Featured: Nicole Woyak, www.nicolewoyak.com
In the last post, I discussed a little bit about basic muscle and nerve anatomy, and how to tell which structure may be contributing to difficulties with your pike stretch. Quick (and VERY simplified) review: if you are able to reach a lot further in your pike with your toes pointed than flexed, your sciatic nerve mobility may be a large contributing factor. What does this mean? This may indicate that you could benefit from exercises to increase sciatic nerve mobility.
As mentioned previously, nerves don’t like to be stretched the same way that muscles do. In general, if you want to increase muscle flexibility, you want to bring the origin away from the insertion and hold in that position. Because of nerve anatomy, they don’t respond well to the same type of stretch. Throughout the whole nerve pathway from origin to insertion, nerves are encased in a protective sheath. In order to have full neural mobility, nerves are designed to be able to slide and glide within the sheath. Problems arise when, for a multitude of reasons, the nerve gets stuck to the sheath somewhere throughout the nerve’s pathway. If your sciatic nerve gets stuck to the nerve sheath, this can negatively affect your ability to pike like a Chinese diver.
OK, so…how do you UN-stick the nerve?? Nerves tend to respond very well to a “gliding/flossing” action as opposed to a long hold “tensioning” action. This means that you increase tension at one end of the nerve, and put the other end of the nerve on slack— then reverse this motion. Nerves respond better to slow rhythmic movement, and as such, you want to repeat this “gliding” pattern for multiple repetitions in one set.
Check out this awesome youtube video showing what it looks like when a nerve glides properly:
Nerve mobility TRIPLE THREAT
There are three exercises I’m going to discuss here, and I feel that all are equally important. In order to get the most effect out of your nerve flossing, you want to make sure you’re sequencing your warm up the correct way. For the purpose of your pike, I like to use the following sequence of events:
**AFTER all of these exercises, if passive stretching is part of your practice, it goes here**
Now that we understand the general sequencing of flossing and stretching, here are my suggested exercises.
:Sit on a hard surface (chair, panel mat, weightlifting bench) with a lacrosse ball or peanut right below where your glutes meet your hamstring, and knee bent. Start by straightening and bending your leg, and apply some light pressure to the top of your thigh if you want to ramp up the intensity. Do this at three different points along your hamstring.
You can also do this along your calf with your legs stretched in front of you:
Nerve Flossing/ Gliding
There are a LOT of ways to do these, but this variation seems to be one that works quite well for most performing artists.
Repeat this 10-15 times per side
**It is NOT beneficial to push into a big stretch or go to the point of pain, improving nerve mobility is NOT a “no pain no gain” type thing.
If your leg doesn’t get all the way straight, don’t freak out! the goal here is NOT a perfectly straight leg, the goal is to improve nerve mobility (it’s also a nice quad strengthening exercise that will help you keep your knees straight during aerial inversions and handstand work).
Active Flexibility: The Bend and Snap
This is a GREAT exercise for active hamstring flexibility.
If this is too easy, try the same thing but balancing on one leg instead of using the other leg for support. Keep your non-weight bearing foot glued to opposite ankle, don't let it drift back.
....Did it Work??
Artist: Lisie Michel, @lisierae. Photographer: Jon Beckley, @jonbeckley
How do you know if these exercises worked? Before you do them, take a photo (or actually measure) how far you can reach forward in your pike stretch with your toes pointed, and again with your toes flexed. Follow this up with the aforementioned three exercises, and re-test. If your sciatic nerve mobility was limiting the stretch, the “toes flexed” version should be much closer to your toes pointed version after doing the nerve glides on both legs. This means that you took out some of the nerve tension and your pike now is getting more into a muscle stretch.
Want more great active flexibility exercises?
Aerialist: Anastasia Sauvage, www.anastasiasauvage.com. Photographer: Elle Aime Photography
If you like these exercises but want MORE, check out my active flexibly plan for SPLITS or PIKE: these comprehensive plans have photos, descriptions, AND links to full videos of each exercise. More importantly, it explains the "WHY" behind my active flexibility exercises...what makes these exercises work, and why we focus on specific muscle groups. Click the button below to check them out!
And, of Course, the DISCLAIMER!
When SHOULDN’T you do this? If you have low back pain, a hamstring strain, or pain going down your back/butt/hamstring/calf, you should definitely get evaluated by a physio before moving forward with these exercises! DON'T TRY TO BE YOUR OWN DOCTOR! Even if you ARE a doctor. We make terrible patients.
Questions? Concerns? Feel free to comment below…and happy piking!
Shi Tingmao and Wu Minxia, 3m springboard finals, Rio 2016 Olympics (https://www.yahoo.com/news/china-strike-double-diving-gold-211533875--spt.html?ref=gs)
Last August, I returned home to San Francisco from China, where I was working as a physio for the Chinese Olympic teams in prep for Rio. While I was there, I had the privilege of working closely with the diving team, which was one of the biggest highlights of my professional career. If you didn’t get a chance to see any diving events during the Olympics, lets take this moment to check out a quick recap of Shi Tingmao winning the gold in the women's 3 meter springboard final:
After you shake off the awe-struck stupor induced by this gorgeous display of athleticism, grace, and artistry, what’s one of the first things you notice about her diving? Her beautiful pike? Yep. It’s incredible. How does one achieve such a flawless pike, you may ask? Let’s dive into this discussion.
