Build the Body of an Athlete
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 physical therapist Mike Reinold. That puts you in an unstable position that not only saps your strength and power, but also strains your spine.
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 forwards, knees bent 90 degrees. Hold a dowel 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 forwards. That hyperextends your back and weakens your core. “Tight hips are the main cause of back pain,” says Reinold. 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 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 forwards 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 forwards 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 kettlebell swing,” says Reinold. 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,” Reinold 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 forwards, 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, phones, TVs – which leads to slumping,” says Reinold. 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 (or, if that’s too hard, a squash 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 two or three 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 another 30 seconds.