Movement and Mobility

Tools of the trade

Now that we have gone over some different factors that contribute to our range of motion (http://www.ehmobility.com/blog/mobility-what-is-it-and-what-inhibits-it), let us go over the different tools that we can use to clean up poor mobility.



#1. The bracing sequence
I cannot stress this enough. The very first thing you need to do to enhance your mobility is to get your spine in a braced and neutral position. Do this by going through your bracing sequence: Squeeze your butt. Squeeze your belly. Keep your belly squeezed and now unsqueeze your butt. Going through this sequence establishes the strongest position for the human body. It will maximize your potential not only for flexibility, but also strength, endurance and power.


#2. Bands and banded distractions
In physiology, distraction is a term used to mean separating two joint surfaces away from each other. Not dislocating the joint, or even subluxating (a partial dislocation) it, just simply creating a little bit of space. When a joint capsule, or the muscles surrounding a given joint, become super tight, they can pull the joint surfaces closer together. Two big things happen when the joint gets closed like this: synovial fluid gets drained out, and the bones now get in the way of movement. Synovial fluid is an amazing lubricant. It is extremely slick, with the consistency similar to a raw egg white. Synovial fluid should prevent friction between the two joint surfaces, and it also acts as a medium for transporting nutrients into the cartilage. Every time you create compression in a joint, the synovial fluid should get pumped into the cartilage. Then, as the joint pressure releases, synovial fluid can fill back in. Think of this in terms of the knee while going up stairs, or of the elbows and shoulders during a bench press. But if this fluid gets squeezed out of the joint, and then that pressure remains long enough for your tissues to adapt to that length, the synovial fluid will not return until the pressure is released and normal movement begins again.

After this fluid has been squeezed out, there is no longer anything to prevent friction between the pieces of cartilage in the joint. They can now rub each other away until there is nothing left. Cartilage has very little blood flow. It gets most of its nutrition from synovial fluid. And while some kinds of cartilage do not appear to heal very well once damaged, SYNOVIAL CARTILAGE can heal given time and nutrition. 

This is how many cases of arthritis may happen. The joint simply has too much pressure around it and rubs the cartilage to inflammation.

Using a thick exercise band is an extremely cheap, and infinitely useful, way to undo tightness in a joint. Simply anchor down one end of the band to something sturdy and stable, such as a squat rack, or steel door frame. Then, anchor the band in such a way to your body so that it pulls on the joint your are trying to affect. For example, if you want to pull on your shoulder, wrap the band around your wrist, turn your palm up to the ceiling, and then back up so the band gently pulls your whole arm straight out. This is not a strength exercise. Let your arm relax as much possible. Be lazy and let the band do all the work. All you need to worry about is holding your posture so that you do not get pulled over.

#3. Yoga Tune Up balls/ foam rollers.

Foam rollers have exploded in popularity since the early 2000’s. And for good reason. Even an untrained athlete who uses a foam roller in the most rudimentary way can reap massive benefits. You do NOT need to have a physiology degree to understand simple ways of using them. Foam rollers work to accomplish a few things, including rehydrating tissues to improve stiffness, and increasing circulation to help boost recovery time, along with giving an overall sensation of relaxation once you are done. Simply put, foam rollers are your own massage therapist, and the more you learn about to use them, the more benefits you can experience.

A general rule of thumb is that SOFTER IS BETTER. Using massage therapy tools such as foam rollers, for most people, does not mean trying to dig deep down into your tissues as hard as you possibly can. Listen to your body. Pain is your brain's way of saying something is wrong. So if you are going so far as to create a lot of pain, you should probably back off some. In addition, many foam rollers out there are rock hard. If you are unaccustomed to this type of work, this can bruise you and cause more pain. Even if you are accustomed to this type of work, using hard objects such as concrete blocks or lacrosse balls may harm you even if you can ignore the pain.

Yoga Tune Up balls are a much more refined tool, but function much the same way as foam rollers. They are pliable, grippy latex balls of pure awesome. They come in three different varieties: the originals, Plusses, and Alphas. In addition there is also the Coregeous Ball. The different sizes allow you to target different areas of your body with varying depths, which allows you you adjust depending on your pain level or what you are wanting to achieve.

#4. Compression Floss.

Compression Floss, specifically Voodoo Floss, is one of the most useful mobility tools out there. I specifically recommend using Voodoo Floss because it is grippy. Other types of floss may be smooth and can be difficult to wrap with because it slides down itself. Voodoo Floss does not have this problem. 

