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.