Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for the ‘Self-Care’ Category

Making Better Use of Your Lats

It’s another one of those often used, but tough to execute, pieces of advice, “use your lats.” I hear it a lot in the swing dance world and in the fitness world and while it seems to be a simple idea, many people struggle with it. Often, the issue is not that the lats aren’t active, but that other muscles are preventing the lats from fully activating. So here’s a quick run-down on how you can gain better access to this muscle.

lat-extensionWhat are Lats?

Just a quick definition for those of you unfamiliar with them, your lats, or latissimus dorsi, are the main power muscle involved in retracting the arm from an extended postion.  So if you are is out in front or above you (flexion) and you want to pull it into back towards a neutral position by your side (extension), that’s the job of the lats. The lats are also used for a few other movements but pulling in (extending from flexion) is a primary issue in dance and athletics.

Extending to Activate

When attempting to engage their lats, most people (and most of their instructors, coaches, trainers, etc.) try to go at it directly. “Find your lats and squeeze them” can work, but most people struggle with this version. I have found that taking a more 3-dimensional, indirect approach helps many people to more effectively engage their lats, allowing them to get greater power and range of motion out of the muscle.

The basic idea is to think about expanding the muscles of the anterior (front) chest and sides (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior). Instead of focusing on your back and trying to squeeze from there, put your attention on the front of the body and allow the chest muscles to expand as you pull. Rather than initiating from the back, imagine the force starting from the chest and wrapping around and under the armpit and through to the low back. As you do this, be aware of the head and neck which have a tendency to push forward in response; keeping the head upright will help the chest to expand, enhancing the engagement of the lats.

wide-lapels-bow-tieIt also helps to work on keeping the space around the clavicles (collar bones) spacious and wide.  Imagine wearing a jacket with extra wide lapels that extend into the space of the shoulders.  The more the shoulders settle wide and back, the more it will help you to engage the lats when using your arms.

Why Extension Helps

The rigors of modern life (computers, driving, etc.) frequently put us in an arms forward position for extended periods of time. This means that their chest muscles are often stuck in a contracted position. As a result, many people become habituated to a posture that involves some level of collapsing in at the chest.  So when they attempt something like a lat pull or retracting in from extension, the anterior chest muscles tend to stay contracted.

metal-pulleyThis contraction of the front muscles causes an inhibitory effect in the lats. This response, known as reciprocal inhibition, causes muscles with opposing actions to be prevented from contracting at the same time. Similar to how you can only move a pulley rope by pulling on one end at a time and allowing the other end to move, a joint only moves effectively when muscles on one side expand, giving the opposing muscles room to contract. By focusing on expanding the chest, you allow room for the lats to contract and prevent the reciprocal inhibitory effect.

Beyond Just Lats

This expansion tactic can be used to aid in movements throughout the body. By lengthening the antagonist muscle to a movement, you can provide more space for the acting muscle to contract, adding to both potential for power and mobility. The more you work with activating your body in a 3-dimensional fashion this way, rather than isolated muscles, the more freely you will be able to move across all your joints. So the next time you are having trouble executing a motion, try finding the opposing muscles and allowing them to expand, using space over effort to move.

When “Relax” Doesn’t Work (and 3 simple things that do)

tight stone fist

“relax”

“Relax”

“RELAX”

I cringed a little watching this exchange between a massage therapist and a client. The massage therapist was trying to get her client to release tension in her arm. The woman on the table was having trouble relaxing and the massage therapist was becoming frustrated by the client’s lack of response. The client, not too surprisingly, seemed less and less relaxed as the therapist became louder and more insistent.

I have seen similar situations play out in dance classes where well-meaning instructors have created traumatic situations for students by pushing them to relax. I have talked to students who were reduced to tears after a private lesson where they were just told over and over to relax. And I recently had a student who really needed to relax thank me for finding more active release-oriented ways to cue her because a previous ballroom teacher had essentially beaten her over the head with the word “relax” to the point where she hated/feared hearing it.

“Relax” can be an extremely difficult instruction to execute. It seems a great many instructors, students, and people in general don’t have alternative strategies to try when “relax” isn’t effective. So when “relax” doesn’t work, they don’t have a backup wording and just keep saying the same thing that didn’t work the first time. Then they go on repeating “relax” like a mantra until they give up or manage or contort themselves into something that looks close enough that they can move on.