Compression Floss should feel uncomfortable. If you aren't feeling anything when you use it, you have either done an extreme amount of work and need medical attention, or you have it on so lightly that nothing is being done. Wrap with about a 75% stretch around the area you want to change, working upstream and downstream of the area. 

Floss accomplishes many things all at once. The compression will apply a deep tissue massage. The grippiness of the floss will pin down to your skin so that you work on improving sliding surfaces while you move the muscle underneath. It can drain swelling. It reduces your circulation for the duration of the wrap to help give a boost of fresh blood once it comes off. And if places around a joint, will create a joint distraction. 

The downside to using Voodoo Floss: it can be pretty uncomfortable. It should only be used for about 2 minutes at a time, with a 2 minute break between wraps. I typically recommend going for two minutes on, two minutes off for 10-20 minutes. 

And be sure to listen to your body. If you feel like you are going numb, or if you feel any other kind of sketchy sensation, please take the floss off and shake the body part out. 

#5. Contract-relax. 

Contract-relax means taking a limb to end-range, and then getting your brain engaged to stop it from restricting your ROM. Sometimes, expressing certain ranges of motion is kind of like walking through uncharted territory. It can be scary, and there can be an almost unreasonable fear of future injury. Your brain/nervous system can quite literally lock down on tissues to create more stability for the sake of stopping your from stretching out so far when that range of motion has not been expressed in a while. But if you can take the limb to end-range, tense the surrounding musculature to engage your nervous system, you can get things to relax and let you go farther. Basically, I look at it as being that you take the muscles to a range your brain will lock them down at, then by engaging the muscles, you are showing that you can perform work at that range with no risk. Just my interpretation of it,

Oftentimes, muscles aren’t too short or dehydrated...they are just being held back by fear. The video below shows me using a contract-relax sequence to help improve shoulder extension:

Mobility: What is it and what inhibits it?

Movement always comes first. Good movement will allow you to retain your mobility and is one of your greatest allies in the fight against chronic pain and performance dysfunction. You can do all the mobility work you want, but if your movement remains biomechanically unsound, the stiffness, pain, and bad posture will only return again. And oftentimes, it returns worse than before.

However, should you find yourself unable to move your arms and/or legs very far without moving your spine around, that is probably an indicator that you need to work on your mobility.

Having mobility means having the freedom to express independence of movement in order to accomplish work. Humans are built to move, and movement should never cause harm to your own body. But our bodies are also under constant stress, if only via gravity. Whenever you go for a walk, sit in a chair, or lift heavy weights, your body will adapt to the stress of the activity, and that adaptation will be as intense as the activity. And while many of these activities may make you stronger from a certain perspective, they will also make you stiffer and limit your range-of-motion (ROM).

Having tight tissues and less-than-optimal ROM means less power due to the shorter distance you can safely travel. And if you force that ROM, you risk tearing your tissues to bits. Imagine a competitive swimmer, or any sports player whose sport demands that they take their arm overhead repeatedly, and at high-intensity. Now imagine that athlete, in a rested and non-stressful environment, can only raise either arm to a 45 degree angle over their head. So half way between straight out in front of them, and straight over their head. And if they try to move it higher with a neutral spine, it creates pain in the shoulder. Now, this individual could bend their spine, lean back and make their arm appear to be straight up and down relative to the ground, but that relationship needs to be relative to their body and shoulder. Ordinarily, this individual will be told that he/she has tight shoulders and needs to stretch more. Coincidentally, this may be the same advice the individual has been given for several years, and they are still having the same issue. This is common. We have this idea that static stretching is all one can do to improve flexibility. And if this method does not work for a particular person, then that person just has genes that have pre-determined they will be a tight human being. All this sort of thinking does is demonstrate a lack of understanding about the things that actually create and inhibit human mobility. Using genetics as an answer is nothing but a convenient EXCUSE.


So when this competitive individual participates in sport, a few things happen: goal orientation and stress/stress hormones. This individual is focused on achieving their goals in competition in order to win, or help the team win. At the same time, the stress of the physical activity and of the competition itself stimulates the release of adrenaline, as well as other stress hormones. Adrenaline helps your body to increase certain attributes, such as strength and endurance, while blocking out the sensation of pain.


