Sit and Reach, Kid!
Back in my middle school days, about once per year we would do the “sit and reach test”. Here’s how it worked: 1) you approach a wooden box with a yard stick attached to the top, 2) you sit on the hard wooden floor and place your feet against the box, 3) with straight knees and hunched back, you reach over the top of the box as far as you can while the gym teacher watches and nods in approval, or shakes their head in disappointment. No instruction. Just SIT AND REACH, kid.
Save Your Lower Back in Forward Folds
Maybe you experienced something similar in your formative years and, if you received as little instruction on how to sit and reach as me, here are a few pointers on how to do it well:
- Sit on something to elevate your hips. This (and the next tip) are the most important factors in keeping your lower back safe in a seated forward fold. More specifically, place your sitting bones on the edge of what your sitting on (ideally a cork block) to pitch the hips forward (anterior tilt).
- Bend your knees. If you have tight hamstrings, you either let your pride go and bend your knees, or you risk a low back or hamstring attachment injury. Bending your knees allows you to control the depth on the stretch in the back of your legs and, therefore, how productive the stretch is in that area.
- Think chest to toes rather than nose to knees. A common misconception is that a forward fold requires you to fold yourself in half, like a piece of paper. So, you’ll often see this pose expressed with a big rounding in the back and a pulling on the back of the legs to tug the nose closer to the legs. This is actually counterintuitive to what the pose is trying to achieve: length in the back side of the body. By extending the chest forward, we lengthen the musculature of the back body (hamstrings, back muscles, etc.) and dial-back the compression in the front of our spinal disks.
- Use a strap. Another ego check, just like bending the knees. If we can’t comfortably reach our feet in this pose, the only way to gain control of the pose is to wrap a strap around your feet and hold onto either side of it. This gives you more control and the hamstring stretch and binds the pose together, giving you a comforting feeling of groundedness and connectedness.
- Breathe deep. All yoga poses require deep fluid breath to be experienced fully, and seated forward fold is no different. With deep inhales, you can extend the spine longer, getting more length to then take the pose more deeply forward on your deep exhale. Repeat this process over a few minutes and notice how the feeling of the pose evolves.
- Take it slow. The hamstrings are a vital muscles group for athletes. We use them a lot in eccentric and concentric contraction which builds up tension in this area. To release this stored tension, they need some time to release. Rushing in any aspect of this pose will have little to no benefit for the hamstrings, so give them the time they deserve.
Leveling up from middle school hamstring stretches requires us to let go of our egos and treat the pose and our bodies with proper care and attention. There’s no ruler, box, or gym teacher to worry about. Take your time and customize the pose for your own, personal, unmeasured, sustainable benefit.