Stability and functional movement are fundamental building blocks for any exercise protocol designed to optimize your body for longevity; and, if you are like most people, chances are you are underinvesting in this area, perhaps significantly so.
There are many benefits to focusing part of your exercise time working on stability and natural movement routines. The ability to move freely and to perform your daily activities pain-free and with confidence as you enter your 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond are two that come to mind. In fact, the gradual loss of mobility and functional range starts much earlier in life. As with all aspects of longevity, it pays to have a long-term view.
While we all imagine ourselves as sprightly seniors, staying active and moving about freely, the reality is that most of us probably are not currently on this path. This is in large part the result of the structure of our “modern” lifestyles. Chances are that you spend many hours a day sitting —at your desk, in your car, or on the couch at home. Over time, sitting leads to postural habituations: permanent misalignments in how you carry your body stemming from holding a position for too long. These adaptations of your musculoskeletal system typically result in the overexertion of certain muscle groups (e.g., shoulders, traps, hips) and the weakening of others (e.g., core, glutes). Gradually these adjustments trigger other downstream effects leading to changes in how your spine supports your weight, over-straining the transition areas (think of your neck, thoracic spine and lower back) and speeding up their wear and tear.
Something similar happens with our natural range of motion. As we grow older the range of motion we habitually use starts to narrow (when was the last time you climbed a tree, limboed under a stick, or simply swung from a bar). For most of us that means that our bodies stay in the middle of our full range of motion the vast majority of the time. Eventually, our central nervous system (CNS) resets its “memory” of our full range of motion and narrows it to the range we actually use. Essentially, our brain forgets that a fuller range is available unless you are consistently reminding it where the actual limits of movement lie.
At play here is what is known as the “stretch reflex.” To protect you against injury, your CNS has a built-in “governor” that stops you from going beyond what it learns to be a safe range of motion. When your muscle tissue is lengthened beyond this point the stretch reflex sends a signal to your nervous system that causes it to tighten and restrict any further motion. The CNS determines this limit points based on what your body is habituated to and your muscles’ ability to function in that range of motion.
So when it comes to range of movement, The old adage of “use it or lose it” very much applies. Try this simple test: sit on the floor with your legs crossed and try to get up without using your hands. This is something any baby can instinctively do, but not a large portion of the adult population. In fact, this sitting-rising test has been found to be a strong predictor of mortality.
The good news is that these maladjustments in our posture and the consequent loss of range of motion that accumulate over time can be stopped and reversed through the incorporation of specialized training routines in your exercise protocol.
As usual, we did a bunch of research to identify the best available strategies and tactics to get on top of your stability and range-of-motion game. Here is what we found.
Three schools of thought
Stability and full range of natural movement are not exactly mainstream topics in the exercise world. Most of the energy in the health and fitness industry is focused on promoting cardio and resistance training. In fact, the prevailing mood of “fitness Instagram '' is that you should go out and “crush it” every time you work out.
It wasn’t until we turned to the world of physical therapy that we started finding relevant techniques to reverse loss of functional range in movement. At some level, it is not surprising that people don’t tend to think much of their musculoskeletal stability and range of motion until they get injured. However, if you want to be strategic about your longevity, we propose that rather than waiting to get injured to get acquainted with the stability and range of movement deficit that you have likely built over time, you take a preventive approach by borrowing from the recovery methodologies we found.
Here we introduce you to three unique schools of thought and approaches to building resilient bodies into old age: Functional Range Conditioning, the Postural Restoration Institute, and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization. Together these three approaches from the world of physical therapy provide a clear landscape of what is possible for you. We share the basic principles and exercises of each so you can get going, as well as a few of our favorite resources so you can go deeper.
Functional Range Conditioning
The Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) methodology is a movement rehabilitation technique developed by Dr. Andreo Spina, an outspoken Sports Specialist Chiropractor and Movement & Mobility Coach (just watch this video) based in Canada. Dr. Spina holds a degree in Kinesiology from McMaster University; a degree from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College as a Doctor of Chiropractic and he completed a two-year post-graduate fellowship in Sports Sciences.
