Releasing stress, tension or tightness with hip flexor stretches actually goes against how our nervous system can be rewired to ultimately get those tight hip flexors to naturally let go. An old reflex known as the startle reflex can actually keep hemming us in.
Lame hip flexor stretches…
Such as this one where many of us were taught and continue to do actually tighten the hamstrings. Look at how much tension we can create by pulling our heel to our buttocks. By moving the heel towards the buttocks, we are in effect contracting the hamstring although we are “trying” to stretch the hip flexor.
We’ve known for some time that when we stretch a contracted area such as the hip flexor, the brain will send a message back to the muscles retightening it since there is a program from the lower brain which has learned the set point.
In other words, say your hip flexor is tight. You pull it away as in the picture in order to lengthen it. Yet the program from the brain’s perspective is a 20% or so held tension level. When we “try” to lengthen it in the manner so many of us were taught, we “think” we are stretching and gaining length yet the brain remembers the set point and re-contracts back to the 20% or whatever held tension level.
Good news is… your hip flexor stretches are accomplished. The bad news is, you didn’t gain any length unless you’re forcing the tissues which then pulls on the tendons which don’t need any stretching.
So how do we counter this and use the brain to get the muscles to let go.
Back up those hip flexor stretches and get to know the startle reflex
The startle reflex is an old brain program so we can reflexively protect ourself by pulling in to ourself. When a shot gets fired or we’re startled, our muscles will go into a particular pattern which happens quickly.
If trauma or enough negative circumstances happen to us, we can adapt our muscles to “being” pulled in. We can have crow’s eyes, a tight jaw, tensed shoulders, a contracted belly, tight hip flexors and a tight groin and feet that’ll clutch to save us.
All well and good for a brief moment until the negative event passes. But what if our muscular system receives enough negative stress where for any number of reasons, it just can’t let go.
So what have we resorted to? Yep, those lame hip flexors stretches for instance which actually reinforce the pattern and truly do not let go.
You see, the one big muscle, the brain’s motor cortex can send information to the lower brain centers so the muscles get a new program. Unlike exercise which strengthens muscles and stretching which does not help us according to present day research – although there is still some debate on this. There is another way to release held tension levels which by the way is what we did as babies and young children.
When we were young, we pandiculated our muscles and movement system. In other words, we consciously tensed the tension pattern or tightness we felt and then the higher brain sent the information to the lower brain so the muscles would let go and be reprogrammed to lower tension levels. Thus setting the muscles free and we could move in our youthful ways.
The very same hip flexor stretches we are doing take us backwards rather than allowing for natural flexibility which the brain can handle. Fortunately we’ve systematized those youthful pandiculations and the system is known as somatics exercises where we use both our brain and body to reset the length of our muscles. The higher brain is used to both relax muscles back to lower tension levels and give them back their much needed function.
Do your hip flexor stretches do this for you?
Hip flexor stretches and the structural viewpoint
When we’re looked at from the structural viewpoint of being bent over, tight and held in position. Naturally we’ve been advised to gain length by the method of stretching muscles which does nothing in regards to its function.
Our muscles receive a message from the brain to contract while the opposite set of muscles ideally will lengthen and let go. How can they let go if they never receive the program to remind them of their function? Forcing the tissues into length is ill advised but of course some of you will still practice what goes against how our neurophysiology works.
Sitting too much can cause our hip flexors to remain tight and lose their function. Even our feelings and negative emotions impact our muscles. After all, we feel with our muscles and when we get depressed, don’t we feel like curling up or sitting down to hunker inwards. Our feeling and sense perceptions can take what appears to be our structure to places of where it is hanging out and maybe its learned to hang out there too long for own good.
The system of somatics exercises which works with the brain and muscles gives us the internal ability to change back the clock and refresh our movement system to its more youthful ways. We literally feel our way back to our comfortable senses. Movement is memory and we can enhance the brain’s motor cortex so that hip flexor stretches are not necessary.
Simple, easy movement done with our sensing by engaging those muscles and then letting them go with a deeper appreciation of our senses, allows the natural restoration and movement update to occur.
To find out how you can readily use the brain’s infinite and more vast repertoire of regaining length and re-establishing control with the muscles, you can join me for an online live somatics exercise class (or get the replay) where you’ll learn a completely different set of hip flexor stretches.
You’ll learn how negative events and startling circumstances can cause us to cringe and what muscles we can use so those hip flexor stretches can be a thing of the out dated past.
When we reset the brain’s motor cortex, the muscles will function at higher levels and you’ll have an entirely new way which can seem counter-intuitive yet these type of hip flexor stretches “not” will lessen the stiffness, aches, tension and stress of holding on which our brains and body knows how to do.