Here’s a fun paradox for you: one of the main goals of this blog is to provide you, dear flyers and aerialists, with some knowledge that will, ideally, lead to you becoming more aware of your body and how it works so that you might learn how to take better care of it as you pursue your ever growing passion for circus.
And, since you’re probably reading this on your computer or smartphone, and you’re probably sitting down, that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s having such a horrible influence on your flying and/or aerials work.
“Sitting is the new smoking”
Allow me to explain. Way back in 1979, this rather impressive doctor by the name of Vladimir Janda described two particular patterns of muscular imbalance which he called Upper and Lower Crossed Syndromes. Both of these describe patterns of tightness and weakness that criss-cross the upper and lower body, respectively. One of the best ways for these patterns to emerge is to engage in habitual, long periods of sitting. Like when you have to sit down at a computer for work, for example.
So what does upper crossed syndrome (UCS) look like? Well, in terms of resting posture, symptoms include:
- forward head posture, (which reminds me, flyers: keep your head in neutral when you sweep…none of this head down as you sweep nonsense);
- increased cervical lordosis and thoracic kyphosis (this is medical-speak for that extra curve to the upper back that creates that hunchback posture you’ve probably seen, along with the corresponding extra curve in the neck that comes from trying to be able to look straight ahead);
- elevated and “rounded” shoulders, (also popular with people who love to bench press more than they stretch) and
- “winging” of the scapulae.
Obviously, the more extreme examples of any of the above are easy to spot. Where it gets tricky is when the symptoms are less noticeable.
So what does this mean for all of the aerialists and flyers out there who also work at computers?
Let’s start with your pecs. (Just in case you’re not hip to the lingo, ‘pecs’ is short for ‘pectorals’ and those are your chest muscles). If your pecs are tight, they’re going to pull your shoulder forward because of where those muscles attach (think rounded, slouchy posture). Specifically, your tight pecs are going to pull your shoulder forward, taking your shoulder blade out of the optimal position that would allow you to move your arm fully overhead. By taking the shoulder blade out of position, the overall stability of the joint is compromised.
When your chest is tight and pulling on your shoulder blade, it triggers a reflexive relaxation (more accurately, inhibition) of your rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles. Ordinarily, those muscles would do the job of rotating your shoulder blade as you raise your arm overhead. With your lower traps and rhomboids weakened, your upper traps (and levator scapulae, deep underneath your upper traps) step in to compensate. It’s a well-intentioned move on the part of your traps, but they get uncomfortable and tight from overuse in a hurry.
And then, with the muscles at the back of your neck working so hard, the muscles on the front of your neck—the deep cervical flexors—are reflexively inhibited. With the muscles on the front and back of your neck no longer working together to balance your head position, your head juts forward. This loss of good (neutral) spinal positioning in your neck means awkward stresses on the vertebrae in that area (which, in the long run, is not good). It also means that your body interprets this awkward position as a potential threat to your spinal cord and, as a protective measure, decreases the amount of force you can generate with and through your arms and shoulders. That’s right: it makes you weaker. Combine that with the not-at-all-ideal positioning of the scapula and you’ve got a magical recipe for decreased rotator cuff function (which could lead to injury), possible shoulder impingement (which could lead to things like tendinitis), headaches (which are rather annoying) and/or eventual disc herniation to name but a few possible outcomes.
But wait, there’s more!
A fun “factoid” for you: sitting appears to be positively associated with the development of cardiovascular disease.
That’s right: sitting is bad for you.
All is not lost!
Now that I’ve painted such a pretty picture of the slow death that is sitting, let’s talk about what you can do. For most of us, sitting down at a computer (or using our very intelligent telephones to send text messages) is a difficult to escape reality. That means that most of us are also likely to be at risk of developing symptoms of upper crossed syndrome to some degree. The question then becomes what to do about it.
Stand up for your own health
Literally. Stand up. At least once an hour if not once every half an hour (or more). Stand up and do this:
Stretch it out
As a general rule, before we can switch those inhibited muscles back on, we’ve got to restore the tight muscles to their regular length. This means taking care of your pecs. There are actually two individual muscles that we’re concerned with here: pectoralis major and pectoralis minor and they both stretch a little differently, so we’ll look at a couple of options.
- The doorway stretch
This one is particularly handy because it’s easy to do it at the office and look casual. Get up for a ‘stand-up break’, wander over to a door and pause on your way through to stretch out your pecs. Aim to hold a gentle stretch for at least 30 seconds (though a minute would be better) on both sides. You can also do both sides at once by doing this in a corner. (I recommend this only to those who have private offices or who really don’t mind looking a bit weird in front of coworkers).
Note that stretching can and should be a bit of an exploration. Play with the angle a bit. Find that sweet spot where you need the stretch the most.
Also: DO NOT let your shoulder roll forward as you do this stretch! Remember, we’ve established that as a bad thing, so don’t reinforce that by stretching in that position. I’ve made sure to pose with my stupidest looking face to help get the message across.
- Lyin’ on your foam roller: aaaahhhh…feels so good!
Lie down on your foam roller (yes, if you don’t have one yet, get one…) and put your arms out to your sides. Move your arms as if making a snow angel and find that sweet spot. Hang out there for a minute or two. If your arms end up tingling or going numb, stop. That’s not what we’re going for here.
Work it out
- Bonus fun: Pec minor release with lacrosse ball
- Back-to-Wall Shoulder Flexion
This exercise provides you with both a useful diagnostic and a handy way to strengthen your mid- and lower-trapezius muscles. Do it as part of your warm-up every time you fly. Don’t have a wall? You can do it lying on the ground.
Fix your desk posture
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that will help you build and maintain good posture, but if you think your posture might need work, it’s a good start. Your posture is, quite literally, the habitual resting position of your muscles. It’s a habit and changing a habit always requires conscious effort, patience and repetition. It’s not necessarily going to be easy to do and there will likely be obstacles along the way. Possible obstacles include ‘getting caught up in this project or that’, feeling awkward about getting up from your desk more often than your coworkers do, or perhaps, the biggest baddest and best “reason” of them all: you don’t have time.
Which, of course, is a load of hooey.
This is where it becomes a question of self-definition and what you decide is a must for you. How do you define yourself? Are you your job? Are you your khakis? Or are you an athlete?
By the way, being a recreational athlete still makes you an athlete. Sure, Cirque du Soleil artists are quite likely to foam roll and use therabands and power bands and probably even a lacrosse ball every now and then…but just because you’re not currently an “elite” athlete or a “pro” doesn’t mean you can’t take self-care seriously! This is your health, after all and it’s time to stand up and own it. In fact, now that you’re done reading, why not take a break to stand up and stretch?