Ahhhhhh, many women’s natural instinct will lead them straight to flexibility, often bypassing strength along the way. Flexibility is equally as important as other physical abilities, but the pregnant woman should note a few things. First, as a woman you are naturally prone to being more flexible than your male counterparts. Your female hormones help ensure this is the case. Often what a woman feels as “tightness” is not a short muscle in need of stretching, but a weak muscle elsewhere. As life unfolds, it is generally more common for women to lose strength faster than flexibility.
Second, what makes this even more interesting for the pregnant woman is, for the nine months of pregnancy, she has extra hormones that keep her flexibility even higher than usual. It is the preparation for loosening ligaments, tendons, and muscles for childbirth. Though stretching can be beneficial, taking an already-overstretched body and stretching it even more during pregnancy can push mom down the path of muscle imbalance and postural misalignment. In human biomechanics, it is possible to be too tight, but also possible to be too loose.
Teaching appropriate flexibility is another challenging scenario because a woman can be too flexible, yet feel tight. The feeling of tightness in your hamstrings, for instance, can often be attributed to an underlying weakness. It’s relatively common for a woman’s gluteal muscles and lower abdominal muscles to be weak, which allows the pelvis to “pour forward.” [See the exercise “Pelvic Tilting” from previous blog ]. This pulls the hamstrings like a rubber band. The hamstrings feel tight because they are long and tight, not short and tight. Although it feels good at the time, further stretching actually worsens the imbalance and misalignment.
This is a classic muscle imbalance that keeps some women all over the world stretching the heck out of their hamstrings when they’d actually feel a lot less tightness by strengthening their butt muscles or lower abdominals instead. In Muscles Testing and Function, a resource guide for physical therapists, Kendall, McCreary, and Provance write, “An angle of approximately 80 degrees between the table and the raised leg is considered normal range of Hamstring length.” Some resources extend normal hamstring alignment for women to 90 degrees, but many women think optimal flexibility is to bring their leg to their ear. In the case of an already tight hamstring, further stretching will actually worsen the feeling of tightness. This is not considered optimal muscle balance, and can bring just as many aches and pains as being too tight. Especially during pregnancy, when flexibility comes easy, be careful about pushing too hard into any stretch. “Too tight, too loose, or just right?”
As before, if you are in doubt, please seek a qualified corrective exercise specialist at CHEKconnect.com to perform a “length assessment,” or similar.
Now, having warned you about some of the extreme stretching possibilities out there, we can continue.
Overall, general relaxed stretching is likely to be beneficial, helping relieve stress and promote fluid movement. Massage is also a great way to relieve tension if you’re unsure which muscles to stretch. The muscles targeted in the flexibility exercises below are often useful for the pregnant woman’s changing posture.
Chest Stretch & Lat Stretch
Chest and Lat stretching can be useful for keeping your shoulders from slouching forward, which may directly relieve neck pains and tensions. For both of these stretches, it is important to relax your neck and “upper shoulder” area throughout the stretch.
For Chest stretching (Figure 18), stand with your elbow bent to about 90 degrees and place your forearm against a doorframe or corner of the wall. Step forward with one leg and turn away from the wall. Your objective is to feel a stretch in your chest muscle.
Figure 18: Chest Stretch
For Lat stretching (Figure 19), get onto hands and knees and place one arm onto a couch. Reach your hand forward and across your body so that you feel a stretch down the back of your armpit, and also down the side and back. Tuck your pelvis under so your low back rounds a bit.
Figure 19: Lat Stretch
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
The Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch (Figure 20) can be useful for reducing low back pain and knee pain. Kneel one knee onto a soft surface and place the other leg in front. It is important to tuck your tail under, like you are pouring water out the back of you “pelvis-bowl” [See Pelvic Tilting exercises in previous blog]. Your objective is to feel a stretch in the front thigh of the leg that is kneeling down.
Figure 20: Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch. Beginners can leave their back foot on the ground. Advanced may lift the foot onto a ball, as shown in this picture (but you must be able to maintain the pelvic tilt throughout).
Calf Stretching (Again)
Calf stretching corrects ankle alignment and helps alleviate flat-feet, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and calf cramps.
If you’ve been wearing heels, it’s likely you need calf stretches to correct your postural imbalances. Simply stand on a step and let your body weight sit into your heels. Make sure your knees do not hyperextend (super straight), but keep them just slightly bent. Also, keep your knees in line with your toes, usually by “twisting your knees slightly outward” compared to your toes. You can also do one leg at a time. (Figure 21)
Figure 21a: A two-legged calf stretch: Find any place (like a step) where you can let your heels sink comfortably below your toes. Please hold on and relax while stretching. A special rule is to keep your knees in line with your toes, which usually means slightly rotating your knees outward (or preventing them from falling inward too much).
Figure 21b: The one-legged calf stretch gives a more intense stretch: Find any place (like a step) where you can let your heel sink comfortably below your toes. Please hold on and relax while stretching, and stretch both sides. A special rule is to keep your knee in line with your toe, while stretching each leg.