What makes “relax” so hard?

For starters, context. People typically get told to relax in situations where they are already tense, meaning they are under some sort of stress or sense of danger. Telling someone to relax in such a situation is essentially asking them to turn off a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. Frequently, people who are tense because of some fear of judgement end up tensing even more when told to relax because they fear being unable to comply and being judged further.

Relax is also a fairly complex concept, when you think about it. Not only does it involve a change in physical state, but also a mental/emotional shift. And for relaxing to make sense to your nervous system, you need to view your current surroundings as non-threatening. If any of these tensions are habitual, it can even be difficult to tell that you are tense in the first place. With all these factors involved, relax becomes more a state of being than a simple action.

Many people seem to conceptualize relax as the absence of doing something. In the US, the tendency to fill our lives with doing things can make the idea of relaxing seem to equal doing nothing or even being viewed as a negative. Rather than viewing relaxation as a lack of doing, it can be far more productive to approach it as an active releasing of tension. The following few ways can help you to physically and mentally achieve relaxation more effectively than just thinking “relax.”

Breathe

breathelungsOne of my first cues anytime I find myself tense is to extend my breathing. Taking a longer breath, and particularly a longer exhale, activates the relaxation response. Under the sort of duress that causes tension, most of us will shorten or even hold our breath, reinforcing the tension. Deep, slow breathing helps to settle the nervous system and bring it back to a state of ease, leading the muscles to relax without direct, conscious effort.

You can also direct breath towards particular areas that need help relaxing. Shoulder tense? Try focusing on the area in your chest near that shoulder and imagine directing your breath to it. The expansion of the lungs is a great way to passively expand muscle groups and give them more space to settle into more comfortable and relaxed positions.

Think Down

The body responds much better to simple directional ideas than it does to complex concepts like “relax.” The end goal of relaxing can often be achieved by thinking about letting the arms (or whatever body part) sink down.

melting_womanIn many dance contexts I’ve seen teachers repeatedly asking students to relax their arms, often with minimal to moderate success. Often, this arm tension is based on the idea that someone needs to hold their own arms up. So a great deal of tension is a result of fighting gravity to keep the arms at some specific height. By thinking about allowing the arms to sink down, the body can surrender to the effects of gravity and work with it, rather than constantly fighting it. I often use the idea of melting like candle wax to enhance this effect in relaxing. Because a relaxed arm will more effectively transfer motion, this sort of release is integral to creating natural connection in dancing.

ghostbusters-floating-danaI see the same effect on my Rolfing® table where many people’s bodies tense away from the table almost as if they could levitate themselves by sheer force of will. When I prompt them to recognize that the table can support their weight and to let themselves sink into that support, their bodies relax and their mental state follows suit shortly after. In standing, a similar effect is achievable by becoming aware of the bones in your body and allowing weight to carry through bones rather than be held up by muscle.

Tense & Release

One of the more counter-intuitive moves for relaxation is to tense up first. Most of us, when told to relax, will aim to go directly towards some sort of relaxing attempt. stress ballHowever, it can end up more effective to tense muscles first, hold that tension for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax. In essence, taking yourself into greater tension allows for a better release.

Because many of us carry constant tensions, it can be easy for the brain to begin filtering out these sensations. I often hear people remark that they had no idea they were tense in so many places. By creating a conscious tension in the muscle first, the difference between tense and relaxed can become more apparent, which helps you feel yourself relax. This technique is also used by some physical therapists, terming it Progressive Muscle Relaxation, to treat general anxiety issues.

The 3 ideas above are just starter ideas, feel free to modify them or come up with your own. The more tools you have, the more you can help someone else relax or have options to try when someone tells you to relax.

In any case, keep in mind that attempting to produce a relaxed state involves physical, mental, and emotional aspects. Shifting any one aspect can help to shift the whole.  So when you are having trouble relaxing, focus on a simpler version of it, releasing a part of the body, slowing your breathing, calming your thoughts, instead of trying to do everything at once. And just like working out a muscle, the more you work with these ideas, the stronger they become and the more readily they will help you to achieve relaxation.

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