Stretching laterally can reduce flexibility imbalances in your torso and boost your back health

Starting position and instructions

Stand with your feet astride and slightly turned out. Reach your left hand above your head and stretch upwards initially to lengthen your spine. Keep your right arm by your side and bend to the right side to ‘laterally flex’ your spine. Keep your left arm on your waist or thigh to support your bodyweight. Take your right arm above your head to increase the stretch.

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You should focus on body length rather than movement range to the side. Performed correctly this stretch stretches the powerful muscles beneath the arm (latissimus dorsi) the strong side flexors (external obliques) and the muscles either side of the spine (erector spinae) on the side of the body.

To ‘understand’ the stretch imagine that you are sandwiched between two sheets of glass and you can’t twist your chest or bend forwards or backwards. Performing the stretch in real time like this will ensure true side flexion and not in a combined movement of side-flexion and trunk rotation.

Variations

1) Both hands on waist

Placing both arms on the waist will reduce the resistance provided by the straight arm making the action easier. Although the stretch is taken away from your side trunk muscles, the ribs can still be opened up providing you reach the elbow of the upper (left) arm towards the ceiling.

2) Stretching both hands overhead

Stretching both hands overhead increases the overload on the spine and changes the emphasis of the exercise from stretch to strength. By holding the action in a side-flexed position, the upper left side trunk muscles (when stretching to the right) work hard to stop you from falling further into side flexion.

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Points to note

As you reach your maximum range of side flexion, you are held in position by elastic recoil and contraction of the stretched muscles. Specifically the contraction is an eccentric one which results in the muscle lengthening under load. As you stop moving, the muscular action becomes isometric – this results in muscles contracting without movement resulting.

Supporting yourself on your lower arm allows the eccentrically contracting muscles to relax and the passive stretch to increase. If you release the lower arm, the trunk muscles on the upper side must work harder to maintain the position and so the emphasis of the exercise is shifted from pure stretch to stretch and strength.

Balancing your flexibility

Asymmetry in lateral flexion of the spine is common, very often we will have one side of the spine which is tighter than the other. This asymmetry reflects hand dominance (whether you are right or left handed) and your everyday actions. For example, if you sit at a desk and answer a telephone placed on the right hand side of your desk you will tend to lean to the right, tightening the trunk side muscles on this side.

It is important to stretch the tighter side of the trunk more than the other side to re-dress the balance. Once you have balanced the flexibility of both sides you can then perform the same number of repetitions on both sides.

Uses

Side flexion stretching is useful to re-balance flexibility as mentioned. It also opens the ribs on the upper side of the stretch and can therefore be used following bruising or rib fracture during sport. This is important because tightness in the muscles between the ribs (intercostals) may restrict breathing on this side of the chest.

Where this is the case you can add deep breathing to the exercise to expand the ribcage. Here’s what should do: perform the stretch to the maximum position and then take two or three deep breaths focusing on expanding your ribcage on the upper side of the body. Do not practice too many deep breaths as this can make you to feel dizzy through hyperventilation.

Although the side stretch predominantly focuses on the latissimus and external oblique muscles, the long spinal muscles (erector spinae) and short side flexor (quadratus lumborum) of the upper side are also stretched. These muscles are frequently an important component in lower back pain. Through lifting and carrying activities both these muscles can be overworked and go into painful spasm.

Over time acids build up in the muscles giving a permanent dull ache, which is often worse after prolonged driving when the blood flow to the muscles is reduced. Pain also occurs with activities such as gardening or DIY where the painful muscles are suddenly called on to work and the spasm increases.

Gently stretching the muscle using this side bend stretch can ease tightness and reduce pain. To do so the stretch must be applied gently without jolting or bouncing. Maintain a light stretch until the pain in the muscle eases. Release slowly and then perform 34 reps morning and evening. The muscles will be more flexible after a warm bath or shower when they are filled with fresh blood.

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