Tunnel-vision and short-term pain immunity. With these two things, it becomes easier for the athlete to explode through their already limited shoulder ROM without feeling anything. He/she has chosen to sacrifice a part of their body in order to achieve a goal. But what really happens to the shoulder, or any body part, when it is forced to repeatedly move farther than it normally can without stress. This depends on what is causing the lack of mobility. This is where most of the chronic pain and dysfunction of the athlete comes from. Why is a part of my body tight? And more importantly, what can I do to fix it so I do not have to worry about present chronic pain any longer, or about developing chronic pain later on? This is where we need to understand a few different factors that inhibit mobility. There are four major factors that we are going to focus on in this post. These four are relatively easy to understand, and once you are armed with this knowledge, you can proceed to work on your mobility in a significantly more effective way than just hanging out at end-range with no real intention or results.


One of the rules of mobility is to prove that what you are doing is actually working towards your goal. You need to be able to see with your naked eye (NOT with a laser goniometer or other device used to measure joint angle) that your body can move farther than it previously could without sacrificing good body mechanics.


#1. Neural tension.


The spine comes first. Always. It is a hard and fast rule to prioritize and optimize spinal position before, during, and after all movements (http://www.ehmobility.com/blog/getting-started-with-your-own-self-maintenance-plan-part-2-start-loving-your-spine). Will you always be able to perform with a perfectly neutral spine? No. But you need to learn to, and be able to, brace your spine into the best position possible for your activity, whether that is picking up a pillow or a 400lb weight. Basically, you need to understand that trying to move around with a disorganized spine is something that your brain does not like. Especially if you are under a load, but even if it is only your body weight, your brain will stiffen up your tissues around your spine to help stabilize it and prevent disk herniation. The first thing to do to maximize your mobility is to go through the bracing sequence: Squeeze your butt, squeeze your belly. Then, with your belly still squeezed, unclench your butt. That is it. That sequence establishes a braced and neutral spine, which will release a lot of neural tension that may have been present.


#2. Joint Mobility.


Joint mobility refers to two things: Joint capsule mobility, and joint position. Your joint capsule is a fibrous membrane that surrounds your synovial joints (Joints that are not directly joined and have a cavity filled with synovial fluid. This includes your ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders and others). When this fibrous sac surrounding the joint is not moved either frequently, or through full ROM, it stiffens up just like most of your other tissues. Stiffness in the joint capsule, which limits how far your bones can move around, contributes a massive amount to total mobility.


In addition, if surrounding tissues are tight, a joint can be pulled tight in a particular direction. This can mean that the two joint surfaces have been pulled together to squeeze out synovial fluid, and the surfaces will grind together against the socket or adjacent bone. Which hurts. A lot.




#3. Sliding Surfaces.


Sliding surfaces in my experience is a factor that is extremely easy to fix for most, is quite easy to understand, and also can have a tremendous impact on your ability to move. The concept of sliding surfaces means that your skin, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels, and bones should all be only loosely attached to each other. Their should be some loose fascia holding everything together, but these structures should all be able to slide and glide around each other smoothly. But if connective tissue builds up and adheres these structures together, it can become more like Velcro, with large amounts of friction, and irritation. Nerve endings can become inflammed, blood vessels can be placed under excess pressure resulting in varicose veins, and lymph vessels can become swollen. This can occur in basically any part of the body which does not move often enough.


#4. Muscle Dynamics


Sometimes a muscle simply has adapted to a shortened position and does indeed need to get stretched out. Alternatively, the brain/nervous system can literally lock down on certain tissues and prevent them from extending passed a certain length. An idea about why this happens is that the brain has been led to believe (probably due to lack of movement) that it will be dangerous to move beyond a certain range. It has become scary, unexplored territory. This is where PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, or contract-relax as we will call it, comes into play. This is when you take a body part to its current end-range, tense the muscles around the area to stimulate the nervous system for a few seconds, inhale, exhale, relax everything and allow the body part to move farther. If the nervous system really was inhibiting the movement, tensing your tissues at end-range will essentially be telling the brain that it is alright to do work at that range- nothing is going to be injured- and that it can relax.


Why should you have a mobile body? A body that can move through full ranges of motion effortlessly? Because it allows you to have strength. To have speed. To have endurance. It can help you to prevent just about any type of chronic pain humans can develop (http://www.ehmobility.com/blog/getting-started-with-your-own-self-maintenance-practice-part-1). Having mobility means you can get to the ground and stand back up. By yourself. Increased athleticism, pain management, and independence of movement. That is why you should want a mobile body.


In my next blog, we will begin exploring the different tools I use to clean up poor mobility and enhance human performance. As well as show some easy methods of using each one to help your body right away.

