Strength. Control. Flexibility. Grace. And trees. Trees are good too.

Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg.
Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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.

Why should you care about this? Why should you care about how your joints move or how much flexibility you have? As the founder of Functional Range Conditioning, Andreo Spina said, “When shit works nice, the body seems to feel and perform better.”

That’s all the convincing I need. I don’t need to perform for anybody. I don’t plan to take over the world with scissor kicks or impress anyone on Instagram. But I like to feel as good as possible. Making each joint in the body work as nicely as possible means that my repertoire of safe exercise choices increases, and I most likely get more out of the movements I am currently doing.

Instagram is full of (or so I’ve been told) all sorts of amazing movements and skills for you to try. But you need to work on the foundations first. Even if you are not planning to master splits or scissor kick evil in the face, you will benefit from the following drills to improve the flexibility and control of your body.

If you are an already flexible yogi, this might give you extra strength in those end ranges you are pushing yourself into.

Your training style, movement skills and flexibility (with control) requirements should follow the law of specificity. You need to train your body and joints to get into the ranges of motion that you need in real life. So if you need control in the end-range of shoulder flexion, you need to train the end-range control. Instead of just passively stretching yourself to get there.

Flexibility is excellent, but it’s useless if it’s something you can not actively control. An example would be a person with a more passive (assisted) range of motion in the wrist than active (un-assisted) range. Every time this person does a push up, the wrists are forced into positions that the body can’t control.

Similarly, this can happen if a person can drop into a deep squat when loaded with a heavy weight but can’t, without using hands, bring a knee past hips above 90 degrees when standing on a single leg.

Because heavy weights are cool, we see this all the time. Someone picks up heavy weights and adds extra resistance before knowing how to control the body on its own.

Often this is not a pure strength issue. Rather the nervous system doesn’t know how to drive strength in a particular position because it has never been challenged there. Doing isometric holds is one way to teach neural drive in these positions. Provided that all the joints involved can move into the ranges required (no pain, impingement or other shittyness).

In the same way, tightness and stiffness are rarely a muscle issue, but a nervous system blocking you from going into ranges that it believes are dangerous. I.e. not allowing you to drop into a split because it thinks there’s no chance in hell you can get up.

And getting up is necessary for survival from an evolutionary perspective. If you can’t get up fast, two mountain lions will eat you. From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies don’t know any better. Hence, the stiffness of the nervous system.

To convince the nervous system to “give” us more range, we need to use at least 70% of our maximum voluntary contraction. I will talk you through it below with the isometric contractions.

A healthy individual will be in one of two categories:

1. Plenty of passive range but no control (aka fake range of motion)

You have plenty of range of motion but not a lot of control. Hypermobile people know what I mean. Joint with passive range has no resiliency since you have no control over them after a certain point. It’s the floppy flexibility.

It might be acceptable during super slow controlled movement, but what happens when you need to react to something quickly… Or when the passive range is forced to a position (using external loading is common in gyms) where you need to control it but can’t? Two mountain lions. That’s what.

So, how do we improve the control and earn more active range?

Side note: both of these work with any joint. I’ve used wrist for simplicity’s sake and for the fact that it is a annoyingly common limitation. You can test it by looking at the earlier photos in this post.

Pull your fingers and the back of your hand closer to your forearm without assisting with the other hand. Keep your fingers straight. Then compare this to your range when helping with the other arm. If the former range is less or they are both less than 90 degrees (and you want to do, say, push ups) you need to solve that.

Once you are warmed up (don’t do these with “cold” joints), start by doing positional isometrics at 15-degree intervals, starting from the last position that you can control (before hitting a “block” in active movement) and avoiding end-range (don’t try to jam the joint when it doesn’t want to go there).

Important thing: you must ramp up to at least 70% of the maximum tension you can muster. Tell your nervous system, “I am in control, loosen up, motherfucker.”

1. Slowly ramp up to a maximum isometric (don’t move) contraction of the opening angle of the joint, hold the maximum contraction for 15 seconds. Ramp down and stay in the position.

Opening angle

2. Slowly ramp up to a maximum isometric (don’t move) contraction of the closing angle of the joint, hold the maximum contraction for 15 seconds. Ramp down and stay in the position.

Closing angle

3. Move the joint closer to the end range of the passive range of motion (the fake range that you cannot control) by roughly 15 degrees. Repeat steps 1-2.

4. Repeat 1-3 for another 1-2 times, depending on the range you have, while staying away from the end range.

2. Limited passive and active range of motion (feeling of stuck)

Again, warm up first.

An important thing here again: you must ramp up to at least 70% of the maximum tension you can muster. Tell your nervous system, “I am in control, loosen up, bastard.”

1. Find the end range of your joint. You should feel a stretch at the joint’s opening angle (look at the first arrow below). If you feel pressure or pain in the closing angle (second arrow), the joint is likely pinching. See below for instructions.

This side is where you should feel the stretch.

2. Relax into the stretch for roughly 2 minutes. Deep nasal breathing with 5-second inhales and 10-second exhales does wonders here. You want to turn down your flight or fight / sympathetic nervous system. Don’t think mountain lions. As with everything, your body won’t adapt when stressed.

3. Slowly ramp up to a maximum isometric (don’t move) contraction of the opening angle, yellow arrow, of the joint, and hold the maximum contraction for 15 seconds. Ramp down and stay in the position.

4. Slowly ramp up to a maximum isometric (don’t move) contraction of the closing angle, orange (or red, I think, I’m colour blind) arrow,  of the joint, and hold the maximum contraction for 15 seconds. Ramp down and stay in the position.

5. You should be able to increase the stretch in the opening angle by moving your forearm and the back of the hand a bit closer together. Again, avoid pinching in the closing angle. Once you find the stretch, hold for a minute.
6. Repeat 3-5 for another 2 times depending on the range you have, staying away from the end range.

And yes, the first long stretch is 2 minutes; after that, it’s 1 minute.

Why 2 minutes? It takes longer for the cells to react to change than the commonly prescribed 10-30 second stretches. The “feeling better” after a short stretch is a stretch-induced analgesia, and it is temporary. Optimal seems to be somewhere around the 2-minute mark. Research? How many dancers, yogis, gymnasts etc., do you know who got flexible with 10s stretches?

How often should I do these exercises?
As often as you can, limit the high-tension isometric holds to 2-3 times a week when just starting. Think of this the same way as you would your regular resistance training. This is especially true with something like hip joints, where big muscles are involved. These exercises are a hit on the nervous system when done correctly. If you are well-conditioned, you can deal with more.

I recommend picking up one joint that needs the most work and putting all your effort into it instead of spreading it thin. Once “the shit in the joint works nice”, move to another joint and start over. Keep checking the last joint occasionally to ensure you are keeping the range and control you worked so hard for.

And do your CARS daily.

Pain in the closing angle of the joint

There are two things you can do:

[ADVANCED] If you are comfortable with your skills, add banded distraction pulling away from the closing angle and repeat the isometric holds above. Do not go into pain.

[MOST SHOULD DO THIS] Schedule an appointment with a manual therapist who knows their shit. Whatever you do, don’t keep training with a pinched joint, or you’ll create growth in the tissue (the same as you’d do with bicep curls), and it’ll start to pinch more. Not to scare you off, but this equals a sadness-induced-fuck-fest in the joint.

What next?

Doing PAILS and RAILS, as I explained above, is a step towards creating superb joints. Next up is passive range holds for teaching end range control of the newly developed range of motion. More on that later.