Desk workers, daily car commuters, and frequent air travelers accumulate massive hours in a seated position cramping their bodies, crimping their performance, and crippling their long-term health. Sitting long hours leads to neck pain, shoulder pain, and back pain. With your body compromised, the chance of injury during normal daily activities skyrockets. Playing with kids. Running a few miles. Exercising with friends. They’re all less likely to lead to injury if your body is not only strong but lithely like a lion.
This is a prescription for prehab for common issues for Desk Workers and Car and Air Travel Jockeys. Americans tend to invest in strength and cardio at the expense of flexibility. After performing this Mobility habit for a few weeks, you may want to flip that investment style. Increasing flexibility is challenging in the moment of the stretch. That challenge pays off immediately after your mobility session. You’ll feel like your body has exited a human car wash with masseuses scrubbing, kneading, and stretching your body back into form. However, there is no masseuse. It’s only you treating your body well with the knowledge gained here.Story
My body felt like it was squeezed into vise-grip plastic wrap with cement casts on my joints. Everything felt tight, sore, and achy. My ankles. My hamstrings. My lower back. My shoulders. My traps. Everything. I was three years into my CrossFit journey and my body had had enough. I wanted to keep training, but my body wouldn’t survive training at this pace for another five years.
Enter Mobility. I’d attended a class a few times, but spending an hour on stretching just didn’t feel right to my ‘exercise-is-weightlifting-or-cardio-mind’. Then, I injured my shoulder. I hurt it while performing what seemed like a relatively normal workout by CrossFit standards. While the workout was normal, my shoulder was not. Most of us IT workers have three main issues: tight hips, weak core, and lower back, and weak rear shoulders. Sitting hunched over a laptop all day will do that to you.
I solved my shoulder issue with a physical therapist, who stretched me and scraped me. She asked, “Can I scrape your lats?” When I agreed to her nonchalant request, I had no idea that Graston technique scraping would leave me bruised worse than any kickboxing fight. However, when showering afterwards I was amazed at the result. “Woah! My lats are loose. They’re like jelly. They haven’t been like this, since…ever!” I now had loose back muscles to reduce the pulldown on my shoulder area.
Most importantly, she taught me how to stand properly with shoulder blades retracted and how to increase rear shoulder strength with very light weight exercises. Sometimes this meant exercising with 2.5 lb weights. I felt like a baby holding these “girly-man” weights. When the therapist asked me to retract my shoulder blades while working at my standing desk, I cringed and said, “I can barely hold my shoulder blades back for ten seconds.” She also walked me around our CrossFit and showed me all the athletes at our gym with weak shoulder structure. This is a common problem from office workers to athletes and everyone in between.
As my little rear shoulder muscles strengthened I realized how much better I felt. My workouts were easier. My confidence was soaring from standing tall with shoulder blades back for hours. I felt more energetic after a long day of work. I wanted the same feeling for the rest of my body.
So I bought the Supple Leopard. It’s a book. Seriously. Each day on vacation while my family mocked me experimenting with bands, balls, and bends, I learned new methods for unlocking my tight tissues. After a week I had a new toolbox of techniques to keep my body loose and resilient for the rest of my life. I could spend as little as two minutes for one stretch or fifteen minutes to mobilize the whole body either at the gym or in front of the TV. As you’ll see in the pictures below I still have a long way to go with improving my flexibility, but I’m on the path and it feels great!
- Less injuries – Stretching increases blood flow and nutrient supply to muscles and reduces soreness after workouts. A regular mobility routine can help improve posture and loosen tight tissues that lead to injuries. Increasing your range of motion is your best insurance plan against injury. Looser tissues translates to higher resiliency against injury when moving quickly and dynamically in sports, exercise, or the random unexpected events of daily life.
- Higher confidence – As your body loosens and posture improves, you feel like a million bucks. The time you invest in your body pays dividends all day long for life. With improved flexibility everything feels easier, even walking and sitting down. Your body feels newer. Your movements are smoother. Your confidence soars.
- Feel more energetic – As your body tightens with age, everything gets harder. Walking, running, jumping, sitting are all restricted by tight tissues. You walk through life with a weight vest on your chest and cement cinder blocks plastered around your ankles. You may not realize that tight tissues are weighing you down because like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, it happens gradually. The best test to find out is to try a stretching routine like the one below for a month. You will quickly pull yourself out of the boiling water and feel like the weight of the world has been lifted from your shoulders. With more nutrients, quicker recovery, and looser tissue, you may feel energy overflowing compared to your pre-mobilized self.
