Westerfeld Fitness

Navigation Menu

Flexibility: the Base of the Pyramid Part II: Upper Body

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014

This post has good information and stretches for anyone, not just riders!

Now you have had a chance to explore some lower body stretches. hopefully, you have found some areas that needed to elongate and relax, and you are noticing some changes in your leg position or your ability to be straighter in your seat. If you are not a rider, perhaps the benefits are manifesting in other activities.

Let’s look at the upper body next. Many of us work at a desk or spend quite a bit of time seated. Gravity works against us, and gradually we slump forward and our heads slide out ahead of our chests.

forward-head-posture-cropped

Now our center of gravity is ahead of our movement…riders, we are on our forehands! Ideally, whether riding or elsewhere, the ear should be directly above the shoulder which should be above the elbow above the hip, then knee and ankle if standing.

The farther forward the head slides, the more it “weighs” as our shoulders and posterior neck muscles have to hang on to it. This causes those muscles to become tight and overused. Likewise as our chests drop, the pectoral muscles shorten. When our upper body collapses forward on itself, it is difficult to engage our trunk muscles and follow the movement of the horse.It send our center of gravity forward and may make it more difficult to balance the horse onto his hindquarters.

How can we retrain our upper bodies? First we need to lengthen what has become short and tight. Later, I will show you how to strengthen the muscles that keep our heads and torsos in the most anatomically efficient and balanced position. Do these in the order presented, as one mobilization leads to the next.
IMG_5431

 

Let’s start by mobilizing the thoracic spine; the segment spanning the rib cage.

One of the best ways to do this is with a foam roller. (They are available online at a number of sources. You can cut them in two, if you want to share one or keep one at work.)

As you see, the idea is to drape yourself over the roller and allow your spine to bend back into extension. Support the back of your head, letting it drop back as much as is comfortable., and keep your knees bent. Start with the lowest part of your ribcage, spend a few seconds there, then move to the next section up toward your head. Keep working your way up to your shoulders, taking your time and allowing the release of your paraspinal muscles (the ones that run along each side of your spine). This can be painful at first, but try to breathe deeply and slowly. If you do it daily, you will be amazed at how quickly your back adapts, and soon it will not be uncomfortable. If it really is hard to handle, try a towel or other padding until it becomes tolerable. Each pass up the spine should take 20-30 seconds. Once or twice daily should reap results.

 Pectorals/ shoulder rotators:

Now that your upper spine is free to move, you can stretch your chest and front of the shoulders. The two stretches below will allow you to bring your chest up and forward, and roll your shoulders back. In the first stretch, it is important to extend your whole hand and fingers back. Do not grip or clutch. Turn slightly away from the outstretched arm to increase the stretch. You may feel some tingling through your arm -the nerves may be getting a lengthening, too! The bent arm version focusses more on the pectoral muscles specifically, but both are useful. Short holds of 5-10 seconds, about 6-8 per arm.

IMG_5435

IMG_5446

Neck:

Lastly, the neck may require some stretching. The upper trapezius muscle runs from the base of the skull, fanning out to attach to both the cervical (neck) spine and the back of the clavicle, becomes overdeveloped to counteract the weight of the forward-sliding head. If the shoulder or upper arm is weak, the “traps” are only too happy to take their jobs, too. Now you may really need to stretch them. This will help sternocleidomastoid (SCM) as well as the scalenes. With rounded shoulders and forward head, SCM becomes vertical and short, rather than long and obliquely oriented.

sternocleidomastoid2

Anchor your hand under a bench or chair seat so you keep the shoulder attachments away from your head. Slowly and lightly pull your head away from the anchored side. You may need to rotate or bend your neck to find the angles that work best. Be gentle, and hold 5-6 seconds repeating 6-8 times. You may find one side of the neck is tighter than the other.

IMG_5453

 

There are plenty of other stretches for the shoulder and upper back. For now, we will stick to these as they address some of the most common issues people face. With practice, you will be able to assume a more upright position, taking in more oxygen, and staying balanced in the center of your saddle. Soon, we will start some exercises to help maintain the good posture.

Thank you, MV, for posing for these photos.

Not all exercises are suitable for everyone and this or any other exercise program may result in injury. Any use of this exercise program assumes the risk of injury resulting from performing the exercise and using the equipment suggested. To reduce the risk of injury in your case, CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE BEGINNING THIS EXERCISE PROGRAM. The advice and instruction presented are in no way intended as a substitute for medical counseling. Jennifer Westerfeld and Westerfeld Fitness disclaim any liabilities or loss in connection with the exercise and advice herein.

