The Safe Way to Improve Your Shoulder Flexibility: A Self-Study

As many people may know, I recently began participating more in yoga. One of my goals in 2016 was first to run a half-marathon, and then to get more flexible (and do a cool handstand with the sunset in the background like one of those super cool yogis). While we are taught in physical therapy school the different ways to lengthen and “stretch” a muscle, I have now started to actually experience it, because I want to. Nothing like putting your knowledge to work and getting a better perspective, right?

While there are many viewpoints in regards to muscle extensibility, I feel the article by Weppler and Magnusson describes it well. A muscle’s length tends to be measured one-dimensionally; however, there are many factors that come into play when increasing a muscle’s length and extensibility. We are not one-dimensional humans, we have joint capsules, various tissues and fascia pulling in different directions, muscles overlapping one another, ligaments holding our joints together. We are by no means one-dimensional, and neither is our ability to move. According to the science of biomechanics, we already know and understand that muscle length is multi-dimensional, so why do we keep attempting to stretch and measure it in only one way? (This is a segway to another future write-up…) There are many different theories and reasons behind why our muscles appear to lengthen after a short-term stretch including an alteration in pain and sensation, a short-term relaxation due to neuromuscular reflexes, etc. Anyway, knowing that there are many factors that come into play with stretching allows us to take a step back, breathe, and realize this is going to take time (if you want to do it effectively and appropriately). Without patience, you risk greatly injuring yourself, and maybe not even at the site of the stretch due to all of the overlapping tissues in your body. Let this be a reminder to you that our bodies are pretty amazing (and also insane, but still amazing).

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While I have not yet reached my perfect handstand (with the sunset in the background), I have come to find and critique each one of my movements so that I may focus on different aspects of stretching, strengthening, and balancing in order to achieve that “perfectly aligned” handstand. As a physical therapist, this opportunity and goal setting has been an amazing learning experience. As a beginner yogi, this has also been a wonderful learning experience. Let me break it down for you a little in some pictures.

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From a Beginner Yogi: This was my first documented (on Instagram) “wheel pose” back in May 2016. I used to do this known as a “bridge” when I was younger. I didn’t fully understand the concept of how to improve my form yet, nor did I have the flexibility for it. But the water was cool and it was a sunny day, so why not yoga?

From a Physical Therapist: Lacking full shoulder flexion – do we need to test that in standing just against gravity first before we do things like this? There’s a little thoracic extension here, but that could use some work. I can see tight hip flexors and a compensation of a heel raise to allow for more flexibility and space to open up. Just need to be careful not to overcompensate and start using the lumbar spine to make up for the lack of shoulder and thoracic flexibility.

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Second documented wheel pose in August 2016, while I was participating in a “yoga challenge” ..also at a Goo Goo Dolls concert (lol, what).

From a Beginner Yogi: Cool lighting, cool background, at a concert, cool. Plus I need to do my yoga for the day, right!? I didn’t have time for a warm up at all here, just kind of whipped this one out. Thanks for the pic, Mom! Hope you aren’t too embarrassed!

From a Physical Therapist: Am I starting to compensate using my lumbar spine? Is that safe? And wait, no warm up? I hope I don’t injure something, even holding these prolonged stretches can damage you. Wow, those hips flexors are still tight, definitely a (+) Thomas test, if you know what I mean. And still compensating with the heel raise? Hm. And yeah, we definitely need to work on that full shoulder flexion and elbow extension… what exercises can we do? (And by we, I mean me, myself, and I).

(Minimal disclaimer: My elbows don’t actually extend fully due to being born with a rare genetic disease that causes bone abnormalities. In my case, it is a large radial head which limits my ability to fully supinate as well as fully extend my elbow. BUT I think the yoga has actually slowly been helping, a little. Long story short, I am not going to target them, because it’s more of a bone on bone end range and is just silly to try to realistically change that.)

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So from this point on, I am looking at myself in these pictures and thinking… Wow, I really need to be careful, I could really injure myself. Luckily, I see this. Not every patient will. Many will continue to push through the pain to get that “perfect picture.” Or work harder to be able to get back on the playing field, or back to work to support his/her family, or back to just being able to play with his/her friends. This is key. Education is key.

