Stretching is not the key to moving better. This is.
Improving your mobility will help reduce pain.
Moving about isn’t meant to hurt. If you have normal range of motion, you should be able to stand, squat, walk, bend down, and reach over your head without any real effort or pain—and without having to warm up.
Over the past year I’ve been working hard on moving better. I’ve gone from having shin splints and sore ankles when I run to bashing out 10Ks happy as anything. It takes a bit of work, but there’s a lot you can do to improve. And it doesn’t matter where you’re starting out, either.
“The body is robust, tolerant, and antifragile,” explains Kelly Starrett, a doctor of physical therapy and co-author of best-selling movement book, Becoming a Supple Leopard. “The resting state of the human being is pain-free.”
Unfortunately, the body has a use-it-or-lose it policy. If you spend hours sitting at work each day, your hip flexors, hamstrings, and even the joints themselves will stiffen, potentially leading to back or knee pain, and trouble walking. If you don’t ever squat down on your haunches, your body will gradually lose the ability to do so. And too much typing or other computer use can impact your entire upper body.
Starrett, who founded The Ready State, an online movement coaching service and gym in San Francisco, says they’ve stopped talking about “flexibility” when it comes to movement. It has become too associated with traditional static stretching and being bendy (which can come with a whole host of its own problems), rather than moving better or being pain-free. Instead, he prefers to talk about things in terms of mobility and mobilizing.
“Mobility is a bigger idea,” Starrett says. “It’s about tissue stiffness, and it’s about your body being able to move well so you have full access to your physiology.”
Understand how your body needs to move
He breaks down 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. A powerful front crawl, for example, requires you to be able to comfortably put your hands over your head. Picking up a dropped hair tie means you need to be able to squat down to the ground.
You don’t need to remember all these shapes to assess your own body. If you’re struggling with everyday movements, you should consider them as pointers to the things you need to work on. If reaching overhead isn’t comfortable, spend some time working on your shoulders. If you can’t reach down to the floor, you can target your hamstrings. When your lower back or hips feel tight, the best thing you can do is spend 10 minutes doing this couch stretch on each leg while watching TV—though, be warned, this one’s tough!
And it’s not just everyday movements that point the way. If you want to squat heavy weights or swing around on gymnastic rings, you need to make sure you’re able to generate power and keep your body in a safe position while you do. If your hips don’t properly rotate in their sockets, you won’t be stable in the bottom of a squat with weight on your shoulders—so make sure you spend some time working on that rotation. It’s the same for the rings: grabbing them shouldn’t put your shoulders into a position they don’t like, so make sure you’ve got good overhead function or you might hurt yourself.
Really, Starrett’s view is that your body should be able to do the things you want it to do, when you want to do them, whatever they happen to be. You shouldn’t have to warm up for two hours to go to the gym—or to play with your kids.
Remember: your leg bone’s connected to your hip bone
One of the most important things to know is that your body is fully interconnected. If your back hurts, the problem might be your back—but it could also be above or below. “Your back is a system that’s connected to your hips,” explains Starrett. “If you’re talking about back pain but not talking about how your hips move, you’re not actually talking about the back—you’re talking about 50 percent of the system.” (Here’s how he suggests troubleshooting lower back pain.)
It’s the same with a lot of other problem areas. If your neck is stiff, you also need to look at your shoulders, upper back, and ribs. If you’re having issues when you bend your knee, the problem could be in your calf or thigh muscles. Don’t get caught up focusing on one area—make sure you work everything around it, too.
Pain is information
Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something’s up, Starrett says. The sensation can come from an injury or physical impairment (in which case you should talk to your doctor) but it can also result from tissue stiffness, not moving enough, or sitting weirdly.
Starrett made it clear that you shouldn’t be walking around sore every day. Working in an office shouldn’t leave you hurting. And if it does, it’s a sign that you need to address something. Locate the problem, figure out what system it’s a part of, and find an exercise that will help. If in doubt, hit the couch stretch.
Don’t overcomplicate things
With all that said, you don’t need to leave home and dedicate your life to yoga to start working on your body. Starrett doesn’t recommend stretching for hours each day. He wants you to keep things simple.
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 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, 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.
Or just go your own way entirely. It’s your body—do what works for you.
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 curveballs 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.