Feel free to post questions and comments below, or contact me via email: jenni.westerfeld@gmail.com for a personal consultation or fitness plan.

 

 

 

 

Read More

Flexibility: the Base of the Pyramid – Part I: Lower Body

Posted by on Sep 24, 2014

This post has good information and stretches for anyone, not just riders!

In the previous post, I put Flexibility at the bottom of our Riders’ pyramid, because without it, range of motion is limited and proper musculoskeletal development depends on freedom of movement. Muscles work by pulling two bones together across a joint. If a muscle cannot contract and stretch according to its design, then the function of the joint it influences will be limited.

Each individual is different, but many of us share typical restrictions that prevent us from optimal performance. I will go through the most commonly found tight muscle groups and discuss some root causes, as well as the influence of the restriction in riding. Then I will offer some stretches to help alleviate the problem. Sometimes the issue can be the result of specific weaknesses, in which case the root cause will be eradicated by some strengthening and activation of muscle groups. More on that in a later post.

Hip flexors/ internal hip rotators: The muscles crossing the front of the hip joint and down the front of the thigh, stretching over the knee to attach to the the lower leg all serve to lift the thigh or close our hip angle. When these (psoas, rectus femoris eg.) are tight, we cannot stretch our legs down and sink into the saddle. They can also keep us from opening our hips to move the pelvis with the horse’s movement. This tightness often comes from seated work hours, driving, or weak abductors (muscles that pull the legs apart).

There are many approaches to this issue- here I will give you 3 variations of a basic quad stretch. I will add some internal hip rotator stretches in a later post.

 

IMG_5384

 

IMG_5378IMG_5381

IMG_5380

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the goal is to drop your knee straight down below the hip and bring the heel as close to the buttock as possible. You will need to squeeze the buttock to help straighten the hip angle. The range you see here is the ideal- you may not come that close, but with time and practice, your flexibility will improve. Short holds of 5-10 seconds, about 6-8 per leg will be plenty to start.

 

Hamstrings/ calves: These muscle groups are hip extensors; they bring the back of leg toward the buttocks. The hamstrings, 3 in all, attach to the pelvis (ischial tuberosity), run down the back of the leg, and insert into the back of the lower leg (tibia). If the hamstrings are tight, they can pull on the lower back and inhibit pelvic movement with the horse. They can also cause us to draw the leg back and up, in essence shortening the leg and pitching us forward onto our pubic bone and off the seat bones. Weakness in the gluteals and stabilizer muscles is associated with tight hamstrings. More about strengthening later.

Tight calves can result in difficulty dropping the heel and weighting the stirrups. There are 2 main calf muscle in the back of the leg, one which crosses the knee joint and one that is attached to the back of the tibia. They both insert into the Achilles tendon, shortening the distance from heel to knee.

Here are a couple of basic stretches for each. 

Calf: hang off a step, holding a post, and sink your heel down as far as you can. Try to take all the weight off the other leg. Again, with time and practice, your flexibility will improve.  Holds of 10-20 seconds, about 6 per leg will be plenty to start.

IMG_5400

 

Hamstrings: This stretch can be done standing or prone. The most important thing is to maintain a neutral spine- do not round your back, rather arch your back and bring your chest forward. In standing, keep both hips facing the bench or table. If you struggle with these instructions, do the floor version, actively lifting your leg as well as using a rope to pull it forward. Flex your toes toward your head. Short holds of 5-10 seconds, about 6-8 per leg will be plenty to start. Future posts will expand on the hamstring stretch.

IMG_5386

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5409

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gluteals/ external hip rotators:  Gluteal muscles are also hip extensors; they open the angle of the hip, allowing the leg to stretch down. They attach to the pelvis, sacrum and tailbone on one end and the upper leg (posterior femur) on the other. They can become tight when a variety of muscle imbalances are present, and are often weak in those seated at a desk or driving for long hours. Even when weak they may require stretching. These stretches also target the external hip rotators (specifically piriformis), which can tighten in response to or resulting from sciatic pain.

My favorite stretch for the glutes and piriformis can be done in a couple of positions as seen below. If you have a partner handy, they can assist by gently pushing your extended foot toward your head in the supine version below. Otherwise, just pull back on that leg without lifting your hips off the ground. Holds of 10-20 seconds, about 3-6 per leg.

IMG_5417IMG_5419

 

Thank you, MV, for posing for these photos.

