as I was preparing to write a little about some of the posture problems and muscle imbalances I often see, I was distracted… I was distracted by repairs to my tent of all things… I needed to fix the elastic in my tent poles ready for a hiking trip… but while fixing those tent poles, all I could think of was clients with tight upper back and shoulders… it’ll make sense in a moment…
Clients with a tight upper back ?
Many clients over the past few months had told me that their upper back felt tight. When I looked at many of them, their shoulders were rounded, they were hunched forward.
They all felt that they needed to “stretch” their upper back somehow. Interestingly, some described feeling better when leaning into a doorway to make their back feel better… stretching their chest, not actually stretching their back !?
What’s that got to do with my tent ?
I bought my tent recently, second hand from Gumtree. A really good deal, a lightweight tent, that was a few years old but had never been used. Still in the bag. But why would I need to do repairs on a tent that had never been used ?
Tent poles contain elastic, a strong band that passes through the centre of the poles, from end to end. The elastic needs to be strong and flexible enough to contract and keep the poles together when assembled, but stretchy enough that the ends can be pulled out to fold the poles down.
My tent poles had been stored folded, with the elastic stretched. For quite a while. After so much time kept stretched, the elastic no longer knew how to contract again, it just stayed stretched. When assembling the poles to erect the tent I wanted the elastic to contract to the original length and hold them together, but the elastic was no longer strong, it was floppy and useless. Putting up my tent was frustrating. I wanted the elastic back to be able to go back that contracted state, but it just wasn’t happening. It had stayed stretched tight for too long. It was no longer flexible, had lost its elasticity, lost its strength.
Back to my clients…
They had tight upper backs, yet they had a posture where shoulders were constantly hunched forward.
So, yes, their upper back would “feel” “tight”. Or, really, “taut” is a better term – the muscles in their upper back, between their shoulders, are constantly stretched to a point where they could almost stretch no further. Those muscles in their upper back may have been stretched by the strong muscles in the chest forcing a hunched posture. And it’s easy to end up that way – just look at how many of us sit at our computers, stare into our phones on the train, for so long that the muscles just get used to being that way. Over time, the muscles in the upper back lost their elasticity, unable to spring back on their own. They forget how to contract again after being stretched for so long. Just like the elastic in my tent poles.
My tent poles, having lost their elasticity, could go only back to original springiness by replacing the elastic. But muscles can’t be replaced like tent pole elastic can. The muscles need to re-learn how to lengthen and contract, become strong again (and in balance with their opposing muscles – but that’s another post later).
People instinctively know that they need to do “something” to bring their muscles back to a balanced, elastic state. But this “something” is where many go wrong.
What to do about that upper back ?
When something feels “tight”, it implies contracted, shortened, compacted. However, when something is “taut” it is tightly stretched, like a tightrope. Mistaking “tautness” with “tightness”, many embark on trying to stretch those already over-stretched muscles. Stretching already stretched elastic to make it springy again ? We know that’s not going to work ! Those “taut” muscles need to regain strength instead, be able to contract, to become elastic again.
I asked clients to strengthen their upper back instead of stretch it. I had some clients look at me like I was strange. And at least one told me I was wrong. Some clients could not understand that those “tight” feeling muscles were actually already stretched and that more stretching wasn’t going to help.
A combination of stretch AND strength work can help bring that muscle balance back, but it will be far more effective in combination with some form of manual therapy. Those taut and tight muscles need some kind of kick-start, a nudge to help some muscles let go, a trigger to let other muscles know to start to work again.
Bowen Therapy is one of the most gentle and effective treatments for helping those muscles “let go” and “spring into life”, bringing balance back to the body. Together with some simple stretches AND strength exercises, you’ll be feeling great again in no time !
and maybe I’ll keep some of the old and new tent pole elastic in the treatment room…