- Feel younger – You were born loose and lithe and die rough and rigid. Anything that takes you back to that newborn flexible state makes you feel a little younger. I picture the flexibility of men and women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s performing Tai Chi movements gracefully in nature to start their day and think, “They can’t be that old.” What gives them that youthful look and feel? Flexibility and graceful movement aren’t what you’d expect from someone at that age. You too can feel like you’ve turned back the clock of time with just a little mobility practice.
Mobility Habit for Desk Workers or Travelers
Pick one of these mobility exercises to practice. You can pick a new mobility exercise after a week or two. You can select from either the Desk Worker or Traveler lists depending on what makes sense for you. You’ll likely want to complete the Desk Worker stretches in a private space, but you can do the Traveler stretches anywhere – even on a plane.
For each exercise, spend two minutes on each side performing the exercise unless alternative instructions are noted. It will last longer than you expect, particularly when you’re first getting started. The stretch may make you want to quit. Listen to your body. If it feels like you’re going to injure yourself like a sharp pain or heat, back off or take a break. If it feels slightly uncomfortable, that’s normal. You’re changing your tissues. They’re tight. To create real change in your tissues, you will need to hold the position even when it’s a bit uncomfortable.
Remembers two minutes on each side is the minimum bar. You can go longer, but avoid adding more exercises and completing them in a short period of time. It’s better to complete 1 mobility exercise in 4 minutes than to force 2 into 6 minutes. Less is more.
Mobility Routine #1 – Desk Worker
- Lower Back – Up Dog and Down Dog
- The lower back exercises can be done any time of day, but are an excellent addition to your morning wake-up routine.
- Up Dog and Down Dog – Hold the Up Dog position described below for 30 seconds. Then hold Down Dog for 30 seconds. Repeat 1 time for a total of 2 sets.
- Hold the Cat position described below for 5 seconds. Then hold the Cow position for 5 seconds. Repeat both 4 more times for a total of 5 sets.
- Hips – Couch Stretch
- The Couch Stretch can be done using a couch (i.e. when watching TV), but is shown here using a wall. It can be done early in the morning with the back stretches above or complete the whole sequence at the gym or when you return home from work.
- Hold the Couch Stretch for 2 minutes on each side.
- Chest/Shoulders – Arm External Rotation Stretch
- This stretch can be done any time you have a wall available or with the exercises above in sequence. Most Desk Workers have shoulders that hunch forward. This stretch helps open up your overstressed pec minor area that contributes to that hunch. If you want to randomly stretch during your work day, this is a great exercise to complete multiple times per day.
- Hold the Arm External Rotation Stretch for 2 minutes on each side.
- Start lying face down flat on the floor with your hands under your shoulders, elbows by your sides, and the top of your feet touching the floor.
- Raise your torso off the ground pushing away from the ground with your hands until your hips are off the floor and the top of your feet are the only part of your body touching the floor.
- Modification – Keep your quads on the floor if it’s too difficult when you start.
- Feel the stretch in your lower back and hips while you hold this position.
- Return to the starting position.
- Start on all fours with your butt raised to form the top of the triangle with your hands and feet as the base. Place your heels on the ground in this position. Modification – As you can see in the picture you may need to round your back or bend one leg as noted in the next step.
- Hold this position and then alternate bending one knee down and straightening the opposite leg for 5-10 seconds to feel a stronger stretch in the straight-leg calf and hamstring. Rotate bending each knee back and forth and hold the stretch position for 2 minutes total.
- Start on all fours in a tabletop position with the top of your feet flat on the floor..
- Raise your mid back up slowly and point your head down to feel a stretch in your low and mid-back.
- Return to the starting position.
- Start on all four in the tabletop position with the top of your feet flat on the floor.
- Look up with your head and arch your back to feel a stretch in your hips and lower back.
- Return to the starting position.
- Place your right knee on a towel or pad up against a wall with your shin facing vertically up.
- Step out with your left foot into a lunge position and use your two hands inside your left leg to support yourself.
- From this position raise your upper body up slowly pushing off the floor with your hands or you can grab a chair for support. Let the hip of your right leg on the wall sink into the floor to feel a stretch in your hip and quad.
- Raise up into an upright position squeezing your right glue for stability and place your hands on your left knee to support yourself. Continue to sink your right leg hip into the floor to feel the stretch in your hip and quad.
