It's all about the Pecs, Baby!
Every day people admit to me they don’t stretch their bodies. Surprisingly to them, I’m not judgmental about it. I understand how we jump out of bed in the morning and attend to a dozen things before leaving the house. We gain momentum and suddenly, the day is done and it’s time to flop into bed again. It’s okay…really.
I say this because I understand how setting aside a formal time is really difficult for many of us. So instead of preach, I prefer to distill the best and most useful
for those who wish to do something with a high “return on investment.” I’m a wiz at playing motivational games with myself, so I’ll share with you what the therapist does, herself.
Someone once queried me, “If you were only allowed to stretch ONE part of your body for the rest of your life, which area would you choose?” The question really was, “In which area does stretching yield the ‘biggest bang for the buck?’” Years of studying posture and contemplation made it easy to decide. My vote would be for the chest muscles. The Pectoralis major and minor muscles seem to have never-ending effects on the rest of the body. Let me explain:
Going through life, these muscles do just about everything for us that requires us to use our arms. The “Pecs,” as we call them, get tight and shortened in many, ways. Imagine two big coiled springs going from our sternum to the inside of each arm. Growing up, if we were too tall, lacked confidence, or were a self-conscious female in puberty, we likely stood with our shoulders rounded forward, making our chest look concave. Our mothers may have told us to “stand up straight!” which worked for about twenty seconds. After years of this posture we begin to take on that shape as those “springs” get tighter and tighter. Our head juts out in front of us (because frankly, it’s nearly impossible for your head to remain back, over the spine if the shoulders are rounded forward. Try it.) and the back becomes rounded
We may suffer from mysterious (to us) symptoms like sensations of achiness or tingling in our fingers, headaches, anxiety and neck discomfort. What’s going on here? There is a connection.
Biology teaches us that “form follows function”. When it comes to human posture, I interpret this law to basically say that our body will adapt and take the shape to the predominant posture we assume throughout our lives. If you spend 40 years with your shoulders rounded and your head out front like a turtle, why then are you surprised when your back takes on a rounded shape?
Okay, back to the Pecs. Loosening these, giving them space, opening the chest up gives the Pecs “slack” and allows the shoulders to roll back naturally, allowing the upper back muscles such as the Rhomboids to work by pulling the shoulder blades together again. Imagine a spring that is coiled up too tightly can’t retract and “spring” with much force. On the flip side of this, muscles that are overly stretched, like a worn out rubber band, lose strength and contractility too, as a “hunched” back posture can’t easily correct and stay straightened up..
“Opening” the Pecs or those chest muscles allows the head to come back, aligned over the spine and the body again. Try holding a cantaloupe out and away from your body for as long as you can. Your arm will fatigue in a hurry! Now, imagine what the poor neck goes through, holding up that melon of a head, out in front of the body.
The back of the neck gets strained and fatigued and the deeper muscles in the front of the
neck get tight, can squeeze against nerves and cause sensations down the arms.
This posture also crowds the diaphragm and restricts deep breathing, making
breaths shorter and closer together, which can bring on a feeling of anxiety,
stress, dizziness and many other unpleasant symptoms. Head aches are most common with a head-forward posture.
So how do we correct this? The only way I can really stretch regularly is if it is easy and accessible. We have doorways everywhere, which make great pec stretching surfaces. (If you don’t know this stretch, Google “doorway stretch” for images). You can lay backwards over an ottoman, or a big exercise ball with your arms in varying positions to the sides or overhead. You’ll feel the stretch in your chest, armpits and arms if you’re doing it right. Immediately you’ll feel straighter and taller. If you need a little help, any good massage therapist can help by working the arms, armpit area and just below the clavicle (collar bone) to give you a head start on opening up.
When I taught at a massage college I used to tell students to never underestimate the good they could do from educating their future clients of these concepts, for one day a client could come in with terrible problems (as listed above) not to mention
looking quite lacking in self-confidence. With tongue-in-cheek oversimplification I added, "Before you know it, they stand straighter, look more confident, get the job they apply for, the dates they want, and their whole life falls into place!"
Happiness may not be that simple, of course, but who doesn't love a simple investment with a big return?
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Is the owner of The Good Health Collective and has been a massage therapist since 2001.