For so many of us mere mortals, the pike stretch can be endlessly frustrating. We stretch and stretch our hamstrings to no avail, and make little progress. If this is you, there may be an underlying issue that you're not addressing that is significantly limiting your pike mobility.
Anatomy of the Posterior Thigh (AKA the back of your leg)
There is a LOT going on in your posterior thigh- a lot of different muscles, nerves, blood vessels, fascia...etc. For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to discuss the anatomy of the two main structures that MOST FREQUENTLY limit flexibility in your pike stretch: hamstrings and your sciatic nerve
There are three hamstring muscles (I mean, ya know, per leg), and they all originate on the bottom of your pelvis (half of one originates on the back of your thigh bone, if we're being picky). They course down the back of your thigh, and insert on the bones of your lower leg- the top of your tibia and fibula, just below the back of your knee.
What Makes Hamstrings Stretch?
To fully stretch any muscle, you have to move the insertion away from the origin (am I blowing your mind yet?) For hamstrings specifically, this often looks like the standard forward fold/pike stretch. However, frequently in this stretch, we let our pelvis rotate downward (“tail tucked” position), which technically means you’re not fully stretching the hamstrings, because the origin is creeping towards the insertion. To get a true hamstring stretch, the knee must be extended straight, and the pelvis must NOT be posteriorly tilted.
The next potentially pike-limiting structure of the posterior thigh is the sciatic nerve and its branches. This is the largest nerve in your body, and is about the diameter of your pinky finger. The sciatic nerve is formed from several segments of nerves exiting your spinal cord in your lower back, then it courses down behind the gluteal muscles, in between your hamstrings, and all the way under your calves and into the bottom of your feet (it branches into other nerves at several points along this course, but they’re all connected).
What Stretches the Sciatic Nerve?
Because this nerve runs from your low back to the bottom of your feet, to completely stretch this nerve, we can also be in a pike stretch- BUT there are several key differences with this vs the aforementioned hamstring stretch! Here’s what puts the sciatic nerve on max tension: Sitting in a pike, slouching forward (spinal flexion/tail tucked), and FEET FLEXED.
Why it Matters...
OK, if the end goal here is to pike like a Chinese diver, this means we need to be purposeful with how we stretch to get the best (safest) results as efficiently as possible, and adequately address all structures that may be limiting this motion.
Nerves and muscles react very differently to prolonged passive stretch (holding an end-range pike for 30-60 seconds). Muscles tend to like it and typically relax over time (if not pushed with excessive force), which results in a deeper stretch. However, nerves HATE prolonged passive stretch and tend to get even more irritated if they are pushed to end range capacity for too long- this means your flexibility may ACTUALLY get worse. So, if limited nerve mobility is the biggest factor in your pike, how do you address this?
Flossing. Flossing solves all the problems. Instead of stretching from both ends simultaneously, nerves prefer to be finessed a bit more. This means that to adequately address nerve mobility, you need to put one end of the nerve on TENSION, while the opposite end is on SLACK. Then, reverse it- you literally “floss” the nerve back and forth to "loosen" it up. This drastically improves the neural mobility, and (if it was limiting your stretch), may improve the overall range of motion in your pike.
I WANT TO PIKE LIKE A DIVER! HOW DO I FLOSS MY NERVE?!
You're gonna have to be patient. In my next post, I’ll talk about and easy and safe way to address nerve tension and improve your pike stretch.
All of my posts are intended for the UNINJURED circus artist. Don't be your own doctor. If you have back or leg pain, get it checked out by a qualified sports medicine professional. Don't diagnose yourself, and don't use this blog to substitute for a real-live PT.
Photo by Amourpropre Photography (@enola_gay);
Featuring Mark Keahi (@mark_keahi) and Jen Crane
My last post discussed the basics of latissimus dorsi anatomy, mechanics, and how you know if your lats are an issue in your circus training. I also shared my favorite test to measure and track progress in lat flexibility. In this post, I’ll talk about some common misconceptions I’ve seen in the circus community regarding stretching in general. I’ll also introduce a more comprehensive way we can improve lat flexibility safely and effectively, that also will help to prevent injuries.
There are a few different concepts we need to account for any time we want to improve flexibility of a muscle group. In broad terms, I’ll refer to these as active flexibility, passive flexibility, and end range control. First, here are the working definitions of these terms for the purpose of this post:
Passive flexibility: The total length a muscle can stretch when it is being pushed by an outside source. This could be gravity, like when you’re sitting in over-splits, or it could be in contortion class when your instructor is cranking your leg into flat middle splits.
Huge thanks to the maker of my flat middle splits, Catie Brier <3
Active flexibility: This is the ability of the muscle group that is opposite the muscle being stretched (the agonist muscles) to overpower gravity (WITHOUT assistance from an outside source) and move the limb as far as possible into the stretch. An example of this is doing a develope into an arabesque in contortion or dance- your glutes and posterior leg and trunk muscles have to do the work to move your leg into the highest arabesque position possible without assistance from your arms or your instructor.
