Society has a tendency to excuse personal weaknesses as fixed traits, rather than obstacles that can be overcome with training and the proper approach. We are conditioned to want a quick fix for our problems, whether it be a magic pill, or a magic surgery. Challenges are often interpreted as unfair disadvantages, rather than opportunities that create drastic growth and spur creativity.
We all have amazing power to overcome adversity and grow from it. Yet, there is another side. Sometimes you do need help, and you must be willing to seek it out. It takes humility and brutal honesty. I’ve learned this the hard way more than once when faced with chronic anxiety and ongoing back pain and immobility. Both took years to fix, and both required that I admit personal flaws, overcome pride, and seek out those wiser than myself. While the road has been humbling, I am grateful for these challenges and the empathy they instilled in me.
Strength Coach, Heal Thyself
My job is to understand the body and how it adapts so that I can create positive physical changes for athletes and teams, so they can perform better on the field. With each athlete, I assess and address their needs for strength, power, speed, conditioning, agility, balance, and mobility. In a time where kids sit the majority of their days, mobility needs are fairly ubiquitous, and often offer breakthroughs in other sectors such as agility and power.
With that in mind, my real job is to improve quality of movement. My inability to fix my own problems has been frustrating and a source of silent embarrassment. If I can’t fix myself and get my own 28-year-old body durable and resilient, am I just an imposter pretending to be able to help these kids?
I’m not looking for a pep talk or fishing for compliments. These deep, nagging fears that can sit in the background for many of us.
The Unyielding Oak
The source of my chronic tightness probably stems from early development. I grew up in the Mecca of type A stress. My father, the emergency room doctor and adrenaline junkie, had a high-stress personality that I quickly adopted. I grew up intent to make him proud, and my drive for perfection materialized at a very young age.
My father was great at promoting physical activity. He was a karate black belt, but with an overly developed yang side. He loved sparring and breaking boards, but kata and breath work were tedium at best. He often remarked that no matter how much he stretched, he would not get any more limber; a sentiment I’ve grown to understand deeply. Thus, my mirror neurons were taught to be tight and immobile from my first days. As happens to all strong, unyielding oaks, his body finally broke during a Valentine’s day sparring competition, when he shattered his knee, effectively ending his karate career.
I first injured my low back at age 16. The absence of any concept of technique caught up with me when my football team tested the power clean. Thereafter, my already poor mobility got worse as I learned to compensate and avoid movements that hurt. This pattern repeated itself throughout high school and college, leading to gait and foot strike changes that manifested in a couple bad ankle sprains. By 19, back pain was a part of life, and I began to accept my physical limitations as a badge of honor that I somehow correlated with strength and adulthood.
The chronic anxiety that manifested around this time resulted from a confluence of many factors, one of which was a physiology that inhibited diaphragmatic breathing.
Years of Trial and Error
It was around age 22 that I slowly began working to change everything. I decided after years of the typically unhealthy college lifestyle that I was tired of feeling bad. I began eating better, working out for health rather than just hypertrophy, and sprinkled in some yoga. While this didn’t limber me up much, it did introduce me to meditating, which would eventually help cure my anxiety.
I became very interested in performance training, particularly for athletes. As I studied, it became clear that performance demanded so much more than strength and power. Movement quality was where it was at. As I made this principle foremost in my programs, I also began my quest to cure my own inability to move freely.
I could literally fill volumes with tales of all the methods I’ve tried. It’s been a constant affair of trial and error, mostly error. A partial list of my adventures includes:
- Consistent static stretching
- Obsessively following the Supple Leopard and Mobility Project
- Dabbling with Original Strength resets
- Somatic exercises
- Controlled articular rotations to retrain the nervous system
- The Happy Body system of Jerzy Gregorik
- 5-minute Flows a la Max Shank
- GMB stretching programs
I watched all of these methods produce success with a number of my athletes, while not really making a dent on myself. At times I’d burn out, and go back to just lifting hard. These periods usually culminated in me hurting my back worse. Once, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t move. I eventually rolled myself out of bed and went to a chiropractor, who gave me a brace and told me not to work out for a week.
