In this part of our series on stretching we will start with developing a more accurate perspective in evaluating complex stretches (multi-joint) that are often mistaken as single-joint stretches. In order to determine which muscles or joints are being affected in these “stretches”, we must first analyze each involved joint and its adjacent partners.
Without individualizing each joint and its relationship with the adjacent joints, we could be making inaccurate assumptions about which joint and muscles are actually “tight” or stressed. Therefore our course of action, or “stretch”, might be ineffective and or inappropriate.
As an example, let’s first take a look at the popular “hamstring stretch” and some of the common mistakes we see while analyzing joint range. Then we will compare a couple variations of hamstring stretches to see which joints are contributing to the tension and range restrictions. (See pictures below)
Seated Hamstring Stretch #1
Let’s break down the positions at each joint for this picture:
Knees are in full extension
The Lumbar spine is extended
The Thoracic spine is extended
Hips are flexed
Ankle and Foot are dorsi flexed
Toes are extended
Face is flexed (optional)
Now here’s a look at a similar stretch with a few joints modified by giving different instructions on body position:
Seated Hamstring Stretch #2
Let’s break down the positions at each joint in this picture:
Knees are in full extension
Hips are flexed
The Lumbar spine is flexed
The Thoracic spine is flexed
The Cervical spine is flexed
Ankle and Foot are plantar flexed
Toes are flexed
The second, and equally important factor, is to now attempt to determine how the length tension of each muscle that crosses the involved joints is affected by the relative joint positions.
Can we intentionally alter the joint positions of the adjacent joints to decrease the tension created at those joints and give us a better perspective of the actual length tension of the muscles we are trying to evaluate?
How might the positions of the joints in the photos above affect the hamstrings’ length-tension?
Well, since the hamstrings cross both the knee and hip joints the respective adjacent joints would be the ankle and the lumbar spine. Let’s take a look at these 4 joints and see how they can affect the length-tension of the hamstrings in the photos above.
First, we’ll analyze the knee and hip joints because their effect on the hamstrings’ length-tension is more obvious. The hamstrings attach below the knee on the posterior femur and also on the inferior portion of our pelvis. Therefore, they are knee flexors and hip flexors. (See the picture below)
This means that in order to increase the length-tension in the hamstring we can either produce knee extension or hip extension or both.
Now let’s discuss the contribution of the 2 adjacent joints to the length-tension of the hamstrings.
1). The ankle: As demonstrated in the photo below, the calf muscles attach behind the knee on the lower femur and to the back of the heel. The more we place the ankle in dorsiflexion (foot pulled up) the greater the tension on the calf muscles which then increases tension on the posterior knee. But wait, our hamstrings also attach to the posterior knee so if the calf muscles are tight and close to their extreme in length, then the knee will be tight and might make the hamstrings appear to be tight. Maybe a more neutral ankle position would be wise if we are trying to determine the actual length tension of the hamstring.
2). The lumbar spine: At the opposite end, arching your back (extension) will create greater tension in the hip because it pulls the attachment of the hamstrings on the hip, back. If the hamstrings are already at or near their available length tension, then the result will either be an inability to arch the back or an attempt to alter the tension at the knee. Conversely, if the back is incapable of arching due to its own tension, then the hamstring will appear to be tight. So maybe a neutral spinal position is important for evaluating the actual length tension of the hamstring.
We now know why the first two pictures above have such varying results regarding the amount of available range. We should also mention that there are many other factors at play that might affect how much motion we have available at each joint. Including but not limited to:
- known or unknown injuries
-nerve or connective tissue tension
-Genetic bone and/or joint structure
Personal experience helps when processing this information so we challenge you to try this stretch with the varying joint positions of the ankle and back and to also stay tuned for Part 3!
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