How It Started
Thirty years ago, in my mid thirties, when I experienced my first episode of debilitating back pain, it scared me to the point of fear.
I will never forget simply getting up from the couch and feeling like I had been stabbed in the back, crumbling to the floor in pain. With the passage of time bringing relief, I concluded that it was simply my first exposure to the idiosyncrasies of nerves channeled between the movable bony structures called vertebrae.
“Kill it or cure it” was my plan. How can I train differently so that my body, and especially my back, is uniquely challenged?
Weight training had always been my consuming interest, even though I was never exceptionally strong or athletic. It was a difficult decision to give it up entirely for something else. And yes, it was a vanity issue, to a large degree.
I decided on Shotokan karate.
It would demand of me a completely different mindset and toss me far from my comfort zone. Perfect. You’re thinking that the two disciplines could coexist; weight training and martial arts...
Not in my mind. Not at that point in time.
The first step for me, knowing that high kicks (and all other movements) depended on flexibility that I did not possess, was a dedicated focus on range of motion training; stretching.
I created my own simple routine. Place my favorite record album (about 15 minutes per side in those days) on the turntable and slowly, gently, put the necessary tension on my body to get the results desired. Fifteen minutes every day of constant, even pressure applied to my joints, diligently over time, got my hips, knees, and feet where they needed to be.
And thirty years later, with little effort, most of what I accomplished then from stretching still remains today. Of course I have minor pains in a few joints and I have the same issues with bursitis around the shoulders that my father had.
But I never thought I would feel this good at 65 when I imagined old age from the perspective of my thirties! And much of it is the result of the flexibility training I focused on at that time.
The Big Toe says “NO”
Although enjoying above average range of motion in some ways, aging has imposed limitations that I adapt to in my training and daily life.
The range of motion in my right big toe is severely limited now due to arthritic changes. Last week, while participating in group ‘resistance training aerobics’ class, it was time for lunges with the lightly loaded bar on the back of my shoulders. What I absolutely can’t do is step back with my right foot and bend the big toe enough to touch with the ball of the foot. I knew I was in trouble when the instructor called out the exercise, but I stepped back, attempted to plant the right foot and immediately had to adjust for the pain. My form was awkward and unstable, so I put the weight down and slowly did what I could with body weight only.
Training as you age means accommodating these inevitable changes by discovering alternative exercises, different tempos, and smooth movements utilizing good form.
The instructor, in her twenties, could have little opportunity to understand how much pain that toe, when quickly bent beyond its age-changed range of motion, could generate.
Major Takeaway Points
1. Stretching ‘cold’ is perfectly fine, but you must go lightly and slowly when you do. The best opportunity to work on improving your range of motion is after you’ve done at least 10 to 15 minutes of light to moderate movement. My routine was always in the morning at the beginning of my day. Your guide is the feedback your body gives you (proprioceptors) by signaling with a slight pressure, moving to discomfort, and then pain. Never go to pain and stay within the discomfort that is tolerable. Hold whatever position you’re using for 30 seconds then increase range slightly by adding very minimal pressure and hold another 30 seconds. If, starting out, you find that too much, go for 10-15 seconds.
2. The best warm up for any exercise is not stretching, it’s a lightweight version of whatever exercise you’re going to do. Warm up for heavy squats by doing bodyweight only squats. You’re engaging and preparing exactly the muscles, tendons, and ligaments you plan to stress.
3. Aging (especially as you approach 60) demands that you lighten the weight, slow the tempo, and focus on your internal feedback
4. As your range of motion is compromised by aging and lack of use, every aspect of your movement changes, beginning with your feet. And every change of angle in the movements of your feet alters everything connected above.
To Your Flexibility and Safety,