Stiff doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I was more lopsided than the guy that never showed up for leg day once in his life (you know what I’m talking about).
How did I get like this?
For the better part of five years of serious training, I completely ignored my flexibility.
At best, it was an afterthought. A little half-hearted yoga every few weeks, prompted only out of necessity when the pain of stiffness became too much to bear.
I hope that when you see the pictures below you’ll realize that I am by no means naturally flexible. I’ve had to work very hard to unlock the mobility I’ve achieved.
Think you could never be flexible? So did I, until I focused relentlessly on it
If you’re thinking that you could never be flexible, you’re probably right… if you never do the work.
Flexibility is something you have to train and work at, just like anything else.
For years I sat for 8-10 hours a day at work, followed by lots of maximal strength work. To make matters worse, a lot of this strength work was on isometric holds for gymnastics. Lsits, tuck front levers, crow holds, basically lots of static holds.
What do all of these things have in common?
If you guessed creating tension, then ding-ding-ding, you are the winner. Unfortunately I wasn’t as smart as you. I kept up this kind of training long enough to make me stiffer than the stick up Dick Cheney’s ass.
Being able to produce tension in the body is very important, so let’s not go on some tirade to demonize tension. Without any tension in the body, we’d be nothing more than a pile of goo.
We want the ability to create tension when we need it, and release it when we don’t.
Because I got so out of balance, I needed a prolonged period of focusing much more on mobility than strength.
Even though I’m still working on repaying the debt I incurred from all the years of missing my payments, I’m definitely getting closer to an equilibrium of mobility and strength.
Here’s some more of the progress I’ve made in the last 10 months:
The reality of “lucky” success: 276 days of hard work
It might be very easy to look at my progress and think that I had some magic formula or that I unlocked some secret flexibility key in my mitochondria. Most people don’t want to believe that it’s just following a smart approach combined with lots of dumb, hard work.
I can hear the naysayers now: “But isn’t flexibility work supposed to be all about ease and relaxation, not hard work?”
Yes, that is true, to a degree. Relaxation is a skill and flexibility is improved by it. But part of moving into a new (or old) range of motion comes with some pretty intense, albeit temporary, discomfort. (If you’ve ever done yoga you definitely know what I’m talking about.)
On my path I’ve mad a ton of mistakes, but I’ve also learned a good deal. Hopefully you can get some value out of a few of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
1. Experiment with volume and intensity.
There were a lot of times I did too much and end up pulling a muscle or overstraining my soft tissue. After that I would back off a bit too much and overcorrect. This helped me recover, but I got too tentative and my progress stalled.
Finding the right balance of pushing just beyond my abilities, but not too much was a process of trial and error I had to go through.
2. Control, control, control.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that your body does not like letting you do anything it doesn’t perceive you have full control over. The more I just went through the motions or mentally checked out, the less progress I made.
The more I fully embodied, breathed into and consciously controlled each stretch, the more results I experienced.
3. Breathe, smile and relax, even if it feels totally fucking fake.
Again, I’m not a scientist but it doesn’t take more than common sense to realize that if your face is grimacing in pain it’s not exactly a comforting sign for your body.
The cool thing is that your body doesn’t know if you’re full of shit or not, so why not fake a smile, breathe and try to relax? You’ll be sending a signal to your body that this movement is safe, and your brain will give your nervous system the green light.
4. Care as much about the beginning and end as the middle.
I think this mistake is a really common, easy one to make. We stop going through the motions during the stretch, but when it’s over we just want to get out of it already and we sloppily finish.
Make sure that the way you enter and exit the stretch is done with the same quality and attention as the stretch itself. Doing so has an added benefit, you’ll be able to wield more control over the range of motion and make it much more useful in actual practice.
5. Build strength while you stretch
You may or may not know this already, but there’s a huge difference between passive and active flexibility. There’s also a big difference between being strong in a stretched position and being relatively fragile.
For instance, if you only work on the side splits with your arms out in front to support you, you’ll develop a relatively weak range of motion. Sure, you can get into the splits, but you can’t actively hold your bodyweight up if you’re suspending yourself like a badass:
Of course, the next level to this is being able to actively lift your leg up into the splits while standing. Loaded stretching like the suspensions splits is still relying on an external force (the weight of your body) to accomplish the task.
Being able to move into a range of motion with nothing more than your intrinsic strength is where the real magic is at. But working on loaded range of motion is a necessary first step.
6. Use what you gain!
This seems obvious, right? But most people will stretch and then just go back to their to-do list or whatever else they have going on.
Maybe you’re smarter than I am, but this is the way I approached my stretching for years.
Remember this: your nervous system is a cognitive miser. If you don’t use the new range of motion, your body sees it as a waste of resources to keep it available.
Our bodies are only programmed to get better at whatever we actually do. In the example of the splits any time I work on them I try to follow it up with some high side kicks and handstands holding a straddle.
This isn’t just contained to really impressive feats of mobility like the splits. The squat is a very functional pattern that most people need to rehab.
So, if you’re working on squat mobility, do your stretches and exercises, then actually use your squat. Go outside and squat in the garden, play around with some ape crawling or just find creative ways to link the squat into other movements.
7. Work on the source of your stiffness.
Of course, this goes without saying but 1o minutes or even an hour of yoga every day is not going to counteract 10 hours of static postures (such as sitting, more sitting, and maybe… sitting?).
The more I started to break up my day with lots of movement (I use pomodoros to help me with this), the more I saw my overall flexibility increase. You don’t want all that hard work stretching to go to waste, do you?
If you want to learn more about improving your mobility at work, read this guide I wrote at GMB on how to counteract sitting all day.
The most valuable thing I did? Incorporating mobility targets
In hindsight (like all smart things I suppose) this seems really obvious. For the longest time though I didn’t do anything to measure my progress with my flexibility.
So, guess what happened? Because it was completely subjective it seemed like I was running (stretching?) in place and getting nowhere.
Here’s an example with the squat:
Not all stretches allow you to use your hands to measure your progress though. For something like the splits it’s useful to use the aid of a yoga block or something else you can measure.
Increasing mobility = increasing freedom
The more range of motion you have, the more access you have to different movement patterns and abilities.
When you’re able to safely control a greater range of motion, you have access to more opportunities and greater freedom of expression with your body.
I used to think that anything that wasn’t helping me build strength was a waste of time. Now that I know why I train — for greater freedom of movement — strength is still important, but mobility is at the top of the list.
But don’t try to work on everything!
You might be thinking, “I’m stiff, so I should just work on everything at once.” This is a very bad idea. How do I know? Because for a long time my stretching program was more bloated and ADD than a teenager on snapchat and redbull — not at all focused and definitely not going anywhere.
When I finally started prioritizing my flexibility goals, what do you know, I finally started seeing results.
The problem is that you might not know where to start. I get it, it can be overwhelming, especially when it feels like every part of you is stiff as a board.
This is why I recommend GMB’s Focused Flexibility program. It helped me get much more targeted with my training and reach my goals much faster.
Of course you can try to do your own assessment and search around on Youtube for hours, but you’re not going to get the quality you would investing a few bucks into a quality program.
If you’re tired of being confused and not seeing any results, this is the way to go. Without it I’d still be chasing my tail and ending up frustrated.
Full disclosure: If you click on the link above and purchase GMB’s program, I will get a cut. This helps me make more awesome videos and tutorials like this for you. I only promote products I’ve personally used and tested, so you can be sure they’re top notch. Thanks for helping out!