The Third Rule of Movement: The One-Joint Rule

First off, let us recap the first two rules of movement:


Rule #1: Prioritize your spine.

This almost always takes the form of the bracing sequence. However, even for shapes and movements that demand global flexion or extension in the spine, the position still needs to be braced. If you cannot squeeze your butt and belly, you have gone into local flexion or extension. You have kinked the hose. This means that you can no longer stabilize your position on your own. If you cannot consciously squeeze it, you cannot use it.


Rule #2: Torque

Create rotation in your shoulders and hips. External rotation if your limbs are in flexion (in front of your body) and internal rotation if your limbs are in extension (behind your body). Creating torque gets your skeleton in a better position, and winds up your muscles to stabilize your skeleton in that better position, primarily in your shoulders and hips. This extra stability allows you to much more easily maintain a good position while are in motion.


These two rules can be done by themselves in a static position, which is where they can be taught first. But you have to learn to display these rules while moving, and especially while under stress. This is where the third rule comes into play.

ule #3: The one-joint rule

The one-joint rule states that the spine does not move while changing from one body shape to another. The rule of maintaining a neutral spine not only applies for static positions, but also, and more importantly, it apples for dynamic positions and movements while you are under stress (including exercising). This is the one-joint rule. When you are moving, your spine should be treated as one solid lever. There are no joints in your spine any longer once you have braced yourself.

After getting braced, I place one thumb on my sternum, and the other at my waist. 

And even as I bend over to get ready to pick something up or to squat, the distance between my hands remains constant. My spine keeps its shape throughout the entire movement.

Understanding how to do this is more important than I can stress in text. Because it is movement of the spine under stress that creates most of the back pain people experience, developing some strength and proprioception (the ability to sense where and how your body is arranged in space) can save you from massive amounts of dread and unneeded medical payments.


The only places in your body where you should see large amounts of movements are in your shoulders and hips, and the joints outside of them. This also means that your shoulders and hips need to be able to move through their full range of motion (ROM) without pulling on and altering your spine.


Start with bracing yourself. Now with that braced position active, you need to be conscious of maintaining that position while you squat, lunge, deadlift, reach overhead, reach behind you, and while you carry weight, etc.. This takes practice. Unless you have been trained to move like this your whole life, it is going to be a new skill for you to learn. But as with any other skills and practices, once you train it consistently for a few weeks, it becomes automatic. Utilizing the one-joint rule, both in the gym and in your day-to-day life, will be a habit that will reward you for the rest of your life. Imagine never having to worry about dealing with low-back pain. Imagine never having to worry about developing sciatica or a shoulder impingement. Embody these concepts of taking care of your body, and they alone will drastically reduce your chances of many common ailments that plague so many people. And be sure to check out the video below for more visual cues about how to utilize the one-joint rule, as well as the previous two rules!

Deadlifting. It's not a lower back exercise. It's not specifically a gym exercise. It is a basic movement you use all the time to either pick something up or put something down. When people can't or won't perform this movement and position well, this is a huge factor for why 80% of all Americans develop low back pain.

Getting started with your own self-maintenance plan. Part 3. Protecting your joints

Bracing your spine is the first part of creating optimal position, and the bracing sequence alone can be a life-saver. However, it really only affects your trunk; the bracing sequence does nothing to help create stability in your limbs. So along with the bracing sequence, we also need a way of bracing our joints. And this is done by creating torque in our shoulders and hips.


Torque is defined as a twisting force that tends to cause rotation. If you hold one arm up in front of your body, and rotate it to turn your palm up and to the right, the tension you will feel in your shoulder is torque, or torsion. And as it turns out, your wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, kness, and ankles not only flex and extend, but also all rotate as well. This means they all have capacity for generating torque for stability.


In my own experiences, torque is the most difficult concept for people to understand, and therefore to implement. But if you can specifically practice creating torque as a skill during your movements, whether in daily life or in the gym, you can quickly and easily have massive improvements in your strength, speed, range of motion, and safety. In fact, if you do not create torque in your joints, or you create rotation in the wrong direction, you will actually set yourself up to not only be weaker and less flexible, but will be setting yourself up for injury, in such ways as an ACL tear, a labrum tear and rotator cuff tear, among others. But learning how to create torque in the right direction is relatively simple, and follows a basic pattern.


Flexion= external rotation
Extension= internal rotation.


