If this is the first time you have read my blog, know that everything I do revolves around strength. I have a number of free videos and posts available (link to the community) on how to get stronger in a more mindful way. Today I want to focus on how strength training and mobility really have to go hand in hand.
There are a few points we must consider when talking about strength training, range of motion and stiffness (or mobility restrictions). The first really important and controversial question is, are we all designed to have the same range of motion? This is one of those questions that I usually answer as “yes, and no”. In yogaland, Paul Grilley has become famous for his photographs of real life human bones and joints. His slides show how different people can have different joint structures which will have an impact on their movement capabilities. In my opinion, these joint differences will definitely effect us in movement, but more so in the end ranges, and definitely in the more extreme examples of range.
Similarly, some of us have long or short femurs, which means some of us will have an easier time with movements such as squats. But, as humans who don’t have pre-existing conditions, we should all still be able to squat. Should every squat look a little bit different? Yes. My point is, just because a bone might be longer or shorter (unless this is extreme or non symmetrical) we can all still find a way to move, and if we have been maintaining our movement over the years, we might not be as affected.
Fascia and connective tissue are constantly remodeling, turning over and affecting the way we experience life. Fascia just wants to help us carry out life as we know it. If we move often through large, functional ranges of motion, meaning squatting frequently, crawling around to do household tasks, lifting things, twisting, hanging, lying on the floor, reaching over head, carrying items, walking long distances, and crouching over to prepare food or garden, we will likely be maintaining a decent level of mobility. Imagine life without a counter top, couch or dining room table. Imagine what our feet might look like if we didn’t have an inch (or more) of padding under our shoes, or dress clothes. Imagine lying on the floor after a day of desk work.
When life changes, our bodies change. When we stop wearing shoes that squish or pad our feet, our feet actually change. If our mobility is poor, meaning bending over, squatting, crouching, twisting, or reaching are difficult our bodies can’t move, and we will naturally begin to move less and less. If we constantly wiggle our toes, or sit on the floor, we will be able to wiggle our toes and sit on the floor.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this part of the article is for the stiff people out there. Mobility is something we have to maintain almost every day, and especially as we age.
Strength science has told us time and time again that full range of motion exercise is more effective than short range exercise, for development of both strength and size. In my own teaching, I can understand how moving through a short range could be beneficial for someone who is coming back from an injury, or dealing with significant instability. For the rest of us, working through a full range of motion is essential for the maintenance of our functional range.
Loading a position reinforces it, when we practice something repeatedly we create a “groove” or movement habit which is partly neurological. As well as what happens neurologically, we develop fascia and tissue that can either move well like an elastic or restrict our movement like a tight pair of pants.
If we train in a partial range of motion, or simply move day-to-day in a partial range, it can start to feel like we are wearing really tight clothing all the time, except the clothing is part of us. The tighter our tissues feel, the less we can move, and in most cases the less we will move. Breaking this pattern (especially later in life) requires significant determination. The less mobility we have, the more we have to modify our routines, and life in the modern world.
There are other reasons as to why we might feel stiff or tight. The central nervous system has the ability to stiffen our bodies, usually based on a protective mechanism. In his article, The Central Nervous System, Todd Hargrove spells out some pretty basic and important points…
“ For example, if your shoulder is in pain, uncoordinated, and poorly stabilized by its surrounding muscles, it is likely to buckle and experience injury if you try to press a heavy weight overhead. The CNS knows this and simply will not allow the strength to perform the dangerous movement. If on the other hand the shoulder is very stable, coordinated and pain free, the CNS will be “convinced” that it can handle the force, and will allow the contraction necessary to accomplish it. So you can increase strength by coordinating the joints, reducing pain, and reducing the overall threat level related to movement.”
I take a couple things away from this point. On the one hand, if we want our joints to be more functional, we have to create a coordinated environment, where musculature and neurological grooving are balanced. We can do that with strength training, in a mindful way. On the other hand, strength training can be a great diagnostic tool to assess if our joints are coordinated and balanced with tension and mobility. If we can’t do a certain movement, something is out of whack, and needs a little bit of support. If we can’t press weight over head, something needs some work, but of course we will never know this if we never try to lift something.
Let’s get back to mobility and why we might be moving the way we are. As well as the nervous system controlling our movement, stress levels and emotional patterns can have an equal effect on our bodies and how they move. Emotional stress can effect the way we hold our bodies, and at the end of they day, we really just adapt to what we do and feel.
Strength training that is balanced and in a full range of motion will not make us feel stiff, it will leave us feeling mobile and springy. If we squat to a full range, and press weight up over our heads, we are practicing functional full range of motion. Strength training makes us stiff when we train in a partial range.
If we have excessive ranges of motion, practicing in the functional range might actually stiffen us up a little bit, which is actually be helpful for daily life. This is for the yogis and dancers who are following along. If we have excessive range that we know isn’t going to go away, think about strength training very carefully in the full range. Rather than being fearful of certain positions, create tension and stability in them.
For the people who are actively looking to gain mobility to do some trick or skill, consider strength training in that deeper range. An example is the splits. On the one hand we could slide out into the splits and just be completely passive, hoping our hamstrings don’t give out. On the other hand, if we were really serious about doing the splits, we could train our bodies to be strong and build more tension in that particular range of motion. Rather than thinking about relaxing into ranges, imagine contracting to go into ranges.
Movement, training and life have to go hand in hand. In my classes I sometimes teach a squatting movement, sitting on the floor and standing up. This simple, functional task surprises people more than any other movement I teach. As we get older, imagine moving in a way that keeps us younger. Not the anti-aging wrinkle free type of younger, but the getting down on the floor to play with your puppy, and not needing a hand to get off the toilet seat younger.
Strength training should make us more functional and mobile, it shouldn’t prevent us from moving well. It should also bring us closer to embodiment, and bring a nice, elastic like tension back into our bodies. At the end of the day training should support us mainly within the other 22 hours we aren’t in the gym.