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!