If your arm or leg is in flexion, meaning in front of your body, you create external rotation to create stability, and internal rotation to create instability.
If your arm or leg is in extension, meaning behind your body, you create internal rotation to create stability, and external rotation to create instability.
 

 As you can see in this picture, the two ligaments anchoring the two sides of the knee together in the center of it have an X shape to them. When you create external rotation in a knee, the ligaments stay tight, keeping the knee stable. However, if you internally rotate the knee, these two ligaments will unwind, adding significantly more stress to the knee.

As you can see in this picture, the two ligaments anchoring the two sides of the knee together in the center of it have an X shape to them. When you create external rotation in a knee, the ligaments stay tight, keeping the knee stable. However, if you internally rotate the knee, these two ligaments will unwind, adding significantly more stress to the knee.

These patterns are actually seen in your daily life, and have been present your entire life. How do your turn a door knob, or key for your cars ignition, or use a screwdriver to tighten a screw? You always turn your arm to the outside, creating external rotation. If you are in the front seat of a car and you want to reach behind yourself to grab something in the backseat, do turn your palm up or down to have the most flexibility? Down, which creates internal rotation in the shoulder. You can't get very far if you keep your palm up. What about a boxer, when he throws a punch from his back hip? His back leg turns inward, again, creating internal rotation, because you cannot punch very well if your back leg is turning outward.


Hopefully with these examples you can have a clear image in your head of what I mean when I refer to creating torque, or rotation, within your shoulders and hips. When you create this torque in the right direction, you are actually creating stability by tightening up the joints and engaging all the muscles surrounding the joint. This creates strength while also preserving flexibility. At the same time, it prevents the two sides of a joint from moving independently of each other, placing massive amounts of stress on your
cartilage and ligaments. Hence why ligament tears are so common when people move in certain positions.


A major point to make on the subject of torque is that you only harm the joints if they are rotated in the wrong direction under two conditions:
1. You hold that position long enough to adapt to it, and to also make a habit which will be expressed under stress, or
2. You express this position under a load.


Actually, creating internal rotation while in flexion, and vice versa, is useful for mobilizing the joint capsule and getting fluid into the joint to help improve your overall mobility. But that is a position that you only momentarily pass through, never one that you remain in for any significant amount of time.


This does not mean you have to constantly be creating tension in your hips and shoulders all the time. That would be a ridiculous demand, and would likely end up being detrimental to your health. However, you can display small amounts of torque habitually to maintain good posture in daily life. This can take the form of keeping your feet straight while you walk, turning your knees to the outside when you sit, stand and when going up and down stairs or ladders. It is also displayed as keeping your shoulders back rather than hunched forward. These same positions should also be displayed in the gym.


One major hindrance to creating torque is this: People are rarely taught to intentionally create rotation to their maximum anatomical range of motion, and so the muscles that create rotation, such as the rotator cuff muscles, and the external rotators of the hips, are quite often super stiff and painful to press into. And so mobilizing these tissues, which will come up in later blogs, is important to start with. Because you can understand movement principles to the best of your ability, but if you do not have the mobility to actually express the principles, you will never move optimally. However, movement always comes first, and many mobility problems can be remedied by simply beginning to move correctly. So here is a tip for you to begin incorporating into your daily life as a way of cultivating torque in your body as a habit: every time you step up and over something, or are walking up and down stairs, pay attention to how your back leg moves. Oftentimes, because the hip external rotators are so stiff, the leg will become externally rotated while it is in extension, which we know creates instability. So if you find that your leg is flying out to the side, rather than moving straight under your hips as it comes forward, pay attention to that, and make a conscious effort to keep your leg in. Try to bring that back knee straight up into flexion, not rounding out.

One other point to make about torque is that the way we do express joint rotation, as in the example above about walking up and down a staircase, is often what we have done habitually for years and was never aware of it. For example, there have been several studies, such as the one found here: http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/23/6/694.short, that claim women have many more ACL injuries than men, especially in sports, some claiming anywhere between 4-10 times the amount of tears. Why could this be? How are women taught to arrange their knees from the time they start walking and wearing skirts and dresses? Knees together. Often we will see this expressed with the feet slightly apart, and the knees collapse to each other, or the knees will be crossed over each other. These women are being taught to create internal rotation from a very young age, and it quickly becomes a habit. This is a huge factor for why almost every single untrained female I have ever seen play sports or exercise will jump and land with their feet wide and their knees coming together. Accumulate a few thousand reps of creating slack in the knee and stressing ACL. Remember, external rotation in flexion creates muscular stability. Creating internal rotation while in flexion reduces muscular engagement, and places the stress on the ligaments.

