Functional mobility is where strength and range of motion overlap. You’ll commonly see people who are strong, but immobile and who don’t move fluidly or with ease, and at the other end of the spectrum you’ll see people with seemingly great flexibility, but they might just have hyper-mobile or unstable joints.
As such, functional mobility is defined not by range of motion or strength, but by both. If you can take your joints through a complete range of motion with stability, you’re mobile. And stability is all about strength and awareness.
When I started squatting heavy and really building up my hamstrings, I found I could sink into the front splits much further. They say that weightlifting makes you tight, but because I increased my strength, I could stretch further without feeling vulnerable. Everything felt safer.
It’s not about just stretching and increasing your flexibility in a passive sense – it’s about increasing your range of motion with strength and stability. If you’re very tight, you could develop a lot by learning to relax into a stretch, but probably what you want to focus on is being strong and stable in an extended, elongated or stretched-out position, rather than just trying to stretch further.
And for those hyper-mobile individuals, it’s not a matter of ‘tightening up’ flexible muscles, it’s about seeking out stability and integrity. The end result might look similar, but a hyper-mobile individual isn’t looking to get ‘tight’ in the same way that an immobile individual isn’t looking to get ‘loose’, we’re looking to get everyone stable through a complete range of motion. That’s where good joint function and integrity is at.
Knees are no different. A knee can be stable or not at any degree of flexion. It can feel safe or not under different loads. And the heavier the load, and the greater the degree of flexion (a deep, heavy squat, for example), the greater the need for stability.
As with knees, so it is with posture – it’s not ‘tightening up’ the upper back muscles that gives you good posture – we’ve already got tight upper back muscles and that’s not helping. It’s about scapular positioning, thoracic extension, range of motion, strength and integrity in the right muscles and joints. It’s about making you strong and mobile, not tight. It’s about improving tissue quality and joint integrity. Pulling your shoulders back and locking them there every hour you’re awake isn’t going to achieve that. But if you train right, if you increase your strength and balance your musculature out, when you’re relaxed and not thinking about it, you’ll naturally be aligned. That’s good posture. If you have to think about it, it’s not posture.
The funny irony is – weak muscles are often tighter than strong muscles, and weak people are often tighter than strong people. If there isn’t enough muscle tissue the body will compensate by remaining tight. The body will use tension to protect itself where mass or strength is inadequate. Tension prevents unintentional tears, it protects weak muscles. But strengthening weak muscles protects them better, and allows them to relax more fully. If you invest in relaxation, that is.
But it’s not all about thickness or length. It’s not like tight muscles are too short or something – all of your muscles are actually long enough to take the joints through a complete range of motion. We get tight because of the nervous system and other things – these protective responses aren’t about the muscles themselves, they’re about the muscles in relation to the nerves and everything else.
The point? Ah, yes. For healthy joints you need to be relatively strong and flexible. You don’t need to have long muscles, you need to be able to relax your muscles, and you need to be strong enough so that you can take your joints through a good range of motion without your muscles being afraid they’re going to tear. That’s what relaxation requires – strength and integrity, so you don’t have to compensate with tightness all the damn time.
Strength improves flexibility, and being able to relax improves strength. Strength and flexibility are related in a complimentary, not antagonistic, fashion. If you’re always tight, and never relaxed, if the muscle’s always ‘on’, then you’ll never be strong. You’ll forever be in a fatigued state, and so you won’t be capable of maximally engaging a muscle. If you want to be strong, you need to live in a relaxed state, so that when you need your muscles to work for you, to contract, they’re rested and capable of work. Maximal contraction requires maximal relaxation. But if they’re always tense, when you try to use them, you’ll only get an extra little bit out of them. And your nervous system will slowly get fried. It’s a funny relationship, but it makes sense when you think about it.
The secret to healthy knees is in the hamstrings. The hamstrings run along the back of your leg, from your butt to your knees. People often think they need to strengthen their quadriceps – the large muscles at the front of the thigh, but these muscles are usually strong enough – it’s hamstrings and buttocks development that will really help your knees. People are often unaware of these muscles because... we often don’t have a functional awareness of these muscles. We think about strengthening the knee and we think about the quads, because you look down and you see them.
Strength and weakness are relative terms – relative to each other. In terms of joint stability and integrity, ‘absolute strength’ – whether you can lift a heavier weight than your sibling – is kinda redundant. It’s relative strength we’re looking at. Most people have strong quads and weak hamstrings relative to each other. For healthy knee function, we want the hamstrings to be stronger than the quads. You can’t measure it easily though – because if you lift a weight on a leg extension (straightening the knee) or leg curl machine (bending the knee), you’re not actually isolating muscles in the way you think you might be – there are other relationships at play. It’s not all about the action of the knee – the hip and ankle muscles and joints come into play too. And healthy, strong hamstrings have as much to do with hip extension, as they do with knee flexion.
