Mobility Is Not Just About Stretching – Moving shouldn’t around hurt, at least not always. If you have what is considered a normal range of motion, you should be able to stand up, squat, walk, bend down, and reach over your head without any real effort or pain—and without having to warm up (LOL, sorry that made me giggle – reminded me of a scene from Zombie Land).
Kelly Starrett is a Doctor of Physical Therapy co-author of the best-selling movement book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, and the founder of The Ready State, an online movement coaching service and gym in San Francisco. Starrett emphasizes the importance of movement and mobility to avoid pain and stiffness in the body. He discourages traditional static stretching and being “bendy” and instead prefers to talk about things in terms of mobility and mobilizing.
He emphasizes that the body is “robust, tolerant, and anti-fragile,” and that the resting state of the human being is pain-free. However, the body has a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy. For example, if someone sits at a desk for hours each day, their hip flexors, hamstrings, and joints will stiffen, potentially leading to back or knee pain and trouble walking. Starrett explains that if someone doesn’t use their body in specific ways, they can lose the ability to do so. Too much typing or other computer use can impact the entire upper body.
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Mobility Is Not Just About Stretching
Starrett breaks down the normal human range of motion into seven basic shapes: four shoulder shapes (arms straight overhead, straight out in front, tucked by the side of your body as if you’re about to do a press up, and by the side of your body with your elbows pulled high), and three hip shapes (a deep squat, a deep lunge, and a deep pistol squat). Every human movement is performed using some combination of these upper and lower body shapes.
Mobility Is Not Just About Stretching
If someone is struggling with everyday movements, these shapes should be considered pointers to the things that need work. If reaching overhead isn’t comfortable, they should spend time working on their shoulders. If they can’t reach down to the floor, they can target their hamstrings. When someone’s lower back or hips feel tight, the best thing they can do is spend ten minutes doing a couch stretch on each leg while watching TV.
Starrett believes that the body should be able to do the things someone wants it to do when they want to do them, whatever they happen to be. People shouldn’t have to warm up for two hours to go to the gym or play with their kids.
Pain Is Information
“Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this”, Doctor: “Well, STOP doing that!” One of the most important things to know is that the body is fully interconnected. If someone has back pain, the problem might be in their back, but it could also be above or below. The back is a system that’s connected to the hips, so if someone is talking about back pain but not talking about how their hips move, they’re not actually talking about the back, they’re talking about 50% of the system. You remember the old children’s song,
The hip bone’s connected to the back bone
The back bone’s connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone’s connected to the head bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!
The same is true for a lot of other problem areas. If someone’s neck is stiff, they also need to look at their shoulders, upper back, and ribs. If they’re having issues when they bend their knee, the problem could be in their calf or thigh muscles. People should not focus on one area but instead work everything around it.
Pain is the body’s way of telling someone that something is up. The sensation can come from an injury or physical impairment, but it can also result from tissue stiffness, not moving enough, or sitting weirdly. People shouldn’t be walking around sore every day. Working in an office shouldn’t leave someone hurting. If it does, it’s a sign that they need to address something. They should locate the problem, figure out what system it’s a part of, and find an exercise that will help.
People don’t need to leave home and dedicate their lives to yoga to start working on mobility. They can incorporate these movements into their everyday life. Starrett advises to stand up every 20 minutes if someone is sitting for a long period of time. They can do a couch stretch while watching TV. They can squat down when picking something up off the floor.
That means simply moving more. “We suggest 10,000 steps as the first level, but some day you’ll only get 6,000 and some days you’ll get 15,000.” Just moving and using your body more, rather than staying seated at a desk or in front of a TV, is enough to mitigate a huge number of problems. If you aren’t getting up and wandering around every so often, start doing it now.
Starrett also recommends people mobilize for 10 minutes before bed. This can be as simple as getting down in a deep squat or lying on your back and stretching out, or you can take a more active approach and use a tool like a lacrosse ball or foam roller to work over any areas that are giving you trouble.
Your muscles shouldn’t hurt when you press down on them or stretch them out, and you should be able to breathe comfortably while you work on things, Starrett explains. If you’re lying on a foam roller and you’re in agony, stop—you’re doing something wrong.
Find What Works for You
Starrett is a big ole strong guy. He’s a former elite athlete, runs a CrossFit gym, and throws around heavy weights. If you’re a bit of a meathead, like me (I am a Giverik or a Kettlebeller, BIG bells), his approach might work well for you. But if you find Starrett’s stuff a bit too intense, you can also check out Jill Miller’s Tune Up fitness and Sue Hitzmann’s MELT Method. Both are pretty ‘mild’ and a great way to increase mobility or maintain your current state of good mobility. Or just go your own way entirely. It’s your body—do what works for you. Steve Maxwell, my fitness guru, often expresses that we need to create our own workouts and fitness routines. Not everyone can, or should, do the same thing.
You’re Not Trying to Win
Moving well and without pain isn’t a game you can win. At no point can you just declare victory and say you’re done; that your knee is totally fixed and you’ll be able to hop, skip, and jump into your 90s. Modern life is always going to throw you curve-balls and you’ll need to adapt.
“You’ve just got to continue to play better and feel better,” says Starrett. “This is an infinite game.” How you play is up to you.
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