When people think of being stiff they automatically think of it being a negative aspect to your health and performance. We see it all the time at Driven with athletes and adults who come in feeling tight and feel the need to foam roll and stretch every inch of their body. While we are not saying that either modalities are bad or that you shouldn’t do them we think it is important to shine a light on how being stiff in the appropriate places is actually an important aspect to quality human movement.
We can help explore this concept of stiffness a bit better when we think of it in the context of a training session. When clients go through a warm-up at Driven they are actually applying the principles that some properties of the human body need to be stiff while others need to be mobile. In order to get the most out of these principles we need to understand which joints need what and then what to look for when applying warm-up exercises.
The first principle of stiffness that needs to be understood to create a safe and effective warm-up is that the stiffness in one area impacts compensatory movement at an adjacent area of the body. This means that as one area applies stiffness it affects another area of the body by its ability to be mobile or stabile.
For instance, a client that has numerous ankle sprains over the years may have lost mobility in that joint which then impacts the mobility of the knee joint. The inability of the ankle to be mobile now negatively affects the knee joint to be stable. When clients ignore this they can start to notice knee pain or hip pain and may start to wonder what they did to that specific part of their body.
The real underlying issue is that the bad stiffness in the ankle has taken away the good stiffness of the knee. The ankle, being unable to go through the necessary range of motion to perform a safe squat, now forces the knee to do its job. Hence, when a client repeats these process dozens or hundreds of time we see joint breakdown. And, they usually have not made progress in their fitness!
Another example is the need to have good stiffness in our lumbar spine that will prevent low-back pain, disc herniations or degeneration over the course of time. A common exercise that many clients go through is the plank in hopes to prevent just that. Unfortunately, a plank done wrong does not help anyone to create a strong and stable low back. Instead, what we see many times are planks that are held for far too long where the client fatigues through the low-back. The core, being unable to stay stiff, now creates excessive hyper-extension from the low-back.
At the same time if we have bad hip stiffness this will not allow our body to go through full ranges of motion from a squat or lunge pattern. Many athletes and adults think that there is a certain depth or exact way you need to squat so that it is “official.” However, the goal should never be to squat to a certain depth because that is what you think you have to do. Your bodies limitations will determine how low you should go and not some coach. As you work through hip mobility drills you will notice that you are then able to squat through a fuller range of motion.
You may be wondering why does all of this matter? Well, the truth is if you have a poor squat pattern using 135 pounds than it will only continue to look poor or worse at 225 pounds. The idea that movements just magically get better because you are moving more is a very dangerous misconception to exercise prescription for any athlete or adult. However, that is what is usually expected from athletes and adults who engage in fitness or training programs.
Most warm-ups and training modalities completely ignore the concept of good vs. bad stiffness because it is easier to get people sweating than it is to get people to move well. The assumption is that if we get people sweating than everything else is going to be okay. The unfortunate truth is that body temperature is the easiest part of a warm-up, the real value is that we are moving our joints properly and creating stiffness where it needs to be and mobility elsewhere.
After doing this THEN you can use the exercise component to cement good movement pattern.
Let’s use another example of an individual who is trying to get their arms overhead. Take a mom who is constantly reaching up to put things away, or a dad who is a contractor or a baseball player who is trying to throw hard… all three populations need appropriate mobility to extend their arms overhead. Unfortunately if these people have stiffness in their upper backs due to poor posture this will make them compensate through this movement. The impact then trickles down to their low-back because they need to hyperextend to get through the full range of motion.
So what started off as a simple movement of reaching your arms up over your heads now turns into a pattern that can wear down your shoulder joint or low-back.
When you insert fatigue into the equation things can become even more pronounced. For someone who doesn’t have any core control and you ask them to do push-ups you can see them hyperextend through their low-back or have their shoulders dive forward with every repetition. There inability to remain stiff only has gotten worse when they fatigue through a training session. Now, instead of gaining upper body strength, core stability and great movement through their shoulder they just negatively impacted their body with excessive poor repetitions.
Insert this example in real life and you have an individual who doesn’t have the foundational stability, mobility or strength to remain healthy for the long-term. And if we aren’t training for life and the long-term than what are we training for?
The take home message is that we don’t need to stretch every part of the body. Athletes and adults have asked me dozens of times what they can do to stretch their low-backs… and my answer is always mobilize your hips, get your core to function properly, go through full breathing patterns and then we can revisit your low-back tightness.
When you understand functional anatomy and the joint-by-joint structure it is then your job to apply it to a training program that makes sense and that keeps people healthy. For the moms, dads, coaches reading this article I hope you gained a greater appreciation on how important quality movement is and how body temperature is NOT the marker for an effective warm-up.
Apply these stiffness principles to your training and warm-up and you will have much more success in your training and you will notice the difference in how well you feel and how much better you move.