Sylphie Ariella: www.sylphieariella.com
End-range control: This is the ability of the muscles surrounding the muscle group being stretched to hold the limb at the end range of motion and do the fine-tuning adjustments that need to occur to either keep the limb at end range, or move it safely from one position to the other. A great example of this is when you’re working on side-scales. You first start by using your arm to hold your leg as high as possible, then when your leg is as high as it can go, you release your arm. Does your leg drop down a little? This means you may need to work on end-range control of your flexibility.
In my experience both as a circus artist and as a circus PT, we are GREAT at working on passive flexibility. How many times do you get to class and immediately plop down into the splits? We really like passive static stretching—it’s something that is heavily ingrained in performing arts culture. While I don’t think this inherently bad, I think we need to pay equal attention to the other components of flexibility. One of the biggest injury predictors in performing arts is a high ratio of passive-to-active flexibility. If your passive range of motion far exceeds your active range of motion, you are more likely to experience injury at that joint.
Whenever I’m working with a patient on improving flexibility, I always address each of these three components. When assigning corrective exercise programs or functional warm-ups, I usually have at least one exercise for each category, completed in the following order:
Now, lets get specific to stretching the lats. What are the key players involved in improving flexibility and end range control? The muscles that have to do most of the grunt work involved in active flexibility and end range control of the lats are the parascapular muscles and rotator cuff. The parascapular muscles are a group of muscles that attach to your scapula, shoulder, and/or neck and upper back. These are the muscles that need to be strong enough to control all of that range of motion we get from our passive stretching (with or without instructor cranking!) The rotator cuff, as discussed in previous posts, is in charge of the fine movement adjustments that need to occur throughout shoulder range of motion, but especially at end range, to keep the “ball” of the humerus centered in the “socket” of the scapula.
The following exercises are my favorite starters for safe and effective lat stretching. I like to do these before circus training, in order to properly activate all of the parascapular and rotator cuff muscles before putting them through the rigors of aerial or acrobatic training. I’ll typically also do some passive and PNF stretching after training, as well.
Peanut Mobilization: Lats
Start lying halfway between on your side and on your back, with the peanut placed as shown. First, move from internal to external rotation with your shoulder just below 90 degrees:
Then, move from bent arm to straight arm overhead. This often takes some peanut-adjustment to find the appropriate spot, so if you’re not feeling the “hurts so good” muscle release, move the peanut back a little or down a little.
I suggest 10 repetitions per position, per arm, for the best effect.
If you're in the market for a peanut or a foam roller, here are my fav's:
External Rotation-biased Lat Stretch
This is my favorite lat stretch. The classic lat stretch we see all the time in circus arts- where your hands are on a wall or bench, with your back arched, allows for a lot of compensations that don't let the lats stretch fully. This stretch also adds in an extra component of external rotation (from the block). This stretches the fibers of the lats that are responsible for internal rotation of the shoulder, which most typical lat stretches skips. Being in a "childs pose" position doesn't let you substitute by arching your back.
Modified Dead Bug for Active Shoulder Flexibility
This is my favorite starter exercise to encourage parascapular muscle activation and active control of lat flexibility. It also is a GREAT core exercise, if done right!
Child's Pose Shoulder Elevation for End-Range Control
This is a great exercise to focus on activating your rotator cuff and scapular muscles during overhead, end-range activities. It looks easy, but is deceptively difficult!
These three exercises are a great start to SAFELY improving your lat flexibility, and would be a good addition to your current warm up. Be sure to measure your progress, too! Take a "before" photo using the measurement method I wrote about in the last post, then see how you improve in the next few weeks! But as always, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! If one of these exercises doesn't feel right, don't do it...if you have shoulder pain, go see a physio- you don't need to live with pain!
Questions? Comments? Feel free to post below!
OK, so how do we figure out if tight lats are a problem? My favorite way to test for tight lats is the shoulder flexion wall test. This is a super easy way to not only quantify the amount of tightness in your lats, but also to track progress after implementing a stretching program. All you need for this is a flat wall, your iphone, and a friend.
What’s normal? As with all things, circus artists have a different standard of normal, and it depends on what you do. If you’re a trampoline artist, or a tumbler, you may not need a ton of flexibility in your lats. However, if you’re an aspiring hand balancer, contortionist, or aerialist, it is VITAL that you not only have adequate lat flexibility, but also can control that flexibility with the rest of the muscles surrounding your shoulder girdle. For circus artists that fit the latter description, I recommend at least an angle of 180 degrees of active range of motion. However, the best way to determine your specific needs and goals is to obviously see a sports medicine provider- there isn’t a one size fits all answer!
YOUR TASK before the next post- take (and maybe measure?!) your lat photo! Where do you fall on the 180 degree spectrum?
The next post will be dedicated to my favorite lat stretches and exercises to avoid injury caused by dysfunction in this muscle!
Questions, comments, or your favorite "I hate my lats" stories can be directed below in the "comments" section!