Overuse, improper stretching, and pushing through pain make up a great deal of the injuries out there. It is our jobs, as physical therapists, yogis, athletes, humans, to educate ourselves and others on these risks. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and trying to achieve them, we just need to make sure we do it safely.

So where did I start? Well, I’d say back in September 2016 is when I really started focusing more on stretching my shoulders and my thoracic (upper back) region. It is still very much a work in progress, and will certainly continue to be. These are the main exercises I perform below:

  1. Foam roller for improved thoracic extension or “Fish Pose” on a foam roller: To perform this, I initially start with my hands behind my neck to support my head, elbows in for additional support. I roll myself a few times over the foam roller along my upper back from the base of my neck to the end of my ribcage or so. After a few reps, I begin breathing and arching my back a little more and holding the pose to allow for an additional static stretch. I also will perform this without a foam roller as I feel comfortable.
  2. “Puppy pose” for improved shoulder flexion and thoracic extension on the floor and on the foam roller. I perform this a few different ways and hold it for a few breaths (anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes pending how I’m feeling). Make sure not to compensate with your lower back here – really focus on breathing and pressing your shoulders and chest forward and down.
    1. img_20170113_070825736
    2. img_20170113_070842196 Not exactly puppy pose here, but still working on pressing the shoulders into the ground.
    3. img_20170113_074717866 More of an “extended” puppy pose, really trying to push the chest forward and down.
  3. Doorway stretch: 2 different ways
    1. Pec Stretch: Arms up, parallel to the floor. Gently lean in with a lunge. You should feel a stretch on the front of your arm/chest area. (Sorry for the hair – thanks 1 Mission Fitness for the cool shirt, though).
      1. Shoulder Flexion: Similar set up to the pec stretch, but I would extend my arm up higher. Allow your shoulder to sink into the wall while you lunge.
  4. Hanging shoulder flexion stretch (Not sure what else to call this): I would generally hold onto something above me, whether it be at the gym (a pole or something), a doorway, etc. Again, gently lean in without compensating using your upper or lower back. By performing such a compensation, you are only cheating yourself! And no, this isn’t me, but during the pictures, I couldn’t reach 😀 so I had to use my model substitute 😉

Additionally, I would do these a few times with a hold of 30-60 seconds, then perform some sort of yoga pose that utilized the new “space” I achieved from my short-term stretching. After all, mobility before stability, right?

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October 2016. (Saulita Skull Leggings from AltarEgo Apparel – they have a Gandhi quote on the front inside of them!)

As I analyze myself these next few pictures, I definitely notice a difference in my overall flexibility. Some of it may be from the warm up I did before the picture, some of it may not, I’m not totally sure how to differentiate. What I do know is that stretching the proper way and progressing the safe way is saving me from an increased risk of injury (specifically lower back here).

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January 2017

The above 2 pictures are from the same day, very recently, in the beginning of January. This was the first time I felt I could safely go into the wheel pose on my forearms. As you can see, my shoulder flexion is improving, slowly but surely. Again, still a work in progress and I still need to do my own home exercise program, maybe even add on a few other different stretches to challenge the multiple dimensions of my joints, but I am getting there. My point here again is that this takes time, it is not going to happen overnight, or even in a few weeks. Whether you are trying to improve your general flexibility (like me) or your patient is recovering from a torn ACL, the emphasis is the same. The most important thing is patience so that you are not placing yourself or your patient at an increased risk of injury.

Anyways, I hope my journey thus far has taught you something, inspired you to teach something to someone else, or just been fun to read/laugh at my experience. 😀

Until next time,

Jen Strack

P.S. Because I’m a “beginner yogi” and obsessed with cool pants.. Here are the links and codes for discounts to some of the pants I was wearing in the pictures above. Because they’re awesome and I like to reward myself sometimes and I think you should too 😉

1 – The Saulita Skull Leggings from October 2016 are from Altar Ego Apparel -> http://www.altaregoapparel.com/ – An all female run company. Code “JNS” gets you 15% off.

2 – Red Bohemian pants are from Bohemian Pants.com -> Bohemian Pants. Code: “x3jennyfur10” gets you 10% off AND they donate 10% of your purchase to help save the environment !

Citations:

Cynthia Holzman Weppler, S. Peter Magnusson; Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation?. 2016; 90 (3): 438-449. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20090012

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