Not all exercises are suitable for everyone and this or any other exercise program may result in injury. Any use of this exercise program assumes the risk of injury resulting from performing the exercise and using the equipment suggested. To reduce the risk of injury in your case, CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE BEGINNING THIS EXERCISE PROGRAM. The advice and instruction presented are in no way intended as a substitute for medical counseling. Jennifer Westerfeld and Westerfeld Fitness disclaim any liabilities or loss in connection with the exercise and advice herein.

Feel free to post questions and comments below, or contact me via email: jenni.westerfeld@gmail.com for a personal consultation or fitness plan.

 

Read More

Fitness for Riders: an Introduction

Posted by on Sep 14, 2014

This article serves as a basic introduction to fitness training for the dressage rider.  Future articles will will expand on the concepts introduced below. They will include stretches, mobilizations and exercises designed to improve performance

We all want to perform in that seemingly effortless way that we see when watching a ride at the highest level of our discipline.

What does that take? Along with years of study and endless hours in the saddle, it requires some extracurricular activity. 

I propose that it is almost impossible to be a really great rider, or even a pretty good one without some training outside the barn. My purpose is to provide some direction to those who would like to maximize their efforts in the saddle by doing a little “homework”.

Let us first break down the qualities we need as riders to achieve our goals for our horses. 

trainingpyramid

We define those goals as the elements of the Training Pyramid: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection.

If we are to expect our horses to master these elements, we must also master them ourselves. As their athletic partners and guides, we need to work as hard on developing our own physical abilities as we do on theirs. Think of it this way: if you were part of a competitive dance team, would you expect your partner to do all the rehearsing?

In a wonderful article on the Dressage Academy website,  http://www.dressage-academy.com/dressage-riders-seat.php , the essentials of a good seat are broken into three factors: Balance, Relaxation, and Following the Horse’s Movement. Remind you of the Training Pyramid?

All three of these factors depend on certain physical abilities. Some of us are gifted with more or less of these abilities, but we all need to work on and refine them to become better riders. Let’s create a Rider’s Training Pyramid.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 7.52.06 PMFLEXIBILITY

I have put Flexibility at the bottom, because without it, range of motion is limited and proper musculoskeletal development depends on freedom of movement. Muscles work by pulling two bones together across a joint. If a muscle cannot contract and stretch according to its design, then the function of the joint it influences will be limited. 

CORE

Core engagement is next, as its essential to stability during movement. Not only does this create harmony with the horse’s movement, but it provides security in the saddle and allows us to use our legs and arms independently. More on developing the core later.

MUSCULAR STAMINA

Muscular stamina is a general term to define basic fitness, or the ability to sustain the effort of riding long enough without fatigue to accomplish our daily goals. This requires a certain amount of cardiovascular conditioning, but also some attention to basic strength. Strength can be achieved with a good weight training program, with particular attention to exercises in multiple planes. All our movements can be broken down into six “Primal Patterns”: Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Twist, and Bend. Sometimes we need to isolate weaker muscle groups that need strengthening before we can practice these patterns correctly. Learning new movements should be done with little or only body weight first.

POSTURE/ BALANCE

Posture and balance are achieved by developing the first three elements mindfully. The proper alignment of the spine should be foremost when working on flexibility, the core and strength through movement patterns. When in good alignment, the practice of balance exercises will be gratifying and contribute greatly to one’s ability to follow the horse’s movement.

RELAXATION

Now that we are optimizing our muscle’s stretching potential, learning to engage our core (rather than relying on gripping hands or legs for stability), and we have developed rudimentary strength and stamina throughout our gross muscles through movement skills. This should make our saddle time much more under our control and hence more pleasurable. Wouldn’t that make you more relaxed? You are not wasting energy using the wrong muscles for the job! After all, you watch your horse stretching into the contact, you feel him relax as he finds his rhythm and bend, maybe chewing on the bit. The same quality that enhances his performance does the same for yours.

FOCUS/ INTENT

At this point, our bodies are functioning at the best of their current ability because we are attentive to our own physical training, and we are able to relax because we have reduced stress by assigning the appropriate tasks to each supple, engaged body part. That leaves us free to focus on the training of our horses. Moment to moment, we can be precise about our aids, responsive to our horses’ responses, and clear about what we are asking of our partners. Our minds are available to communicate our intent.

When we are able to work in all stages of the Rider’s Training Pyramid, we will continue to refine all those elements as we ride. In fact, the pyramid turns into a circle. 

                              Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 10.06.41 AM

In future articles, I will go into detail on each of the elements, breaking them down and offering some stretches and exercises to get you started.  Try them and enjoy the process of getting fitter. Your horses will thank you!

Read More