Years of incorrect positions and posture can be corrected
You may do stretches from time to time and get into a certain position and realize, “Wow I’m pretty tight.” This probably isn’t a new phenomenon for many of you, but have you ever stopped to think why you’re “tight” and if it’s really a bad thing?
A muscle being tight isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, for a muscle to produce force, it must contract and become very tight. However, when using poor position during repetitive activities such as swimming, the natural “neutral” position of a muscle remodels to either a resting state of too long or too short.
The nervous system is constantly getting check-ins via muscle spindles, which relate the length of each muscle and subsequently the position of joints and overall posture. Changes in posture over time will also change what the nervous system believes is neutral for a particular muscle.
Over the course of your life, all of your muscles will either become locked long, locked short, or stay in an anatomically neutral position. And if one muscle changes its position, it affects other muscles and joints up and down the kinetic chain.
When muscles reset into a resting position of either too short or too long, they actually become weaker because of this “new neutral” position. When a muscle tries to contract from this new position, the fibers may be stretched too far to contract fully or they may already be so short that there’s not much room left to contract and produce force.
There are three basic solutions to help reset your muscles to an anatomically correct neutral position: proper posture, stretching, and strengthening.
Your resting posture, and therefore your muscles’ resting position, is most deeply imprinted into your nervous system. Small changes over time will greatly help to reset your posture to a more neutral position overall. Some simple changes you can easily make include bringing your head back so it sits directly over your neck and torso instead of jutting out in front of your body. Another change that’s very helpful for swimmers is keeping your shoulder blades pinched close together, therefore keeping your back straight as you walk or sit. It doesn’t matter if you’re moving or static, sitting on a Swiss ball or a rock: If you’re more aware of your resting posture and make small changes, over time you will see improvement.
Stretching is an effective way to help muscles that are locked in a short position to lengthen back to a more neutral position. When doing static stretches to improve lengthening, it’s important to not have too much tension in your stretch. You’re trying to change the resting position of your body that took years, if not decades, to create. A few quick stretches are also not all that you’re going to need to reset your muscle positions. If you want lasting postural changes you need to consistently stretch.
Where you are stretching relates to your posture. For example, the worst and most ineffective stretch for most swimmers is pulling the arm horizontally across the chest to “stretch” the back of the shoulder. The back of your shoulder is probably already locked long due to forward posture of your shoulders and slumping of your upper back. This stretch doesn’t help alleviate these problems, it just aggravates them.
Don’t confuse the pleasant sensation of stretching muscle fibers with actually improving your overall posture. Almost any stretch will feel good immediately after you’ve released it—this is just a natural response of your muscles and nervous system to being put under tension and then being released. Don’t judge the effectiveness of your stretching on how it feels. As you stretch make sure you are breathing through your belly and smiling throughout holding the stretch.
Strength exercises can have just as much or more of an impact on your posture than stretching. When muscles are locked long, it’s harder for them to produce force because they’re already in a stretched position and can’t contract as efficiently as if they were in their resting anatomical state. When you do specific strength-training movements targeted at your weak areas, you can teach your body to reshape and increase strength to those muscles over time.
Your current posture proves that your body adapts to what you want it to do consistently over time; if you slouch and slump your shoulders, that will come to feel normal. In the same way, if you work on strengthening your upper and middle back, these muscles will eventually contract and produce force efficiently, all while remodeling themselves to a more neutral, anatomical position.
There is no quick fix. Remember, it probably took many years for your body to become set in your current posture, with various muscles locked long, short, or neutral. Therefore, it could take many months of stretching to fix these problems. If you focus on all three solutions simultaneously, you should achieve results in less time than it took for you to get to your current state. However, you need to be persistent in applying these solutions daily.