And a final note about torque is that you are primarily aiming to create torque in the shoulders and hips. If your legs are in flexion, you are creating torque in your hips, knees and ankles. But because of how the anatomy in the knees and ankles is arranged, you will never create internal rotation in those structures if your leg is in extension; only creating torque in the hip. Going back to the example of the boxer, or just talking about a simple lunge, the heel of the back foot should come up so that you can pivot on the ball of the foot. You should never create internal rotation in the foot (creating a collapsed arch) or in the knee (wrecking havoc on the ACL and meniscus.

Getting started with your own self-maintenance plan. Part 2. Start loving your spine.

In my previous blog, I briefly outlined the 4 categories of pain and injuries as laid out in the Starrett Movement and Mobility system: pathology, catastrophe, motor-control/stability, and mobility. If your problem is pathological or catastrophical, you need to see your physician for help. That will often-times be your best option. However, if your pain is related to either your motor-control in your day-to-day movements, or to your mobility, you can take control over that yourself. Understanding the distinction between these categories is important. Too many times, people will experience sore and achy knees or shoulders, for example, and if it does not go away on it’s own, they will see a medical doctor to help. But here is the thing: medical doctors are trained for pathological and catastrophical problems. They are NOT usually trained to help correct your posture while working out, or to help make your body be more mobile. Ice and pain meds do nothing but provide short-term relief, and can end up making things worse in the long run. So what can you do to fix bad posture and relieve your own chronic pain? Start with your spine.
We always start with solid movement patterns first for a very specific reason: You can do all the mobility work you want to, and have all the awesome and fancy tools on the market, but without actually moving in functional, full range-of-motion movements that match your physiology, you will lose that mobility in a heartbeat. Movement first. Learn how to move correctly, and you will begin to develop your own, real-time, blueprint for diagnosing and preventing chronic pain and dysfunction, and will have a much better idea about how to fix your own lack of mobility if that is an issue for you. All good movements always start by prioritizing the spine.

 Photo courtesy of : By . – http://training.seer.cancer.gov/module_anatomy/unit3_5_skeleton_divisions.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1394201

Photo courtesy of : By . – http://training.seer.cancer.gov/module_anatomy/unit3_5_skeleton_divisions.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1394201

Your spine has 3 natural curves that can move around. These are present in your neck (cervical spine, which has an inward curve), ribcage (thoracic spine, which has an outward curve) and in the lower back (lumbar spine, which has an inward curve.) Preservation of these curves is normally what we are seeking in both your daily movements (getting out of a chair, standing in the shower, walking to work, etc.) and in movements at the gym. There are three major reasons why you want to prioritize your spine first:

  1. Roop Sihota, who taught my Movement and Mobility seminar, stated the first reason about as good as anyone can: Because central nervous system (CNS) injury SUCKS!!! So here’s the thing: Your spine is your brains tail. It is how your brain communicates with your body and gets you moving so you can survive in your environment. This makes your spine incredibly valuable, at least according to your brain. So when you injure, or even threaten to injure your spine, this is not something your brain takes lightly. If you have ever hurt your spine before, you know that it is not only physically painful, but also mentally and emotionally draining. You become self-conscious about every little movement, and your personality can become depressing because even mild spinal pains are so debilitating.
  2. The second reason is that having your spine in a bad position drastically lowers your potential for strength. If you create a hinge in a couple of spinal segments, you are basically putting a kink in the tube. Place a weight on that hinge, and you are at risk for disk herniation. When this happens, your brain will redirect your energy away from your extremities and towards your spine to brace your muscles and connective tissues immediately around your spine in order to help prevent the spine from moving poorly while under a load. [IF YOU HAVE LOW BACK PAIN, PROCEED WITH CAUTION] An easy way to understand this is to lay down on the ground on your back, completely relax your whole body, and suddenly jerk your feet up 6 inches. You’ll notice your belly will bulge upward and the position will be uncomfortable, taking a lot of work to maintain. Now completely relax your body again. This time I want you to squeeze your butt, squeeze your belly, and now lift your feet 6 inches. A little bit easier? Good. Now, with your feet still up in the air, relax your butt. You’ll notice that your belly will bulge back up, and your feet will drop on their own, suddenly feeling a lot heavier. What happened here is that the muscles attaching your hips to your spine (your psoas) were no longer stable when you relaxed your butt and they yanked on your spine. By doing this drill, your just jerked on your own CNS, and all the energy you were expending to simply hold your feet up was redirected inward to brace that musculature around your spine rather than just hold your hips and legs in place.
  3. The third reason for prioritizing your spine is that being disorganized drastically limits your flexibility. This happens for exactly the same reason as why your strength diminishes under the same circumstances. Your muscles tighten around your spine and cannot fully relax outward.[IF YOU HAVE LOW BACK PAIN, PROCEED WITH CAUTION] A simple way to exemplify how your nervous system can create tight muscles is to inflict some neural tension on yourself: Sit down in a chair and lift one leg so it is outstretched in front of you, parallel to the ground. Round your torso forward to give yourself as much of a hunchback as you can, and nod your head up and down. You’ll probably notice that when you tuck your chin to chest, your hamstrings start to get tighter. Well all that’s happening there is that your spine is becoming so disorganized that your nervous system has to create stability and stiffness on it’s own. This is also referred to as disrespecting your spine. And you can feel how these tissues, extending all the way down to your hips, get tight to create stability.

