Stretching for a younger self was introduced to me by the work of Dan John. The idea is that, muscularly, many things start to happen as we grow older, and there are certain stretches that will reverse those natural tendencies as much as possible. The idea is not to avoid aging, as looking for the stretching analogous of plastic surgeries, but to keep as young as possible even at an old age.
So, what happens muscularly as we age? We get a glimpse on that through the riddle the Sphinx asks to Oedipus in a greek myth, in order to allow him to use the road to Thebes:
“What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
The answer comes to be man. When he is a newborn, he carries himself in four limbs; as a young man, he reaches for the sky and walks proud in two legs; and at the end of his life, he uses a cane as a third leg to aid his gait.
Muscularly this means that, almost universally, what happens is that certain muscles start to shorten and others start to lengthen. It is curious, but after having lived a life of uprightness, the body wants to get to a fetal position again. Aging has to do with exhalation: the body is losing its energy, and starts turning into itself. Interestingly enough, the body gets into this pattern too under situations of stress, trauma, tiredness and depression.
A curved back means greater protection, both physically and psychologically, for our vulnerable areas, which are the genitals, gut, breast (heart) and throat. The hunchback we start to get indicates the tightening of the front part of the body and all of the muscles that promote closening motions like internal rotation, flexion, protraction and adduction. The muscles are progressively guiding the skeleton towards the womb, to conclude life as we began it.
Even though there is always room for variance, the general tightness/weakness pattern is usually like this (skip this part if you want less detail):
Muscles that tend to get short and tight (Tonic)
- Neck extensors (back of the neck, which shortens to keep the eyes with the horizon)
- Levator scapulae (skull-scapula connection muscle, which lifts the shoulders towards the ears)
- Scalenes and Upper trapezius (neck-ribs connection muscle, which elevates the collarbone towards the chin)
- Pectoralis minor/major, biceps, posterior deltoid and subscapularis (which tensed create internal rotation of the shoulder and protraction of the scapula)
- Intercostals, serratus and abdominals (front part of the ribcage, which reduce the distance between the chest and the pelvis)
- Hip flexors complex (These includes the illiopsoas – psoas and illiacus, the tensor fascia latae, many quads and adductors muscles. They reduce the angle between the hip and the belly, turning us into the four legged human again)
- Adductors (internal thigh muscles that create medial rotation at the hip. With the hip joint in a flexed position, the piriformis helps to medially rotate it, so it should be stretched too)
- Gastrocnemius-Soleus (calf muscles, which normally reflect very tight plantar fascia at the feet)
- Toe flexors (the muscles that create a chronic situation of flexed toes)
- Forearm flexors (the muscles that create a situation of constantly grasping with our hands)
Muscles that tend to get long and weak (Phasic)
- Neck flexors (front of the neck)
- Lower traps/Rhomboids (the upper back muscles and scapula abductors that create retraction and depression. They maintain thoracic extension, or the spring of the Thoracic spine)
- External rotators of the shoulder (these include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus and teres minor, and also the anterior part of the deltoid)
- Lower abdominals/Pelvic floor (this is the support of your gut at the front, and also the base of your spine)
- Lumbar extensors (this is your lower back and erectors, which extend your hip and spine and with time they tend to get long, creating a posterior pelvic tilt)
- Gluteus maximus (this is the house of glute power, that create the hip extension used when standing or deadlifting)
- Vastus medialis (very important quad muscle that protects the knee)
- Anterior tibialis (shin muscle, which being weak can facilitate the tightness of the calf)
- Toe extensors (the muscles that extend the toes)
- Forearm extensors (the muscles that open your hand)
Does this looks complex? In reality, what any Stretch that makes you younger does, is to prevent the shortening of the front of the body. This is a wide generalization that is still useful: to remain posturally young, don’t let your body collapse into a fetal position.
Here I will show you some examples of Stretches that make you younger, organized from easier to harder. They are examples, so you can come up with your own. You can imagine the many psychological and longevity effects they have not only on our body (better posture, more athletic capacity, deeper breathing, less muscular imbalances, etc), but also on our mind (quicker thinking, more room for vulnerability, greater capacity for taking risk and deep bonding, etc). If there is stretching that matters, it is this, so try doing it everyday!
#1. Bioenergetics stool.
This is like the bow, but it may allow more stretching and relaxation. Read the cues of the next stretch to know more about this one. Here you can see a video of Elliott Hulse explaining how to create one.
#2. The bow.
This one comes from yoga and is probably your best bet. You can place the hands at the lower back or at the glutes to create different feelings. Flex your knees, open you mouth and eyes wide and bend backwards. Remember, this is not stretching for range of motion acquisition per se (even though it will help), but rather for postural and psychological reasons, so only go as back as you comfortably can at the moment, but where you are still feeling tension. Hold the stretch for some breaths, and do some forward bending to compensate the back bend. A final note: the vibrations that you feel are the whole point of the exercise, so don’t bypass them.
#3. Stoney stretch.
This one is a big bang for your buck, because it includes the shoulder and hip area at the same time. It is a little bit more athletic, so it may suit better for a warm up or in between sets.
#4. The Bridge.
Even though I am constantly doing the bow, I have yet to find an exercise that stretches the front of the body as deep as the bridge. This is why the bridge is my favorite stretch: it is the perfect antidote to the aging pattern. I wrote this on Pliable body about it:
“A good bridge will be the perfect antidote for the typical civilization’s posture: a rounded type body that forms a “C” shape. Consider what our habits do to our bodies. Many of us spend our days with rounded shoulders and a forward head posture, staring at a computer, texting on our cellphones or driving our cars. You may feel a little bit depressed, which increases the kyphosis, and then go to the gym to work on the beach muscles: the biceps, chest and abdominals. Everything that you don’t see (which is in fact the most important) is being neglected, namely the legs and back.
The bridge has us stretch all the frontal part of our bodies, and strengthen the back part of it. It stretches from the anterior part of the neck, the chest, biceps, intercostals, serratus and abdominals, to the hip flexors, quadriceps and shins. It requires excellent thoracic mobility, stable abdominals and strong glutes.”
The only problem is that, due to its high demands, it can be hard to relax on it, and many people will be fearful in this position. The solution is a good regression, like just lying on a swiss ball to get into the position, or doing a cobra pose from yoga.
#5. King dancer pose.
This one is also a big favorite because it includes a muscle group that the other stretches neglect: the glutes. It will of course be a difficult position to achieve, but until you do you can use a band to get its benefits.
That’s it! Please don’t keep this information to yourself. It is not the young but the elderly who need these exercises the most. Remember: as intelectual as our times have gotten, we are still bodily creatures. This means that your life, your vitality and everything mental is determined by this amazing thing called the body. When the body isn’t, you aren’t. To care for it, is to care for yourself, and in the end for others.
If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Elliott Hulse and Alexander Lowen
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