I hurt myself stretching quite a few times. My back seems to hate when I stretch it. One time I convinced myself I could override my stretch reflex and radically change my body in one day (brilliant!). I read a book in a pigeon stretch for 45 minutes, and did so much damage to my piriformis that I couldn’t do hip-dominant or hinging movements for four months.
Time to Take My Own Medicine
After years of this ebb and flow (mostly ebb, very little flow), I finally came across a few habits that, while they haven’t cured me, at least left me able to work out without being injured. For the last year, I’ve committed to a standing desk and starting each morning with a five-minute flow. More recently, I’ve found relief by incorporating Original Strength resets a few times each day. In particular, diaphragmatic breathing seems to unlock my back and eliminate some pain.
Still, as I prepared for my RKC Level 1, I was nervous about how mobility limitations and compensations might affect me. I have often echoed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to my sport coaches:
“The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods ignoring principles is sure to have trouble.”
While I have a good grasp of many methods, perhaps I would have been successful if I’d understood the principles deeply enough to execute them better. Regardless, I knew that I needed to heed my own advice and invest in better movement and lifestyle.
Five Minutes With an Expert
The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) has become the industry standard in sports performance mobility corrections. I’ve watched practitioners demonstrate exercises with inflated balls and balloons, but rather than repeating my pattern of awkwardly stumbling through exercises and hoping I was doing the right things, I made an appointment with a professional PRI specialist.
I showed up for my appointment excited. My physical therapist greeted me with a smile, and quickly proceeded to blow me away with the depth of her knowledge. While she conducted her assessment, she explained with a skeletal model what was going on. After a mere five-minute assessment, she could tell me all the places I was probably having pain, and why all the stretching in the world did not have a chance of working.
Kelly Starrett has always preached that if your posture is bad, all your corrections don’t have a chance. It’s like continuously inflating a tire with a hole in it. My condition was a prime example of this. Everything about me was stuck in extreme extension. I had been trying to address thoracic mobility with the typical extension-based fixes, and stretching hamstrings and ankles that were already living in a stretched position.
After the appointment, I had a lot to think about. I was humbled that I was not even smart enough to realize how little I know. This stuff is complicated, which flies in the face of my usual assertion that we are overcomplicating things and need to just do the simple things better.
Occasionally, it really is that complicated, and you need help.
More importantly, I had been given a prescription of exercises by an expert who would be able to help me navigate any mistakes or challenges I came across. I had a specialist there to lend her experience and unbiased opinion. Even more, whether it worked or not, for the first time in a while, I would have an actual person supporting me and working towards the same goal. It felt good to not be blindly stumbling alone.
The Opportunity of Pain
I have learned immense lessons through striving towards better mobility. Whether I will ever be able to enjoy free-flowing, beautiful movement, I do not know. But I’m already moving far better than I’d have thought possible two years ago. I’m grateful for the humility of this experience, but even more for the knowledge and understanding that come through any long-term challenge.
I’ve thought many times that my experience with anxiety was the best thing that ever happened to me. At the time, I couldn’t see that, but I learned so much about myself and people from the process. I developed a deep passion for growth and health that has given me a passionate vision for who I want to be and what I want to bring about.
Both my anxiety and back problems have been unique. They exposed me to the weaknesses of my default response to challenges: putting my head down and pushing harder. They’ve required no less grit, but a far more mindful and measured approach.
I can’t express how exciting it is to have a clear idea of what is going on in my specific case, rather than fumbling around with generic mobility fixes. It would have been easy for me to continue the way I had forever—getting by, but in constant pain and feeling restricted from realizing my physical potential. I had almost convinced myself that since I’m a fitness professional, and I can’t fix myself, I’m just broken. I had to overcome some pride and spend a little money (ask my wife, I’m cheap), but these are good things. For this, as every obstacle, I’m sure I’m better for it.