Your body will fight for stability, and it does not think about long-term health when doing so. You can create your own stability yourself with good movement mechanics, or your body will create it’s own stability, which we are seeing frequently results in chronic pain.
Prioritize your spine. Spinal position always comes first. It prevents injury, and it maximizes your potential for both strength and flexibility. So there is the why. Now the how. How do you get your spine into a neutral position and keep it there? You start off with what we call the Bracing Sequence. If you have kept up with the blog post thus far, you’ve already done it once.
Step #1: Squeeze your butt.
Step #2: Squeeze your belly.
Step #3: While keeping your belly tight, relax your butt.
You are now braced and ready for action. Turn this sequence into a habit before you sit down, stand up, bend over to pick something up, reach your arms overhead or do anything that involves moving weights around, and you will single-handedly prevent just about any kind of preventable (i.e. non-catastrophical and non-pathological) back pain and dysfunction.
This Bracing Sequence works in a couple of ways. First, it shifts your hips so that your lumbar vertebrae are in a neutral position. When you squeeze your butt, your hips will actually rotate posteriorly. This is why you have a butt. If you’ve never noticed before, humans are the only creatures on Earth that have a butt as we tend to think of it. All other mammals have a flat, callused booty that they can sit on. We have big butts because we stand upright.
Second part is to squeeze your belly. This is the actual bracing part. Your hips set the position, and your abs brace it so you can maintain that neutral spinal position. Squeezing your belly also pulls your ribcage down to help put your thoracic vertebrae into a neutral position. When your belly is braced, you can relax your butt so your legs can move a bit more easily. As long as your belly remains braced, your hips and ribcage will remain aligned. From here, look straight ahead to set your cervical spine in a good position, and keep your shoulders centered on top of your ribcage to help keep your thorax in check.
This Bracing Sequence is a lifesaver when it comes to both athleticism and general well-being. If you can get yourself to always think about your spinal position and start doing the Bracing Sequence all the time, the future pay-off will be huge. It doesn’t matter if you are reaching down to pick the newspaper up, or about to set a record for your deadlift. The setup is the same. And the best part is that you really only need to consciously focus on it all the time for a few weeks. After enough time has passed, it will be a habit and you will automatically begin bracing yourself in a good position without having to intentionally focus so much on it. Do this work now, and the long-term payout is massive.
The exception to the rule– Global flexion and extension
There is always an exception to any rule depending upon the circumstances. Try to reach around a refrigerator or boulder and pick them up with a perfectly straight spine. That just won’t happen unless your arms are strong enough to do the lifting by themselves. So for large and cumbersome objects, you need to create what we call GLOBAL flexion, where the whole spine is rounded as a whole (not creating a hinge between just a couple of vertebrae). Conversely, you may also need to create GLOBAL extension, as with handstands. Again, we are avoiding two things: LOCAL flexion and extension, where you are creating a kink in a small segment of your spine, and we are also avoiding creating movement in the spine while under a load. Yes, it is less than ideal, but our goal is optimal performance.

