Dr. Kelly Starrett is a CrossFit trainer, physical therapist, speaker, and the bestselling author of Becoming a Supple Leopard. He is also the co-founder of The Ready State.
Do you hate stretching? Me too. I honestly used to tell my track coach that I was “pre-stretched.” Stretching never made me feel better — or faster, for that matter. I never remembered having to “activate my glutes” or perform a bunch of “movement prep” when my friends and I would destroy the monkey bars, or play football, or ride our mountain bikes. I was a good athlete because I was explosive and springy. Why would I want to “stretch” my springiness? (Yes, that is a word.) Well, it turns out that the research actually supports the lack of any connection between stretching and pretty much anything awesome. So go ahead, feel vindicated for a moment. Spartans are ready for anything, anytime! Are you with me?
So let’s just take a minute and talk about why your shoulder hurts. Or your knee, or feet, or back ... It certainly isn’t from lack of NOT stretching. So what gives?
Let’s pump the breaks for a second, define our terms, and talk about what really does matter: POSITION.
Why Position Matters
I have run a gym, San Francisco CrossFit, with my wife for over 15 years. I’m also a physical therapist and run — also with my wife — a digital company called The Ready State, where we offer many tools and strategies to help people improve pain, prevent injury, and improve performance. Over the last decade and a half, we have seen active people become quite sophisticated in nearly all modes of training. We are faster, are more knowledgeable about nutrition and energy, and are comfortable with kettlebells and barbells. We regularly see people performing exercises in their garage gyms that would have only been seen in Olympic training halls just a few decades ago.
With all of the advancements in training technology, shouldn’t we be having fewer musculoskeletal aches and pains? Yes. And have you noticed what is missing from all of the forward progress in training the human body? The answer: range of motion.
What Is Mobility, Anyway?
If you’ve been around fitness for a minute, you know that the word "mobility" has supplanted the word "stretching" as the least clear description of what we should be doing to take care of ourselves. At The Ready State, we’ve defined mobility as having the skill to move well, and also the range of motion to do so. Mobility is as much skill as it is having the tissue “capacities” to express that movement. If half of this sounds like every coach you’ve ever had teaching you to point your toes, drive your head through, and keep your knees out, then you have already been a student of the skill part of the mobility equation.
All of that skill coaching is the best expression of your human physiology. Do you think the ancient Spartans just handed out shields and swords and said "Good luck?” Of course not! Humans have been obsessed with going heavy and fast for as long as there have been humans! For example, skill is the formalized expression of what the shoulder is supposed to do to generate peak force while throwing a spear. Make no mistake: Better expressions of joint congruence and tissue mechanics beget better functional outcomes.
The second half of the mobility equation is soft-tissue range of motion. The reason you may not be able to easily run down a hill at full power, or swing a leg over that wall, may not have anything to do with technique or will. It is likely that you simply cannot use the full potential of your ankles, shoulders, and hips. Discovering how you may be missing these native capacities can be a wonderful intellectual pursuit, but it does not change the fact that your ankles are like blocks of concrete, and your hips don’t lie.
My favorite test of positional righteousness (and range of motion) in Spartan races is the tire flip. We regularly witness strong, fast, capable people struggle with this obstacle. Is the tire really that heavy? No, it’s not. But it is very difficult to hinge all the way over, with full range of motion, and pick that thing up. The Spartan staff chose that obstacle precisely because they wanted to expose your limited range of motion.
An athlete like Hunter McIntyre is so successful because he is fast, strong, and mobile. When he is fatigued, he is still able to easily access his full power in his full range of motion.
Where to Start With a Mobility Practice
The easiest way to improve your range of motion is to begin working on your soft tissues. You probably have an underused roller and a lacrosse ball lying around the house somewhere, and that’s all you need to get started. Later, once this part becomes a regular habit, we can have the next conversation.
Tip #1: There are no days off.
We are either training or getting ready to train. You always have 10 minutes a day to work on a problem area.
Tip #2: All it takes is 10 minutes.
You can make massive progress working on your soft tissues and position in only 10 minutes a day.
Tip #3: Normal tissues don’t hurt when you compress them.
If you put a ball or a roller under your calf and vomit, you have found a system that needs input.
Tip #4: Normal tissues don’t feel like beef jerky.
Oh, and you can’t stretch beef jerky. You are going to need a different set of tools besides feeling tension in those hamstrings for 15 seconds.
Tip #5: You don’t own a tissue or position unless you can breathe while mobilizing that tissue or holding that position.
Going from breath hold to breath hold will get you beat on the course, although it is important in some of the water obstacles.
Tip #6: Test and re-test.
If you can’t feel or see change, you didn’t make change. Prove to yourself every time that you have changed the way your body moves and feels.
Tip #7: Your range of motion is a living, breathing, moving target.
We need to appreciate that we can lose our ability to move freely. Keep an eye on your tissues by going to look for problems. Your quads may not hurt reading this, but you may be surprised to learn how stiff they really are.
Tip #8: Save your basic soft tissue mobilization for the last hour before you go to bed.
There is nothing really exciting happening at this time. So, keep your roller and mobility tools near the couch and change your philosophy from "Netflix and Chill" to "Netflix and Mobilize." You will sleep better and fall asleep more quickly. You also have the day’s experiences to tell you what hurts or feels stiff. Serve those needs first.
Tip #9: Don’t attempt to fix, repair, recover, or optimize your whole body at once.
Mobilising isn’t a second job, hobby, or side hustle. Work on one area or shape today for a reasonable amount of time. You can get the rest tomorrow.
Tip #10: Your tissue quality is a direct function of your sleep, nutrition, stress, warm-up, cool down, genetics, and movement quality.
Yes, they are all that important. Control what you can control today. No one ever gets a perfect “life” score, nor do you need to. But, if you chug a bunch of Bud Light, smash a whole pizza, and pull an all-night Netflix binge, make a note of how you feel the next day. Interesting experiments in self-awareness are right at your fingertips.
Maintaining your mobility is ultimately going to feel a little like flossing your teeth. You KNOW you should do it, and you just have to create a habit around it. When you show up at the dentist's office for your check-up — a Spartan race is like a whole-body check-up — be prepared to show off that minty-fresh, full-hip range of motion and ace that sucker.