To put it more succinctly: to judge hamstring strength by measuring your capacity for knee flexion is only to look at one aspect of the strength of these glorious muscles.
You need to use your awareness while bringing up your hamstrings and glutes/buttocks – you need to feel them working during your daily activities, like you feel your thighs working. And you need to take your body through broad ranges of motion, within and respectful of your limitations, as you’re trying to exceed them. Standing all day isn’t enough. Your quads and lower back can power your all-day standing, but your glutes and hamstrings will not be stimulated to develop. You’ll need to train them specifically, and hopefully - if you approach your training with curiosity and awareness, not hatred or prejudice, you can appreciate your training for what it truly gives you - function, strength and wellness - not for the tantalising and exploitative false promises that are always forced upon us.
When you can feel your hamstrings and glutes contributing to your movements and actions, then you know they’re strong. That’s functional awareness. It doesn’t matter what weight you can lift.
Hip Lift or Bridge:
One of my favourite exercises is the hip lift or hip bridge, pictured to the left with the feet elevated on a step. Begin with the feet flat on the ground, and elevate the feet as you become stronger. You can treat this as if it’s a laying spinal roll, but for glute-hamstring training purposes, you want to keep the spine in ‘neutral’ position. We’re not consciously articulating the joints of the spine. We’re focusing on the hip-thrusting action.
The feet should not be too close or too far from the butt, and they should be about hip width apart from each other. When you press up into the top position, your knees should be bent at about 90 degrees. If you feel tightness in the front of the knees, your feet are probably too close, and if you feel tightness in the back of the knees, they might be too far away.
Apply pressure through the heels of the feet. This will pull the work into the hamstrings and out of the quads. You can lift the toes off the ground if you like. Press the hips up as high as you can. Your body will be resting on your upper back and shoulders, and your heels.
Lower and repeat.
This dude’s doing an awesome glute bridge with a barbell. As much as his toes are lifting up more on his left side than his right, you can see the solid heel drive that translates into powerful glute and hamstring activation. If you feel the quads taking over or the knees tightening up, lift the toes off the floor, as indicated in the video.
If you want to focus on working the buttocks harder, bring the toes back onto the floor and press the inside edges of the ball of your foot down into the ground, while trying to pull the knees apart. Make sure your feet are not too widely spaced. This tension will make your pelvic stabilisers work harder. As you’re doing this, remember to keep most of your weight and power pressing through the heels. As I’m sure you’re noticing - heel drive is important. Otherwise the quads take over.
As you begin the movement and your hips leave the floor, you’ll feel your hamstrings working. At the top, when you’re pressing your hips as high as they’ll go, you’ll feel the buttocks working harder. In between is in between. Press the hips as high as you can without collapsing through the lower back. If the lower back hurts, arches excessively (an excessive arch is relative to you) or takes over too much of the work, don’t lift quite so high.
All this detailed stuff is why I ask you to approach your training with awareness! I cannot tell you how to do these exercises as if there’s one right way and a bunch of wrong ways. There are so many details, and so many tiny adjustments you can make to shift pressure and muscular activation within your body. My responsibility is to provide you with techniques, and your responsibility is to learn about your body - to discover what’s appropriate for you. Correct lifting means applying leverage efficiently to move a load. Strength is the ability to apply leverage to move an object, without compromising your integrity. That’s all it is. It’s not muscular size or definition. It’s not a look or a particular set of propaganda. The relationship between your legs and torso will be different from mine, and what you need to do is find an exercise that is helpful for you, that you can practice in a way that is helpful to you. If you feel the tension in your muscles, and you’re moving a load with efficiency and it feels smooth - challenging yet doable - then you’re doing it right. If an exercise challenges you but is not too difficult, then it’s an appropriate, helpful exercise for you to practice. If it’s too easy or you’re not ready for it, it’s not useful. There’s no way to muddle your way through this if you’re not approaching your training with awareness and a curious mindset. What happens when I do this? If I apply this technique? Tension here and here? How does this change the technique? Does it work better for me this way? Is this more or less efficient?
It’s hard to develop. As a baseline rule of thumb: if you feel the strain in your muscles, for you, you’re doing it right. If you feel the strain in your joints, for you, you’re doing it wrong - or it’s not an appropriate exercise for you at this time. That’s your decision, and your responsibility to yourself and your progression. Unfortunately, it’s often really hard to tell the difference between joint strain and muscular strain. Don’t worry, your awareness develops with training just like everything else. Your strength improves, your ability to work hard improves, and your awareness improves with time and practice. The thing is - if you’re working for improved joint integrity and function, and you’re pushing through pain in your joints, you’re setting yourself up for failure. But people do it all the time, believing they need to be tough if they want to develop. The opposite is true. You need to be caring and attentive.
