Newsletter no. 16 – Monday 20 September, 2021

This is the web-based version of Stretch Therapy Newsletter no. 16

Lateral flexion of the spine

Many people have good spinal flexion (and remember, the presence of the ribcage limits this range of movement anyway); a smaller number of people have really good spinal extension; but easy lateral flexion is relatively rare by comparison. And we don't think it's any coincidence that the significant fraction of low back pain is experienced in the deepest of the spinal muscles – quadratus lumborum* (and this may be related to the smaller range of movement most people have in this plane of movement), and like so many other muscles in the body, it cannot be stretched at all until the surface layers of muscle and fascia are loosened. The combination of these three movements below will give you instant access to this essential range of movement.

Following lateral flexion exercises, calm everything down with the 'Rag doll'. Stand with slightly bent knees, and feel the weight in the soles of your feet. Let your arms hang completely limply. Give a tiny flick of the hips in one direction, and feel how that rotates the spine and then your shoulders – and then feel the arms being spun away from the body! Repeat for the other side, trying to stay as relaxed as possible, but keeping the spine as straight but relaxed as you can. If you get this right, you'll feel what we mean by "rag doll"! [To see Olivia demonstrating, see the Spinal movements follow-along class video, at 16:25.]

* Strictly speaking, we need lateral flexion combined with a certain amount of rotation to get right into these muscles.


Chair side bend – simple lower back pain relief

All you need is a chair with a comfortable seat to complete these lower back stretches. This is exercise 1 from the book Overcome Neck & Back Pain, and the video program, the Overcome Back Pain Course.

Much of the pain of low back pain comes from the muscles and fascia of the lower back. And anyone who is suffering low back pain is loathe to bend forwards to stretch this area (it hurts too much!) and it's not long before you lose your confidence in this critical part of the body. Loss of function happens at the same time.

This simple exercise loosens the oblique muscles first and then, by adding a gentle rotation, lets quadratus lumborum be stretched in time, too. For many people, quadratus lumborum (or "QL") is the location of the pain of their back pain.

The last part of the exercises uses trapezius to stretch latissimus dorsi – which connects directly to the thoraco-lumbar fascia. We have found that using the body to stretch itself yields the longest-lasting results (better than a partner or gravity in this regard).

And all of this happens in this exercise with the spine unloaded, and the relevant muscles relaxed – so you can get the movement and the stretch without the pain and discomfort.

Make sure you stretch the tighter side a second time; experience shows that a marked right–left difference in key functions is strongly correlated with recurring low back pain.

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Kneeling side stretch – back pain relief

Olivia demonstrates and leads a 'follow along' kneeling version of this excellent lateral flexion stretch.

In addition to stretching the obliques, extending the arm adds a powerful latissimus dorsi stretch, and the rolling of the top shoulder forward while reaching the arm out becomes a strong quadratus lumborum stretch, in time. And if you let your head hang to the side as well, as she is demonstrating, the neck is stretched too.

[The standing version of the side bend is part of the Spinal movements follow-along class video from a recent newsletter.]

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Hanging side bend, variations for trunk pain relief

If there's something around your house that you can hold on to (like a door frame, for example) then a whole suite of subtle push–pull hanging exercises are available to you.

Muscles (and fascia) that can be worked this way include (but not limited to) latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, obliques, the paravertebrals (the muscles on either side of the thoracic spine), and all parts of trapezius. It's the combination of pulling and pushing forces that work so well.

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A note from a student

I honestly think that "Stretching & Flexibility" is the best book I have read about stretching. And recently, I have tried to stretch less than before. I now stretch only once per week, but earlier I stretched three times a week. Your advice about stretching once a week has really helped me with my progress and I now experience a new level of flexibility – with less stretching than before. I think this is very interesting. I also followed your advice about relaxation, so I have now started to do breathing exercises (4-7-8 by Andrew Weil) with great results. Again – thanks for your stretching advice on the forum and for writing "Stretching & Flexibility".

Martin B.