaging muscles that are in some cases already weak (phasic). An example of this would be our core. This may not be you, since I am sure many of you know the core consists of much more than just your “six pack.” But for those who don’t know, our rectus abdominus, our “six pack” muscles can be a very over worked and hypertonic muscle. So someone may think they are super strong in this area of their body, but when asked to hold plank pose for a minute or longer, their bodies will not be able to hold this pose. Vital to this pose are the other core muscles: transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, as well as the spinal erectors in the back. If those are not developed, you will see concave lower backs, sinking hips and an inability to hold this pose.
Another example would be an achy lower back. If you are hypermobile in your lower back, but still feel pain there, stretching it some more will not do the trick. Stabilizing the muscles in the lower back and doing more strengthening exercises will actually provide more relief than continuing to overstretch a muscle that does not want to be stretched any more.
To test this out for yourself, try Walk the Plank, a YTU pose, which will effectively strengthen the core and not just the six pack abs. For the upper and lower back, Shalabhasana Minivini (below and on the 10 Minute Quick Fix for Upper Back) are a great toner for the erectors in the lower back and will help to strengthen the muscles that may be overstretched.
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I love this exercise for strengthening the entirety of the core. Using all of those muscles that protect the spine.
I really like the example you provided for needing the balance of stretch as well as strength! So many of us don’t put the two together. Making the mistake of not including your back muscles and other abdominals to the whole equation is the missing key for a lot of people.
Thank you for reminding me that just because stretching feels good for a hyper mobile person such as myself, I still need a good balance of stretch & strengthening. A teacher of mine likes to make the point about bulky, tight weight lifters who keep strengthening, and bendy flexy dancers who keep stretching…When really it should be the other way around. Just because you’re good at it, or enjoy it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what your bodies needs. We tend to forget a tight muscle is a weak muscle! Thanks for your informative post, and the important reminder. 🙂
Preach! I used to work at a gym and I could do more crunches that any of the other staff. I had zero core strength though. I was constantly hyperextending my spine to compensate. Ouch! I’m still repatterning, but feeling healthier and healthier as I continue to balance out.
Great article on finding the balance between stretching and strengthening. Sometimes the line is blurred. We either overstretch or totally forget about strength. We need both.
It’s nice to be reminded of this, not just for teaching my students, but for my own practice. It’s sometimes a challenge in my own body to differentiate this somewhat similar feeling of tight/weak combo. I find Salambasana to be incredibly helpful to assess many tight/weak, stretch/strengthen relationships. I have come to realize that for me my upper back is weak, not tight. Thank you for the simplicity.
Thanks, Tia. While most yoga styles involve asanas that both stretch and strengthen, YTU differentiates by being progressive, building strength before putting the body/joints at risk of injury. While good yoga teachers of other traditions, may offer modifications for those with less strength, too often, certified teachers seem to take the approach that if you can reasonable do the pose, then everything is OK…you will get better alignment and strength later. Unfortunately, that does not always work that way and injuries to the body, sometimes occurring over a long time over slow repetitive asanas with incorrect postural alignment.
Teaching mostly young women, I see there are many of them for whom strength development is of far more importance that flexibility. Or at least, the flexibility development must incorporate establishing correct postural alignment first, for which the strength development need occur first.
I am one of those hyper mobile people and backing off of getting too deep into a pose or stretch is a struggle for me. I have since realized that while I have great flexibility, I have really weak adductor muscles. Poses like tittibasana which use the strength of the adductors to squeeze in are so hard for me. I am working on building those muscle up. Its really intereseting to learn about the groups of muscles (how they work together and how they counter eachother) and the dynamic between strength and flexibility. Thanks!
Salambasana, like other floor postures, can be helpful to tune in to muscles and the thoracic spine, as well as the lower back, while gravity is on your side as opposed to standing postures where there is a lot more muscular context around our postures.
I sadly am one of the people that has overstretched my left hamstring resulting in yoga butt. My flexibility knew no limits until it resulted in injury. A year later, I still have pain in my left hamstring even in forward fold.
Salambasana is a great gateway pose. It saved my lower back from years of Ashtanga yoga abuse; rather than just cranking the lower back into an extreme extension at the start of class, using Salambasana gave me a way to warm it up and monitor how it was today. I also enjoy teaching Salambasana as it’s a pose that people of any level can find a variation that gives them a workout. Staying on the floor means it’s easier to connect the muscles; from psoas, down the adductors and up the spinal erectors; with it’s many variations other muscles be brought into play as the student is ready.
Well said, Tia. And thanks for the reinforcement of this idea.
I love teaching salabasana and plank pose, but maybe now I won’t feel quite so mean when I hold the class for the minute long hold at a time!!
Not to mention, in my own practice, I will have to spend more time doing salabasana now… after years of yoga, my spinal erectors could use more strength after all that time stretching!!
This is something that i can certainly apply to my own practice and to my students’ practice. I have seen so many hyper-mobile students striving to take every pose to 110%. By “dialing it back” and taking a less intense stretch the students can find the strengthening work and usually a greater challenge. It is so important to come back to the intention behind the yoga practice rather than focusing on the aesthetics of the pose – to find greater balance and a deeper connection with our bodies.
I absolutely agree that a ‘tight’ or ‘tense’ muscle does not necessarily mean it needs to be stretched. I have been teaching yoga for 16 years and have had many injuries that were made worse by other yoga teachers or health professionals telling me to ‘stretch it out’-not that they meant any harm-they just didn’t know any better. It took a lot of sleuth work on my own to recognize that sometimes what we think we need-judging by sensations in our bodies-is sometimes the opposite of what will actually help.
For example, I have a tight little knot around my kidney area on the left side. It always feels like it needs deeper rotations, more lateral stretching and more breath to relieve the tightness. But these seemingly therapeutic and mindful actions actually make it worse. I finally realized that the problem is that I am hyper-mobile in that area, and that it’s the muscles and tissue around it that are lacking mobility and in need of stretching (my QL and external rotators in my hip). The knot is there because it is desperately trying to create some sort of stability-it is literally trying to ‘hold on’ as I stretch the heck out of it!
I also find this to be the case with my upper back-it feels tight and like it needs stretching, but what actually relieves the tension is stretching out my chest. It feels counter intuitive but it really works! I wish this info had been common knowledge back when I was struggling with acute injuries, so I thought I would share for those of you who may benefit 🙂
It’s true! I have a client who does long distance cycling…it was like pulling teeth to get her to try new core exercises from YTU. But, after a few months, she couldn’t deny the difference she felt on her long rides…it works!