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Those 'Less Talented' Muscles Deserve Equal Time

The Right Moves


All of us are good at doing some things and not so good at doing others. More often than not, we like to work on the former--and ignore the latter.

When it comes to exercise, the tendency to focus mainly on our favorite muscles can get us into trouble. If we constantly perform movements that overwork certain muscles, neglecting to stretch them or strengthen others, we throw our bodies out of balance. This syndrome can lead to overuse injuries and chronic pain.

Let's say you had naturally strong legs when you were younger. Skiing and cycling came easily, and at the gym you could probably handle a lot of weight when doing leg presses and squats. It was easy for you to excel in any sport or activity that required strong legs, so you probably enjoyed pushing yourself and ended up making your legs more powerful. But you probably didn't stretch and cross-train.

Now jump ahead a decade. Do you find that with those strong legs comes a dull ache in your lower back or a sharp pain in your knee? If so, you're feeling the effects of muscular imbalance.

So what can you do? Start by making up your mind to pay equal attention to the "less talented" areas of your body, and be patient if they don't respond as quickly as your favorite ones. Second, remember that all muscles work in pairs and that we need to stretch as well as strengthen them. Always put quality ahead of quantity when working out. This means that no matter what you do, you need to maintain control over your body. Begin to regulate all your movements with the intention of preserving your joints and protecting your skeletal system. Quality movement is not traumatic; it is safe, precise and fluid.

To get your body primed for action, begin with these two moves to stretch the front of your thighs and hips. Usually the fronts of our legs are stronger and tighter than the backs. Use the first stretch as a way to loosen the quadriceps (the muscles in the front of the upper thigh) and to prepare for the more advanced move that not only stretches the front of the legs and hips but also the abdominals, chest and shoulders. As you continue to practice, you will gradually develop more strength in the upper back, buttocks and hamstrings.

A. Lie face down on a mat or a soft surface with your legs extended behind you. Bend your right knee and hold the ankle with your right hand. Gently pull your heel to your buttocks. Your knees can be slightly apart, but your thighs should be parallel to each other. Tuck your hips under and pull your navel in toward your spine. Relax and feel a deep stretch in the front of your right thigh. Hold this stretch while you breathe evenly for 15 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

B. Lie face down on a mat or a soft surface. Bend both knees, bringing your heels toward your buttocks. Your knees can be slightly apart, but your thighs should remain parallel. Reach back with your hands and hold your ankles.

On an inhale, press your feet into your hands and move your shoulders down, away from your ears. Lift your head, chest and knees off the floor as you continue to reach for the ceiling with your feet. If you cannot reach your ankles, you can hold a strap around your ankles so that your hands are a few inches away from your feet. Relax your abdominals, neck and throat. Hold for 15 seconds as you continue to breathe evenly. Gradually increase the amount of time you stay in this position.

To come out of the pose, lower your torso and thighs to the floor, release your feet and rest your forehead on the mat. Relax for 15 seconds and repeat two more times.

Wouldn't it be great if we could continue to be physically active our whole lives without getting so many aches and pains? We can, as long as we pay attention to how our body feels when we're moving.

Whether young or old, we can focus in on our bodies and notice subtle signals that alert us to the "good" and "bad" sensations we're feeling. Soon we'll discover little quirks that are specific to our own bodies and learn to accommodate them.

Physical activity is supposed to make us feel better, not worse, so if we exercise with more integrity, the movements will be easier on our bodies, making them more effective and enjoyable. By practicing intelligent exercise, we might even accomplish the unthinkable--looking forward to the next time.


Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column. Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest videos are "Pure and Simple Stretch" and "YogaSculpt." She can be reached at Her column appears the second Monday of the month.

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