- Modification – Many people cannot get fully upright initially. Grab a chair or another object to slowly raise yourself up. Work up to fully upright over a few sessions. If you feel sharp pain or heat, back off and relax.
- Repeat on the other side.
Arm External Rotation Stretch
- Stand against a wall with your right palm facing up, right arm straight and parallel with the floor at shoulder height, and right arm touching the wall from your shoulder to fingertips.
- Rotate away from the wall to the left to feel a stretch in your right pec and shoulder.
- Repeat on the other side.
Mobility Routine #2 – Traveler
- These are less intense versions of the stretches above that can be done almost anywhere.
- Hips – Standing Couch Stretch
- Hold the stretch for 2 minutes on each side.
- Lower Back – Standing Hyperextension
- Perform this stretch for 15 seconds 4 times for a total of 1 minute.
- Chest/Shoulders – Hands Behind Back Stretch
- Perform this stretch for 2 minutes.
Hips – Standing Couch Stretch
- Stand facing a wall and place your left arm against the wall for balance.
- Raise your right foot towards your butt and reach back with your right arm to grab the instep of your right foot.
- Keep your knees close together as you push your right hip forward and pull back gently on your right foot with your right hand to feel a stretch in your hip and quad.
- Repeat on the other side.
Lower Back – Standing Hyperextension
- Stand upright with knees bent slightly for balance and your hands on your lower back for support.
- Lean back as you look up and backward to feel a stretch in your lower back.
- Hold this position for 15 seconds and repeat 4 times.
- If you feel dizzy or off balance at any point, stop the stretch and relax.
Chest/Shoulders – Hands Behind Back Stretch
- Interlace your fingers behind your back at or below your hips.
- Slowly raise your hands up vertically, roll your shoulders back, and push your chest out to feel a stretch in your shoulders and chest.
- Not enough time – Lack of time really means this isn’t a priority for you. If you’re achy, stiff, or have poor posture, make mobility a higher priority and your future self will thank you. With most health programs, time would be a major factor. With habits on this site, that’s rarely the case. Four minutes a day or even every other day for one mobility exercise is enough to get started. As you notice your body feeling better, you may want to do more. If you watch TV you don’t even need to find four minutes a day. Stretch while you watch.
- Lack of knowledge – You don’t need to be a professional to get started. You’re now a scientist performing an experiment on your body every day to try to make it a little more flexible. Each day you’ll learn a little more about the techniques offered here and how your body responds to them. Go deeper in your stretches as you become more comfortable in the position and your range of motion increases. Back off whenever you feel sharp pain. Consult a physical therapist if you have a significant issue.
- Existing injuries – If you have an injury that’s causing you problems, I strongly encourage seeing a professional. If you’ve already seen one and it hasn’t helped, ask your social network or a trusted medical professional for a referral for a second opinion. The right physical therapist can guide you towards reconstructing your body in ways you couldn’t believe. If you’ve never worked with a good therapist, you just won’t understand until you do. It’s your life. It’s your body. Treat it well. Find an expert to help you put your body back together.
- Priority is strength or cardio – If you want to skip the mobility for cardio and strength for a while, I understand. I’ve been there. Maybe, you’ll get lucky and you’ll realize that flexibility is just as important before a major injury. Maybe not. Your strength and cardio will improve after a few months of mobility practice, so you can work on flexibility and still improve these primary focus areas. You won’t believe it until you experience it. Your lifts will get easier. Your running and recovery will be faster. You will feel like a million bucks.
Use the situations below as cues to perform this habit. Select just one or two. Remember that habits form more easily when you perform them at the same time and place each day. Use consistent triggers for your new habit.
- After workout
- Watching TV
- Airport – Waiting to board
- Airplane – Waiting for rest room
- Airplane – Set a timer for every hour you’re awake to stretch for 5 minutes
- Highway Rest Stop
- Waking Up
- Book – How to Become a Supple Leopard
- Website – Mobility WOD
- Physical Therapist – If you have a specific issue, ask your doctor for a referral. Ask your friends for recommendations. Ask me if you’re looking for someone in Chester County, PA.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it. – Lao Tzu
Stretch more and you’ll be irresistible. Think of gymnasts, yogis, and martial artists. Their magnetic twirls, bends, and kicks look otherworldly to stiff souls like us. That may be intimidating. It can be inspiring. Choose your perspective. When I see that level of malleable man, I imagine the rigidity of a dead man and the unmatched limberness of a baby. Every day you stretch turn back the clock of time just a little towards the baby. What are you going to do? I’m going to stretch and feel a little younger.