Ever feel like no matter how much flexibility or mobility work you do you’re just not getting any “looser”. The tension and pain in the body restricts you from doing certain things. Like, when walking around town you feel like a cowboy who just shat their pants and now tries to act cool like it didn’t happen. Well, it did happen. And it doesn’t look cool.
Maybe it’s not the flexibility exercises that are wrong, or that you’re not doing them enough. If you’ve done your best to eliminate the activities that make you tight (hello sitting hunched over a laptop) it’s worth observing your mind.
Hello mind. Remember me?
Enter stress. Not only can poorly managed psychological stress keep your muscles stiff, but it can also trigger and increase pain. As this study states about low back pain, “Having either stress or depression was also significantly associated with greater risk of flare-ups.”
When working with clients I see this highlighted most often in people dealing with the long-term annoyance of low back pain, frozen shoulder or neck pain. It’s not uncommon for them to have a flare up whenever they’re going through a stressful period in their life.
And regardless of what we do sometimes there is only little improvement with pain and tension until the stress subsides.
If you’re dealing with persistent pain get diagnosed by an allied health professional first.
That’s your physio, chiro or osteo. I hate to be all doom and gloom, but you want to make sure the pain isn’t there because of something more sinister.
Besides, once cleared and diagnosed you’ve removed the added stress of worrying about the unknown.
Combine stress management with your training plan
Different tools for different minds. There is no a universal solution for each person. But here are few that I’ve found people having the most success with when managing stress.
Prioritise sleep. I know I said there are no universal solutions. But poor sleep is a major piece in why people feel like rusty cowboys. Which makes sleep a universal solution.
Daily walks outside. If possible, somewhere away from traffic, concrete and excessive noise. So ideally avoid walking on a busy road that circles a highrise housing a kindergarten. Even short walks make a difference.
Laugh often. A short daily clip from Ricky Gervais should be prescribed as medicine.
Yes, working on flexibility is important
And we should keep at it. But sometimes we need to look beyond of what’s going on with our bodies. If we’re doing mobility exercises over and over again without seeing any change it’s worth checking what’s going in that mind of ours.
On our daily walks with our son, I often have to lure him to keep moving forward. With a combination of “there might be a digger around the corner“, “maybe we can see a motorbike or a blue bus“, or “let’s go and see if the puppy is there today.”*
We also make the walk about collecting leaves and the fuzzy dandelion seed “flowers” which keeps him going for a good while. And I get it, for a two-year-old walking on a flat ground for the sake of just walking is probably as exciting as listening to someone analysing the intricacies of cricket is to me.**
But eventually the kid’s had enough, I lift him on to my shoulders and we keep going. That is until we come to a spot that’s not flat. Be it a grassy hill, an uneven trail to bounce along, or a set of intimidating stairs. Like an emperor on his high chair, he demands to get back on the ground and walk.
The bigger the stairs, the better. He loves going up and down, mostly with a struggle that he can just manage without falling. He finds walking more fun when it’s challenging. Because it’s novel.
And, that’s how he learns.
As adults, we tend to get stuck on doing the same exercises and same jazzercise classes for years on end. We only focus on getting the sweat on while ignoring our movement skills. Adding a sedentary work environment to the mix doesn’t help.
And this doesn’t really bother most people. Until it does. It’s usually a slowly increasing nagging pain or ache that over time becomes a persistent companion in training, and even everyday living.
Most people’s solution is to seek help of a professional, do some exercises for a while and then return to what they’ve always done. And then repeat this cycle over and over again without ever really fixing anything. I get it, we’re all busy.
But, a better option would be to get off that cycle by copying what kids do. By leaning into the basic movements we’ve forgotten and now find challenging. We could proactively put these movement problems into a judo arm lock*** before they get a hold of us.
Instead of only focusing on what gets you sweating, focus on what’s difficult. And I guarantee you’ll break a sweat doing them. These movement, whatever they are for you, will feel like you could fail at any moment.
With enough concentration you manage to get them done. And you’ll get better.
Just like a kid learning to walk up and down the stairs does.
*These are not lies. We see those things on most days. **I get it. There are sticks, it goes on for months, and you like tea. ***I hope that’s a term. I’ve never done judo. Except the verbal version.
“Functional training is only functional when your body is functioning well.” Dr. Andreo Spina
Ah, functional training, one of the many great fitness buzzwords. Remember when being functional was synonymous with arm curls on a Bosu ball and back squatting on Swiss ball?
Yep, we used to call it functional. Luckily, things have moved on and most folks now understand that stuff that’s great for circus and Instagram isn’t always the stuff that actually serves a purpose in real life.
Unless that purpose is Instagram, or circus.
To me, the word functional is all about training to get better at a certain task. While also training using movements that the human body is meant to do. Stuff like crawling, climbing, sprinting, squatting, jumping, throwing Molotov cocktails…
But it’s only functional if your body can safely do those things.
My beef with people diving chin-first into functional training.
People jump into these activities having none of the required prerequisites for them. “But Joonas, the body is meant to do them, it’ll adapt.”
Well, yes, and no.
It’s true that your body was meant to do all those things. And if you look at a kid who is yet to fall a victim to the wicked ways of our modern society, they can do all of that. Except perhaps the Molotov cocktails (unless their parents are rather free-spirited).
But you are not a 12-year-old kid. And just because you used to be able to do functional movements when you were 12 doesn’t mean that you can do them now without certain limitations.
Because you know what happened between when you were 12 and today? Life kicked you in the ribs. Hard.
Your body isn’t “designed” to be used for sitting eight or more hours a day staring at flashing lights on your computer screen. I am going to level with you: you’ve regressed since the days of your youthful self.
The less attention you’ve given to your body the last 20+ years, the less likely it is that you can just jump into one of the cool and fashionable functional movements.