Getting Started with your own Self-Maintenance Practice. Part 1

“All humans have the right and responsibility to perform maintenance on their own body.” -Dr. Kelly Starrett.
So here is how most people handle their own self-maintenance. You wake up one day and have some sort of pain. Your knee is swollen, you have a rash, your arm keeps going numb. And what do you do? First order of business: rest and hope everything goes away on its own. If that doesn’t work, you ice it or take medication. And if THAT doesn’t work, you go to a doctor who will then first prescribe rest and ice/medication. After that comes surgery, and then more chronic pain, scar tissue, and problems.
An important topic to understand when it comes to pain management is the categories of pain and injury. Once you understand these categories, you can begin to self-diagnose whether or not the problem you are having should be addressed via the movement and mobility tools coming in later blogs, or via a physician. These categories are:

  1. Pathology- This refers to diseases. People get sick; it’s a part of life. Different diseases can rear their ugly head in different ways. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: fever, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, night sweats, changes in bowel/bladder function and diarrhoea. If you are experiencing any of these with any regularity, you should probably see your physician.
  2. Catastrophe- Shit happens. Sometimes an external force that is out of your control comes at you and severely injures your body. You are playing soccer and someone lands on the side of your knee and the whole joint shatters. You’re walking up a staircase, trip, land with your hands, and your wrists break. It happens. If you break a bone, rip a muscle in two, or have profuse bleeding, please go see your doctor.
  3. Motor-Control- This means your posture in any given activity. Whether you are just standing, or running, or squatting double your bodyweight, if you move poorly and have bad posture, then your body will break down at an accelerated rate and you will likely eventually have some serious issues down the road.
  4. Mobility- Sometimes parts of your body are under too much tension. This restricts your ability to move even if you have impeccable motor-control in your movements. But flexibility is much, much more than just how short or long any given muscle is. Rather, it has much more to do with your hydration, body temperature, joint capsule mobility, sliding surfaces and even tension in your nervous system and brain. Any, and all, of these factors can contribute to lack of range of motion, and this lack of mobility accelerates damage in joints, decreases overall energy levels, and significantly increases your chances for injury.
 A decent squat position. Note the feet are parallel, and the knees are being shoved out.

A decent squat position. Note the feet are parallel, and the knees are being shoved out.

 A much-less-than-optimal squat position. This collapsed knee position is an example of using body position as a leading indicator. We know this position unwinds your ACL and PCL and creates slack in the knee. This slack allows the tibia and femur to move more independently of each other, and drastically increases the possibility of an ACL tear.

A much-less-than-optimal squat position. This collapsed knee position is an example of using body position as a leading indicator. We know this position unwinds your ACL and PCL and creates slack in the knee. This slack allows the tibia and femur to move more independently of each other, and drastically increases the possibility of an ACL tear.

Diseases and catastrophes happen. They are just a part of life and cannot be controlled as well as we would like. Fortunately however, according to Dr. Kelly Starrett, pathology and catastrophe only make up 2% of your everyday problems. Your posture and your mobility together make up the other 98%, and are 100% in your control if you are willing to start paying attention to your own movements. What this means, is that if you can understand what a good position is, and how to fix a lack of good position, then you can prevent the vast majority of physical problems you will ever likely have.
This is why I do not want to use pain as a diagnostic tool. Pain is a lagging indicator; you don’t actually feel pain until AFTER you have experienced some damage. In fact, you may never feel any pain in your knee until after you tear your meniscus from squatting so poorly. And that is a difficult injury to come back from. Another point about pain is that you never really feel pain when you are adrenalized. If you are playing a sports game, working out, or on a military mission and are under a massive amount of stress, then you may not feel any pain from impacts or punctures until after your stress hormones settle down a bit. So we do not want to use pain as a diagnostic tool. Instead, I want to use a LEADING indicator; something that tells me trouble is coming if things persist as they are. This leading indicator is position.
Creaky knees, stiff shoulders and a tight upper back, collapsed arches and an achy lower back. 98% of the time, these are problems that are fixed through fixing your ability to get into good postures. Ask yourself these questions the next time you are feeling chronic pain:
-Did you suddenly wake up and things were awry, or was there some clear cut incident that caused the pain?
-Are you sore because you performed a hard workout or a different set of movements than you are used to in general, or could you have been exposed to an illness?
Hopefully this will get you to think about why you might be feeling what you are feeling, and if a doctor visit is really necessary. In the next two blogs, we will cover how to fix motor-control problems, and how to fix mobility problems, and also how to prevent problems from all together happening. Low back pain is a 10-15 billion dollar a year problem in America. The vast majority of cases are completely preventable. If you understand how to fix and get into good body shapes, then you can do just that- prevent back pain, and most other joint and muscles injuries.