By Michael Easter
Halfway through my first test, I know I’m screwed. It sounded simple enough: Stand with my toes 13cm from a wall and touch the wall with my knee. “But don’t lift your heel. Keep your foot glued to the floor,” instructs physical therapist and performance enhancement specialist Mike Reinold. He watches closely as I struggle to push my knee past my toes. “That’s a fail.”
It’s the first of many. I’ve travelled to Mike’s clinic after years of frustrations at the gym – being unable to sink into a deep squat, do a deadlift with perfect form or press a weight directly overhead. But I didn’t realise how twisted I had become. By the end of my assessment, I no longer feel like a fit 27-year-old; I feel positively geriatric. “You’re totally messed up,” Mike confirms. “But that just makes you normal. Everyone has mobility issues – even pro athletes.”
If you have a desk job, favour one arm or leg over the other, or regularly let your posture slip, odds are you’re contorted as well. “Our bodies adapt to the positions they’re in the most,” says Mike. And the price of that learned immobility extends beyond poor lifting performance.
“When you’re limited in one area, another picks up the slack, increasing your risk of injury,” he says. “But the good news is that there isn’t a problem we can’t fix, and as you restore mobility, you’ll unlock greater strength.”
That makes the tests you’re about to discover true game changers. Run through them before your next workout, paying attention to where you fall short, and then weave the fixes into your daily routine. The few extra minutes you spend at the gym will pay off in a lifetime of less pain, greater flexibility and significantly more muscle.
Test 1: ANKLE MOBILITY
“If your ankles can’t flex adequately when you squat, deadlift or lunge, you’re going to compensate by leaning forward,” says Mike. That puts you in an unstable position that not only saps your strength and power but also strains your spine – and increases your risk of injury.
Assess yourself Assume a lunge position with both knees bent 90 degrees and the big toe of your forward foot 13cm from a wall. Try to touch your knee to the wall. (Your knee should move over the outside of your foot, above your fourth toe.) Repeat with the other knee. You pass if you can touch both knees to the wall without raising your front heel.
Fix it Do a modified version of the test at least once a day: Assume a lunge position, right foot forward, knees bent 90 degrees. Hold a dowel rod or massage stick vertically in front of the third toe of your right foot. Without lifting your right heel, drive your knee to the right of the stick as far as you can. Return to the starting position. Do 10 reps, switch legs and repeat, driving your left knee to the left of the stick.
Test 2: PELVIC TILT
Excessive sitting shortens your hip flexors, pulling your hips forward. That hyperextends your back and weakens your core. “Tight hips are the main cause of back pain,” says Mike. Such instability can also make your knees “cave in” during squats, setting you up for ACL tears.
Assess yourself Lie on your back on a picnic table with your butt at its edge. Bring your knees to your chest, hugging them with your arms. Release and slowly lower one leg as far as you can. Return it to your chest, and repeat with the other leg. If you’re able to bring each thigh below parallel to the table without arching your back, you pass.
Fix it Assume a lunge position with your right leg forward and both knees bent 90 degrees. Place your hands on your right thigh and push down to activate your core. Then place your hands behind your hips. Flex your glutes as you push your hips forward and down, feeling the stretch in your left hip. Hold for 5 seconds, and return to the starting position. That’s 1 rep. Do 5 reps, switch legs and repeat.
Test 3: HAMSTRING FLEXIBILITY
“Tight hamstrings prevent you from pushing your butt backwards – the all-important ‘hip hinge’ movement that allows you to keep your back in a safe, neutral position during moves like the deadlift, squat and kettle-bell swing,” says Mike. If you can’t hinge with your hips, you’re going to bend at the waist, increasing the strain on your spine. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” he warns.
Assess yourself Stand tall with your feet together and arms by your sides. Slowly reach for your toes, keeping your arms straight as you lower your torso. You pass if you can touch your toes without bending your knees or rounding your back.
Fix it Place a dowel or rod against your spine, holding each end so it touches your head, the middle of your back and your tailbone. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart. With the dowel in contact with all three points, hinge forward, pushing your hips back as if you’re closing a door. Pause for 2 seconds when you can’t go farther without rounding your back. Return to the starting position. Do 10 reps.
Test 4: SHOULDER RANGE OF MOTION
“We’re always focused on what’s in front of us – computers, smartphones, TVs – which leads to slumping,” says Mike. That causes the muscles around your shoulders and spine to tighten. “Then when you do overhead lifts and presses, you compensate to get your arms vertical,” he says. “You shift the load to delicate areas of your shoulders, or you lean back, increasing the stress on your spine.”
Assess yourself Stand with your head, shoulders and lower back flat against a wall, heels 20cm away. Keeping your arms straight, try to touch the wall above your head with your thumbs. You pass if you don’t arch your back or bend your arms.
Fix it Grab a tennis ball and place it between your right shoulder blade and a wall. Move around to massage the muscles below your armpit. When you find a tender spot, move your arm up and down 2 or 3 times. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on your left shoulder blade. When you’re done, foam-roll both areas on the floor for 30 more seconds.
Secret Mobility Saboteurs
Being a desk jockey isn’t the only way to become a working stiff. Here are four more ways you lock your body into position.
1. You Favour One Leg
“Most people always place their weight on the same leg when they stand, and their hips adapt to that rotated position,” says physical therapist Mike Reinold. So mix it up: “When you stand for extended periods, regularly alternate the leg you lean on,” he says. The same goes for crossing your legs. Don’t always have the same one on top.
2. You Drive Crooked
Odds are you don’t sit with your back straight and your hands at 10 and 2 o’clock. “People tend to settle into the same position behind the wheel, steering with one hand and leaning to the opposite side,” says Mike. “The next time you’re driving, regularly change your body position. It might feel awkward, but that’s exactly why you need to do it.”
3. You Wear Heels
They may not be as high as your wife’s, but the heels on your dress shoes can impact ankle mobility. “They flex your feet forward, and eventually your ankles lose the ability to bend the other way,” says Mike. The solution: Take your shoes off regularly during the day. “Having your heels on the floor helps restore range of motion.”
4. You Tilt Your Head
“A lot of people tilt their head to one side without even realising it,” says Mike. “They’re usually office workers, and it’s because their computer monitor is slightly angled.” To avoid this, adjust the top of your monitor so it’s at eye level. Then download a level app to your smartphone and use it to make sure your screen