Not What You Think
Learning to touch my toes taught me an important life lesson.
My entire adult life I’ve taken good care of my body. I’ve exercised in some fashion and eaten healthy consistently since I was 25, so literally half my life. But flexibility was never really a focus for me, and until recently, I can’t remember the last time I was able to touch my toes without bending my knees. Probably over 30 years.
I can squat down till my thighs rest on my calves with my feet flat on the floor and rest there for as long as I want, like a little kid playing in a mud puddle. But I couldn’t touch my toes until recently. In fact, I could barely get my hands below my knees with straight legs.
On and off for a couple years I tried all kinds of thing. Various stretching routines, yoga, foam rollers, etc. But no real progress. I watched all kind of fitness videos and followed all kinds of different routines by online flexibility gurus. The best advice I fund, that actually made progress was from Jujimufu – brute force it daily. That worked pretty well, and got me further than anything before hand, but of course its painful as hell.
Then I learned a vital piece of the puzzle no flexibility “expert” ever mentioned – Antagonistic muscles.
Every joint has two sets of muscles, one to bend it, the other to straighten it. They work opposite each other. You bend your elbow by contracting your bicep while relaxing your triceps. To straighten it out again, you contract your triceps and relax your bicep – Antagonistic muscles. When you contract one muscles, your nervous system automatically relaxes its antagonist.
When trying to touch my toes I felt tightness in my hamstrings and calves – those muscles were being stretched uncomfortably, and no matter how much I tried to relax them, I couldn’t – and all the “experts” were telling me that if I just keep stretching, eventually, I’d be able to do it… eventually could mean YEARS!
But by activating the antagonist muscle, you can automatically relax the tight one.
No one was teaching me to pull my hips down toward my thighs with my hip flexors. To touch your toes, you do not just relax your hamstrings and let gravity pull you down. If you’ve always been able to touch your toes, you don’t think about the process at all, so it might feel like that to you, but that’s not what’s happening.
What you actually do is turn on your hip flexors and quads to pull yourself down. The act of activating those muscles automatically relaxes your hamstrings and glutes.
Imagine sitting on the floor and raising your straight legs up to point your toes at the ceiling while keeping your back erect and head also pointed at the ceiling. Its the same position as a toe touch, but you’re fighting gravity, you have to activate the right muscles to do it. Touching your toes is literally the same movement, involving the same muscles, its just requires less strength.
This mean I have to learn to activate and strengthen my hip flexors in order to touch my toes.
I began wit L-Sit progressions. At first it was brutally hard. My hip flexors had been neglected for decades!
I could barely get my legs off the ground in a seated position, and my hips and quads cramped badly. But I persisted daily. I made it part of my morning routine, 20 reps every morning, followed by touch touches (at least as far as I could go) while holding a kettle bell to pull me further (there is still a stretch component).
Within a week I saw a immediate difference in how far I could bend over with straight legs. Now, several months later, on a good day I can touch my toes, on a bad day I might be an inch or two above them on my first attempt.
I still incorporate these basic exercise in some form into my morning routine, and it has made a huge difference in my mobility. Its one more way my body feel better at 50 than it did in my 30’s. As a sit benefit, I can now hold an L-sit on gymnastic rings for about 15 seconds, which I think is pretty beast!
A lot of the problems we face in life seem to have obvious solutions, but no matter how hard we try to apply the obvious solution, we can’t seem to solve the problem. Just like trying to stretch more to touch my toes produced no results for year.
Ask any addict. The obvious solution is to stop using, right? If that worked, there’d be no addicts. The root of addiction isn’t the drug use, it something deeper, like past trauma, a lack of hope, poor social connections and feelings of isolation, etc. Solve those problems and the addict doesn’t need to use. The “obvious” solution is not the solution.
Do you feel like your boss doesn’t respect you? Just set boundaries, or work harder, right? I’ve rarely seen that work for anyone. Its hard to set boundaries when you don’t believe you deserve them – your problem isn’t your boss, its you. If you don’t respect yourself, they won’t either.
Want 6-pack abs? Do lots of ab exercises, right? Nope.
Can’t stop stressing out about something? Just stop thinking about it, right? Yeah, how often does that work?
This is why I believe its so important to have coaches and mentors. If we are failing to solve a problem ourselves, most of the time it because we’re targeting the wrong thing, or using the wrong approach. We are either too close the issue to see it clearly, or don’t have the right experience and knowledge to solve it.
The Right Coach
Trial and error can take a long, long, long time. Having a coach who’s been there and done that, we can shorten the journey significantly. I stumbled around for years trying to solve my toe touching problem. Once I found the right coach, I made massive progress in a short time.
It critical to find the right coach. I thought yoga instructors would be good coaches for my toe touching problem. They weren’t. They were mostly people who’d always been pretty flexible, and had been doing yoga for so long they took their flexibility for granted. “Just keep at it, you’ll get there,” was the advice I heard over and over.
Its important to find someone who has actual experience overcoming your problem. You wouldn’t higher a marathon runner to teach you how to power lift. You want someone who either has been where you are and solved it, or has a proven record of taking people from where you are to where you want to be. People who have always been able to do something rarely make good teachers of that skill.
Not every coach is right for everyone person or situation, that’s why the highest achievers have a variety of mentors, people who specialize in a particular area or skill. Professional sports teams employ many different coaches, and top level athletes even work with specialist to improve their weaknesses.
The Shameless Sales Pitch
This is one of the reasons I’m an effective coach for many people: I’ve been there and done that.
I’ve been homeless. I’ve been a business owner. I’ve been a single parent. I’ve been weak and scrawny. I’ve been meek and timid. I’ve had problems meeting women. I’ve suffered from a bad back. I’ve had anger issues. I have a learning disability. I’ve been through crippling illness and anxiety. And I’ve learned to overcome all those challenges and many others, to create a wonderful life that I enjoy living every day (including Mondays!)
If you’re ready to begin investing in yourself, and creating a better life, the one you want and deserve, contact me for a free consultation and see if you qualify for one on one coaching with me.
What are some life experiences that have taught you valuable lessons? Please share in the comments, I’m sure you have something to teach me!