Anyway, by the time you can comfortably do fifteen or twenty of these in a row, and you’ve worked your way up a step or two, try progressing to a one-leg variation. Go back to the beginning-both-feet-on-flat-ground-version, lift one leg straight up above you as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling with your foot, and press your hips up by driving your one grounded heel into the floor.
That’s hip lifts, essentially.
For ultimate knee health, it’s good if you can work up to the point where you can squat deeply, and maintain that into old age. It’s that deep/complete-range-of-motion-stable-position-under-load thing again.
But some people may never be able to squat deeply. It depends on whether or not your joint problems are caused by muscle weakness, imbalance, tightness or instability – or whether your joint problems are caused by something else. If it’s torn or degraded cartilage, you may require surgery, or you might simply be in a position where you need to try to avoid deep knee-bending. There are ways you can compensate for this by building up your hip strength and integrity – if you practice and become good at stiff-legged deadlifts, for example, you may find you can function very well and safely without needing to bend your knees deeply.
As you train in a systematic fashion, you might find that you feel like you’re just getting tight but not necessarily strong. It’s generally not enough to just train and work against resistance, you often need to focus actively on relaxation and recovery in conjunction with your strength training. It may be even more important than the training itself. This brings me to...
The simplest and safest way to stretch the hamstrings is to place one foot on a chair, table or low step, bend the knee slightly, and lean the chest forward as if you’re going to touch your toes, without rounding out your lower back.
The reason you bend the knee of the elevated leg – the one you’re trying to stretch – is to move the stretch out of the knee and into the belly of the hamstring at the back of your thigh. Play around with this. You’ll probably notice if the leg’s straight you feel it pulling on the tendons in the knee, whereas if you bend the knee the right amount, you’ll gradually move that stretch into the hamstrings where it should be.
There’s no need to bend forward through the lower back. That won’t help to stretch the hamstrings more, because the lower back isn’t the hamstrings. Stretching is fantastic for muscular awareness. Pay attention to where the muscles feel tight, where the joints feel safe (or stable), and whether or not you’re trying to compensate with your back.
If you cannot relax your muscles, you’re pushing too far. The best thing I ever did for my hamstrings is build up my ability to hold a stretch until I could maintain it for about three minutes. When you get to a point where you can relax a little more, without feeling the stretch move into your joints, you can sink a little deeper. If you’re good at relaxing, that could happen every thirty seconds or so. Relax, sink deeper (that’s sink – don’t force it deeper), relax again, sink deeper, until you’ve had enough. If you feel a numbness or tingling, that’s your nerves getting used to the stretch. Stop if you feel nauseous. Stretch your tighter side first.
Often people rush into contract-relax or PNF stretching too soon. We are eager to do the next thing. But if you haven’t learned the skill of relaxing into a stretch, applying tension to a stretch is not going to help you. You can bounce a stretch in certain circumstances, you can tense up against a stretch in certain circumstances - these things can be helpful, but the first thing most of us need to do is learn how to relax, safely and with awareness. If you are incapable of being relaxed in a certain position, or during certain movements, adding more tension without awareness cannot possibly be helpful. Don’t rush to try advanced methods too soon.
Try adding some hip lifts and hamstring stretches to your week if you like. Whenever you feel like it. Pay attention to how quickly or slowly you recover, and how your joints feel in relation to your training during exercise and also afterwards and days later. See how you feel over time. Make notes if you want to. Look back over them and compare how you feel to how you felt when you started. Or don’t - each to their own. Be as intuitive or structured as you like. Be willing to approach things you might not have considered or that you might not naturally gravitate towards. It may be the training you need, or it might not be. It might be valuable, or it might be triggering. Use your awareness, and common sense.
Every couple of weeks, you can test if your knees are getting better by squatting down, holding it as low as you can, and standing up again. See if you can squat further down without pain. It’s important – when squatting – that you keep the heels on the ground and sit the hips back as if you’re lowering down onto a chair. This gets more out of your hamstrings and glutes - it balances the load more evenly between your various leg muscles - whereas letting the knees slide forward and the heels lift up allows the quads to take over. Yes, it might be easier now, but if you never develop your glutes and hamstrings, you’ll never be as strong or functional as you could be. Also, keep the knees pressing out, away from each other – as if you’re squatting in between your legs. That keeps the hips more stable by activating the side hip/buttock muscles.
I really need to talk more about the glutes and foam rolling and massage and soft tissue work to accompany the stretching. But this is enough for today. Hip lifts and hamstring stretches. In general terms, they’re good for most people’s knees.
Thank you for reading! See also: How To Climb The Stairs.
(Edit: 19 June 2014) PLEASE NOTE: this is a great article, and well worth the read. It's all about ankle and foot dynamics when squatting, and the cues we are used to using, and it contradicts much of what I've learned - in a good way. Certainly worth further research.