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Forward Bend Stretch – Hamstrings & Erector Spinae (Part 1 of 3)

In this Yoga Journal picture the model is demonstrating a very flexible Standing Forward Bend Stretch. 

Most of us need to begin with our knees bent with our chest resting on our thighs.  From there we can work towards straightening our legs as demonstrated here.

There is something calming about this pose.  There’s a “letting go” feeling that accompanies the forward folding movement.  And with your mid-section folded, there is an opportunity to support your digestion.

When you do a Standing Forward Bend Stretch you are stretching every muscle in the posterior (rear) of your body from your head to your feet so there can be an intense feeling in the lower back and hamstrings.  This is where Focused Flexibility Training can support you in releasing muscle knots and tension before you stretch.

The Muscles involved in the Standing Forward Bend Stretch: 

  • Shoulders to Knees: erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, gluteus maximus, hamstrings,

  • Arms Forward: infraspinatus, rhomboids, serratus anterior

  • Elbows Above the Head: latissimus dorsi, teres minor & major

  • Feet Flexed: gastrocnemius, soleus, popliteus, flexor digitorum/hallicus longus

 

There are many muscles involved in this stretch so in this blog post we will only explore the erector spinae and the hamstrings.  In Part 2 we will discuss the muscles that need to stretch in your arms and in Part 3 we will cover the muscles of your lower leg.

*Note:  For clarity, the words ‘knot’ and ‘trigger point’ mean the same thing and are interchangeable as we discuss what is happening to muscles.

In order to do any stretch effectively your muscles need to be free of knots that prevent the muscle from lengthening.

An analogy Julie likes to use when she explains this to clients:  Imagine a 12” length of rope.  Now tie enough knots in it so it becomes 10” long.  And then try to stretch it back to 12” without first untying the knots.  NOT possible!

This analogy makes it easy to understand that a muscle knot becomes tighter and the fibers outside of the knot will overstretch if trigger points are not released before you stretch.

To complicate it even further, both ends of our “rope” muscle are attached to bones.  You can see how the muscle insertion points will have a strain put on them if the trigger point is not released before stretching.

Let’s discuss the erector spinae.  It is a group of three muscles from the top of your pelvis to the base of your skull.

While the erector spinae is actually three muscles: spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis.  The only fibers we’ll discuss here is the longissimus.  The longissimus muscle goes along your spine from your sacrum all the way to your skull.

Since your erector spinae muscles lift you upright from a bent position, you can imagine the limitations if any of these fibers are tight as you are trying to bend forward.  The strain of the stretch can put pressure along the muscle insertion points on your ribs.  At best you won’t be able to go far in your forward bend, and at worse, the fibers can actually tear, feeling like a burning or stinging sensation that can last for quite a while until the fibers heal.

Your hamstrings are also a group of three muscles: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus.  They all do the exact same movement, but for clarity the biceps femoris, although you can slide through the other muscles as well.

The three hamstring muscles all originate on the bottom of your posterior pelvis (called the PSIS).  The semitendinosus and semimembranosus cross over your knee joint and insert into the inside of your lower leg bone (the tibia).  The biceps femoris inserts into the outside of your lower leg (on the fibula).

The action of the hamstrings is to bend your knee.  You do this all day every time you take a step or sit down.  For many of us the muscles are even contracted all night as we sleep with our knees bent.

It is very common for the muscles to shorten because of a phenomenon called muscle memory.  Muscle memory says, if a muscle is held in the shortened position for an extended period of time then it should be shorter, so the body simply changes the length of the muscle fibers.

Then when we want to stretch the muscles, which could be as simple as going down steps, it hurts because the muscle has shortened.

When you do a Forward Bend Stretch you are stretching your hamstrings as far as they would normally be able to lengthen…unless there are knots in the muscle fibers.  I, Julie, can guarantee that there are multiple trigger points (knots) in these fibers because of the huge amount of repetitive motion they experience.

It is vital that you release the trigger points in your hamstrings before you try to stretch them.  A torn hamstring is very painful, and in a severe case (which Julie has seen in the past) the muscle insertion point can actually tear away from the bone!

When you eliminate the trigger points in your erector spinae and hamstrings, stretching will not only be smoother, easier, and deeper; it will also be pain-free!

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