While the advice seems counterintuitive, if your body lacks the strength to keep itself stable during challenging tasks such as reaching high overhead or squatting down low, it will not be so willing to move all the way into the positions you ask it to. It is important to recognize that your body likes to be comfortable and will always seek to avoid discomfort. Ever wonder why, no matter how hard your try, you can’t seem to get your squat to go low enough, or no matter how often you stretch, your shoulders and neck stay tight? While a lack of mobility seems to be the apparent issue, the cause of your poor mobility may actually be an issue of poor stability.
When you ask your body to move in a way that requires lots of mobility, but you lack proper motor control and key muscles lack the strength to stabilize your joints at the full range of those movements, any number of those key muscles or supporting muscles may tighten up to prevent the possibility of injury. Until key stabilizing muscles have the adequate strength to lengthen and contract fully, and your nervous system exhibits the motor control to keep your joints stable, your muscles and joints will not move beyond what is perceived as safe.
Mobility exercises such as various forms of stretching or myofascial release (foam rolling) and massage therapy are effective interventions, and should not be removed from your regular routine of self-maintenance. However, the effect of these therapies will be temporary if solid motor control is not programmed into the nervous system, and if key muscles are not strengthened to meet the challenges you present them with.
For example, let’s say you have chronic hamstring tightness. You stretch daily, have gone to yoga, and get a massage on occasion. All seem to help for a while, but every morning you wake up they are right back to their same tight selves. What’s going on here?
Well, the first thing to consider is this: when you are not stretching, getting a massage, or doing yoga, what do you spend your time doing? Let’s say you’re someone who works 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, and about 80% of the time you are sitting in a desk chair. That’s 40 hours of sitting per week, about 8 hours a day, and that’s just at work. Because the chair is supporting your weight, and your body loves to be comfortable, all the muscles that normally stabilize your body’s posture, become lazy over time and either shorten or lengthen to accommodate your new posture as your body sinks into the chair. Eventually these key stabilizers become weak and won’t like to move in ways they are not used to. If they are short as a result of prolonged sitting, they will want to stay short. If they are lengthened, they will want to stay lengthened. In the case of your hamstrings, prolonged sitting can chronically shorten the distal end (by the knee), and because you aren’t challenging the muscle in any way for many continuous hours, it becomes weak and stuck in that position. Even worse, your glutes and other muscles that help your hamstrings do their job become weak and stuck so your poor hamstrings don’t get any help when they need to do their job.
Each morning you wake up and do some stretches to alleviate your tightness, but because they are weak in that lengthened position, and other key muscles aren’t doing their job either, so they eventually tighten up again to stabilize the hip and knee or prevent a muscle tear. Because your patterns of behavior (sitting for 40 hours a weeks) do not require much mobility or strength, you have patterned your nervous system and muscular system to be comfortable with poor level of mobility and strength. So what’s the solution?
To fix a poor pattern, you need to combat it with a new and better pattern.
First, get moving.
If you’re sitting for 40 hours a week, and much of that sitting is continuous, even working out for an hour a couple times a week won’t do anything to save your posture and tight muscles. There is no way that 3 hours a week of exercise can compete with 40 hours of sitting. However, this doesn’t mean you need to exercise 40 hours a week either. Just take breaks, and take them often, to perform some slow and easy dynamic movements such as walking or slow squats with an emphasis on breathing. For every 30 minutes of sitting, spend 5 minutes doing some exercises.
Start a regular mobility routine or see a massage therapist if this is not already established.
Movement and strength training is essential for maintaining healthy mobility, however if you’re already tight, you will need the help of mobility interventions to get you back on track. Foam rolling, yoga, dynamic stretching, and massage are great options.
Dehydrated tissues are stiff tissues. If you’re dehydrated, your muscles are also more prone to injury and motor control will be altered to compensate.
Sleep more Seriously, get some rest.
For many people, more sleep may be the key to addressing their issue. Sleep is when you integrate what you’ve learned from your day into long term memory so that your patterns of behavior can become more permanent. Even if you do everything on this list, without enough sleep, the rate of learning your new habits will be decreased and progress will slow. Additionally, it is during times of rest that you build muscle and repair your body, not when you are working out. Therefore, without enough sleep, all your hard work in the gym and throughout the day will be for nothing.
Have a movement specialist or high-level personal trainer create a strength training program and provide coaching on your movement mechanics.
At the very least, start some sort of regular strength training routine that challenges your body in all its primary movement patterns (squat, bend, push, pull, twist, and lunge/gait). It is important you build strength in this way so that your body has the stability it needs to take one various types of movements in a variety of situations. Additionally pay attention to your breathing as an indicator of how intense you should be going. If you are unintentionally holding your breath while you exercise, the intensity is too high, and really you’re training yourself to hold your breath and stiffen up every time you do an exercise, which is the opposite of what you’re trying to do! However, I recommend working with a movement specialist that has some formal education in exercise science to ensure you are moving optimally. A movement specialist can assess your movement and tailor a strength training program to address weak links in your body’s stability. They can also provide coaching to improve movement coordination and sequencing to ensure you are not performing exercises in a way that is detrimental. This is very important because if you habitually exercise with poor mechanics, you may actually create more instability, even if you feel stronger.
Combining strength training with a regular mobility routine and healthy lifestyle habits is the best way to make sure your body stays mobile and supple, not to mention it’s a really good practice for your health.
If you have any questions on how to get started or any of the advice written above, feel free to contact myself or any of the Perform For Life Movement Specialists. Our contact information can be found here: http://www.performforlifesf.com/our-team/
Learn more about Coach Randall here!