So, yes, your body will adapt. But instead of just adapting by getting all functional and primal, it will adapt by compensating where necessary to just keep you moving.
And compensation doesn’t mean that you will become Spiderman. Instead it’s more along the lines of hello Gollum.
How to make your functional training more functional
Let’s start with your joints. Before you can put your body through some complicated movements, you need to have your joints functioning well enough to get into those positions.
Let’s use an example that is all the craze in gyms today: handstands. To me, this seems to be the new “let’s squat on a Swiss ball”. Why everyone thinks this is the coolest thing since picked and peeled and sliced and repackage and sealed and frozen banana is beyond me.
But, alas, the handstand still wins a fistfight over squatting on Swiss balls, so let’s see what your joints are required to do for a solid handstand. So that looking cool upside down doesn’t make your body hate life.
The ranges of motion you need to safely do a handstand
In handstand, most of your weight is sitting on your wrists, elbows and shoulders and scapula. For the sake of keeping this article somewhat on the shorter side, let’s leave out all the other parts (thoracic spine, rib cage position, fingers, etc.) that work too. Because, attention span.
What you need is not only mobility, but also controlled mobility to safely get to a handstand. To keep it simple:
Shoulder: 180 degrees of flexion, of which 60 degrees comes from scapula upward rotation. Try it: standing with your back against a wall, can you bring your arms overhead next to your ears without arching your back or shrugging your shoulders?
Elbow: a full elbow extension. Tryit: repeat the above shoulder extension test. Are your elbows staying straight as you reach overhead?
Wrist: a minimum of 90 degrees of extension. Probably more. Try it: again, repeat the above two steps. After reaching your arms overhead, can you bring your palms horizontal i.e. perpendicular to the ground? To illustrate this, can you hold a tennis ball (or any round object resembling a ball) on your palm without it rolling in any direction?
Did you pass the range of motion tests?
Yes? Well hello there, Peter Parker. That means that those three joints can get into the position of a handstand. But that doesn’t mean that they are yet strong enough to take the load of your full body weight.
Also, don’t forget your thoracic spine, rib cage, fingers… As you can see, there are a lot of moving pieces to a movement that looks relatively straightforward on Instagram.
You can’t? Before you swing your body against a wall, stop! Work on improving the control of those joints.
Why? Because what do you think will happen when you swing your body up against a wall and force your non-functional joints to take all your weight? Perhaps nothing in the beginning, but keep doing it and over time, your body will let you know about it.
And no, compensations still doesn’t mean becoming Spiderman. Not even if you compensate in fancy spandex.
How to improve how your joints move.
As mentioned, you need to not only improve the flexibility of the joint, but also the control you have over that flexibility. And just because your wrists are strong with hands dangling on your sides doesn’t mean they are strong with your hands overhead. Strength is position specific.
Handstand is just an extreme example. There are more common movements that still require fully functioning joints: push ups require 90 degree of wrist extension. With crawling, you probably need even more.
Finally, how much of controlled mobility do you really need?
Annoyingly, this starts with it depends. The answer depends on the activities you do and the goals you have.
From an athletic point of view, a powerlifter needs way less controlled mobility than a ballet dancer needs. Sure, powerlifter has to be extremely strong in the movements they need, but the ranges are not excessive. In contrast, a ballet dancer needs to get into all kinds of weird and funky, if not kinky, positions.
So, it depends.
For those of you who train for a general goals of feeling great and looking like Bat(wo)man (because Spiderman is lame) think of what exercises you practice during your training and what level of movement allows you to live a fulfilling life.
And as you get older, keep in mind that if you don’t use it, you will lose it. I am notorious, sometimes to my detriment, for looking at the super-un-sexy bigger picture: how do you want to feel, move and look on your 80th birthday?
I’ll answer this one for you: great.
Earn the right to be Spiderman. (But really, you probably want to be Batman).
I acknowledge that 99% of my readers are not health and fitness professionals. I will briefly explain what the workshop was about and then go into how you can improve your kettlebell training.
I recently took part in Move Strong’s An Introduction to Kettlebells for Rehabilitation and Performance – workshop in Sydney. The founders of Move Strong, Matt and Andrea, both chiropractors, have noticed a void in the industry and are on a mission to educate other clinicians, as well as personal trainers on how to better serve our patients and clients.
I am no stranger to back pain. There are more than few clients I see that have either had or a still dealing with the bane of back pain. And I’ve had my fair share of back issues in the past.
There is just something wrong about the evolution of the human animal. Wait, maybe it’s that the human animal hasn’t kept up with the fast-paced evolution of the world around it. The world raced from active manual labor (not that heavy manual labour was making great backs either) to days of prolonged sitting.
Alas, instead of cursing the world for what it has become and done to our lumbar spine and transverse processes, let’s instead see what you can do to feel better.
We love hacks. The quick fixes, the shortcuts, the simple solutions that promise to solve our most complex issues. Most hacks give us a false sense of hope that we can skip the long road ahead. They lure us away from the actual work in hopes of an easier way.…
Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg. Jean-Claude Van Damme. JCVD.
A man who moves smoother than Morgan Freeman’s voice and drops into splits faster than you can say “moules-frites”. If, god forbid, you ever get into a situation where you are required to talk dirt and handle splits and scissor kicks, you need JCVD on your side.
And the next best thing if Jean-Claude is not on your speed-dial? Make your body move like his.…
Before I unleash this monster of a post to your eyeballs: I am experimenting a new posting schedule. I’ll try to make every second post a more technical, relevant to what I am studying yadi yadi yadi stuff. That being said, if you bear reading through them you will get value out of of each one.
If you feel like a certain post is not for you, come back for the next one and hopefully it is something that cranks your camel, humps your tractor and oils your iPad.