Spina’s approach to functional movement starts with assessing each person’s individual mobility ranges and working from within these ranges outward. The aim is to expand mobility while ensuring joint health.
The FRC system is built on three pillars:
- Mobility development: expanding your useable range of motion to maximize your movement potential safely and effectively
- Joint strengthening: as you increase your range of motion you want to make sure your joints are ready
- Body control: FRC stimulates the function of your nervous system. This leads to greater freedom of movement and a reduction of pain and injury.
The expected result of following FRC exercises is the expansion of your articular ranges of motion, while also reminding your central nervous system (CNS) how to control your body as it moves through these ranges. In other words, FRC helps your brain reacquaint itself with your body’s natural ability to move through a series of simple exercise routines.
Key FRC Building Blocks
All the exercises practiced in FRC are meant to help you find the end of your range of movement and gradually challenge that end to expand. This is done through controlled articular rotations where you move a joint in the biggest circle possible without any compensatory movement from other parts of your body. It also involves stretches that go deep into the articular ranges of your shoulders and hips. As you practice these, you will notice increased movement capacity and that in turn will make you feel more stable and confident in your body.
Shoulder Controlled Articular Rotations (CARS)
Shoulder CARs focus on the rotation of the shoulder joint to stimulate the mechanoreceptorsand create more control. One key goal is increasing your scapular mobility. The scapulas (shoulder blades) are triangle-shaped bones that sit on the back of your ribcage. They provide attachment points for the muscles that facilitate the movement of your shoulders. Holding your scapula in their elevated position is a common response to stress that impacts breathing, posture, and shoulder mobility. As a result the muscles around your shoulders get “stuck” in a tensed position causing you to lose their full range of movement over time..
CARs make you more aware of where your shoulders are – and from there you can gradually figure out what you can do with them.
How to do shoulder CARs
Hip Controlled Articular Rotations
Hip CARS have the same objective of restoring range of movement in your hips by constantly trying to push them to the outer limits of motion and stimulating your CNS to relearn how to control their movement. This exercise also works to strengthen your hip joints.
How to do Hip CARs
Full-body CARs routine
Follow this daily 10 minute whole-body CAR routine and watch your mobility increase and your joints strengthen.
Progressive Angular Isometric Loading & Regressive Isometric Angular Loading (PAILs & RAILs)
The primary objective of the combination of PAILs & RAILs exercises is to achieve incremental range of movement of your extremities by inducing adaptive mechanisms in various tissues. As you practice these exercises your body will respond by gradually progressing movement under load. This will allow you to gain more function over time as well as build strength in your joints.
PAILs are based on isometric contractions (muscle length remains relatively constant as tension is produced) which work to gradually expand range of motion. When performing a PAIL you contract the muscles in your entire body for 10-20 seconds while in the stretch position.
RAILs are the antagonist to PAILs, whereby you use regressive movement to pull yourself deeper into the stretch.
For example, hip PAILs and RAILs consist of bringing both your knees into 90 degree angles with one hip facing forward and the other bent backwards. In a controlled way, you alternate between driving your front leg to the ground and contracting your entire musculature (PAILS) and leaning forward against the weight of your leg to increase the stretch (RAILS).
While they may not look it, PAILS/RAILS can actually be quite difficult and challenge both the body and the neurological system. It is recommended to do it at the end of a workout, especially after any weight training.
