I once trained a client named Mark, a former Cambridge University rower, who hired me to help him prepare for a Tough Mudder event. Mark, a deeply competitive soul, had a superhuman cardiovascular capacity and monstrous tolerance for high volume. He didn’t like it when I’d beat him around a one-mile circuit or be able to lift more than him, especially as I was more than ten years his senior. I think his main motivation for continuing to train with me was to beat me at everything.
Mark was as flexible as a lead pipe. He was six-feet-three-inches tall and lean, but could barely reach past his knees when trying to touch his toes. His attitude toward all training sessions was "go hard or go home." His desire to destroy himself reminded me so much of myself when I was his age. I tried to convince Mark to take his foot off the accelerator for a few months and focus on his weaknesses. Instead, he ignored my advice and just wanted painfully hard training sessions.
I continued to train Mark for another four years giving him mostly what he wanted (being thrashed), while subtly working his weaknesses. Mark was already a physical beast, but progress to make him the kind of monster he aspired to be was slow and frustrating for both of us. However, after two years of training him a great thing happened: Mark received the gift of injury.
Had I not been advising him to address his breathing, stability and mobility outside of our sessions for the past two years, I might have felt badly for him. I hasten to add that Mark was not injured during one of my sessions but during a training session of his own. After some months of rehabbing his new injury, he finally listened to me. Playing on his fiercely competitive nature, I told Mark that if he focused on nothing except his mobility for 10 weeks he’d probably be able to beat me around the one-mile circuit. We tested his one-mile run time and he came in at a pretty good 5:52. For as long as I’d trained him his one-mile times were between 5:50-6:20.
For the next 10 weeks, he attended yoga three or four times per week and his one weekly personal training session involved a lot of joint mobility, breathing, crawling and Pilates. No crazy high intensity workouts, no training to failure and none of his usual go-tos. Without any running for 10 weeks, only low threshold movement work, Mark completed his one-mile run in 5:24. Naturally, I had to keep his ego in check so I pipped him across the finish line. However, I’ll never go head to head with Mark on a Concept 2 rower.
Mark was able to run so much faster because his soft tissue was more elastic, and his joints were more lubricated. He increased his performance by 9% (which is massive for someone of his ability) because he took a step back from training his strengths and focused on his weaknesses. This takes courage and patience.
The importance of maintaining your ability to move well is not just relevant for performers, it’s fundamental for life. Maintaining lubricated joints and elastic tissue is one of the main keys to avoiding disability later in life and building resilience to injury. Think how easy it is to snap an old crusty rubber band, versus a fresh rubber band straight out of the packet. With daily, healthy movement you can be more fresh, lubricated, pliable and elastic.
Active Versus Passive Range of Motion
Stand tall and without leaning forward, raise your left knee and try to reach your shoe strings. How high you are able to hold your foot reflects your active range of motion. In this case, it’s your active range of left hip flexion. Now take a hold of your left shin with both hands and pull your leg as close to your chest as you can without changing your upright body position. This reflects your passive range of motion for left hip flexion. Increasing your active end range of motion in all positions is infinitely more useful than increasing your passive end range of motion.
Flexibility Versus Mobility
Flexibility is a measurement of passive end range of motion while mobility is your ability to control movement through your active range of motion. I don’t really care about anyone’s level of flexibility. It’s their mobility that’s important because it requires neurological control and does not rely on external forces. The key emphasis on all mobility training should be to close the gap between your active and passive end ranges.
Are You Mobile Enough?
People love standards and love to measure themselves against everyone else. Having assessed and trained hundreds of people across the world, I have a pretty good idea about some basic standards for everyday people and those for more athletic training junkies.
For all able-bodied humans under the age of 70:
Can you balance on one leg and tie a shoe string?
Can you sit into a deep squat position, unsupported for at least 30 seconds?
Can you touch your toes with straight legs and feet together?
Can you reach both arms fully stretched overhead with ease?
If the answer is "no" to any of the above, you could use some daily mobility lovin’. If you answered" yes" to all of those I’d put you in the top 20% of all able-bodied adults. For these particular movements, four yeses would get you out of the Rookie category in my self-assessment system. My advice to you would be to make breathing and floor-based joint lubrication a staple part of your daily routine.
For all the fitness junkies out there:
Balancing on one leg, can you tied your shoe string, with a straight supporting leg, an almost upright torso and without wobbling?
Can you sit into a deep squat position unsupported for at least four minutes?
Can you touch your closed fists to the floor with straight legs and feet together?
Can you perform a face-the-wall squat, arms straight and vertical overhead, feet shoulder width apart and pointing forward, with your big toes no further than six inches away from the wall?
Can you hook your fingers behind your back pointing one elbow up and the other down? Both sides?
If the answer was "no" to any of the above I would suggest fixing these to avoid injury and increase training longevity. If the answer was "yes" to all of the above that would put you in the top 5% of all adults, and you would score Pro within my self-assessment system.
Imagine wearing a wetsuit that’s filled with Vaseline. It moves nicely over your skin and when you wave your arms around or perform a squat there’s very little restriction. Now imagine wearing a wetsuit that’s filled with dried glue, sticking your skin to the wetsuit. Imagine how hard it is to move your arms and legs and touch your toes or squat. Not regularly moving your joints through their full range creates a glued wetsuit effect and it happens so slowly that you don’t notice.
Between your skin and your muscles are layer upon layer of fascia. The myofascial system (muscles and fascia) rely on movement to remain healthy, lubricated and mobile. If 24 hours pass without movement, a layer of fuzz builds up between the layers of fascia and muscle tissue, which acts like a thin layer of glue. It takes a lot more movement to work through this layer of glue and restore the original range of motion. If several days or weeks pass without movement, the layer of fuzz becomes more solid and infinitely harder to break apart.
For a great and entertaining five-minute YouTube clip, check out Gil Hedley’s famous “Fuzz Speech”.
How To Become More Mobile
Stay tuned for part two and learn who should train mobility, the best practices for improving mobility and why some people can’t improve no matter how hard they try.
Thanks for reading!
Move better be stronger. Train for life.