(Yes, this is hard to describe in words so go you can go straight to the video below)
How to do hip PAILs & RAILs
Postural Restoration Institute (PRI)
As its name suggests, the Postural Restoration Instituteis rooted in reversing bad postural habituations that put our bodies out of balance. PRI was developed by physical therapist Ron Hruska, building on his over 35 years of clinical experience working in posture, asymmetry, and the influence of polyarticular chains of muscles. Based on his deep understanding of postural adaptations due to our modern lifestyles, Hurska has been perfecting his restoration techniques over the past two decades. Most recently PRI has been gaining in popularity among strength and conditioning coaches as a way to improve posture, balance, and movement efficiency in their athletes.
PRI is all about recognizing patterns in postural adjustments and reversing them. The fundamental insight that Hurska has based his methodology on is the fact that our neurological, respiratory, circulatory, muscular and vision systems are not the same on the left side of the body as they are on the right. For example, the position of our internal organs is asymmetrical (i.e. our heart is on the left, and our liver is on the right). While our body’s design is meant to be balanced through the integration of these system imbalances, certain patterns emerge that can throw this off.
For example, the liver’s position on the upper right side of the abdomen provides structural support to the diaphragm, making respiration on the right side easier than on the left. A common consequence of this is a compression of the musculature on our right side. That means that most people —even lefties— tend to favor their right side, placing more load on their right leg. As a result, the left side tends to grow weaker and less useful and the right side becomes more prone to injuries. The same happens with our neurological processing. Recognizing this type of natural patterns creates the opportunity for implementing corrective measures that can make our bodies become more balanced and stable.
One of the key areas of focus of PRI is correcting habituations in your Zone of Apposition (ZOA). This is the vertical area surrounding your diaphragm, framed by your ribcage, your lower back and your pelvis. Any misalignments in your ZOA will impact the way in which you breathe.
A proper ZOA is achieved when your ribcage is in a state of neutrality (i.e. your ribs are neither internally nor exrternally rotated), and your lower spine is not extended. When you inhale, your ribs should be moving out, not up. On the exhale, the ribs should move down and the diaphragm should flatten.
Conscientious breathing and popper posture when sitting can help regulate inefficiencies while activating underutilized areas such as the oblique muscles on your left side. PRI practitioners claim that practicing its exercises can improve diaphragm function and your overall respiratory system.
Key Building Blocks
PRI movements are built on the relationship between the body and the breath. As you practice them you are encouraged to focus on your ribcage and visualize moving your ribs symmetrically from a small to large circle, expanding outwards. Each movement should be paired with conscious breathing.
90/90 With Hip Shift
An exercise to get started consists of lying on your back with your legs at a 90 degree angle against a wall. Once in position you rotate your hips forward and back keeping them in place. This exercise activates the hamstrings and obliques and relaxes the hip flexors. By coupling the movement with exhales, your ribs start to come down, repositioning the diaphragm for better breathing.
90/90 With Hip Lift
This exercise focuses on developing a neutral and symmetrical state using breath and the pelvis. The set up is similar to above with the legs at a 90 degree angle but both hips lift off the ground together.
90/90 With Leg Extensions
This similar exercise is a little more dynamic. The set up starts with the legs at a 90 degree angle on the wall. Then you alternate straightening a leg and opposite arm all while keeping your breaths long as an added component of movement and strength.
Full Body Routine
This full body basic introduction to some PRI moves by Esquire explores the relationship between breath and the body in a simple sequence that engages the body to relieve stress.
Many of these exercises can be done on your back, while squatting, or in a log seated position.
Left Side Lying Right Glute Max
This exercise should be done after pelvic repositioning. The glutes, especially the right side, tend to lose abduction and external rotation capability resulting in incorrect muscular activation. This exercise builds strength in the external rotation fibers of the glutes.
You can follow PRI principles to do a proper prank that protects from injuries and engages the entire body.
Watch this 6 minute video providing an overview of the science behind PRI. You can also dig into peer-reviewed articles on specific applications of PRI techniques or check out the PRI podcast. Get started on your journey to better breathing and movement with this simple PRI test you can do from home.
Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS)
DNS is a rehabilitation framework to stimulate movement centers of the brain in an attempt to activate and restore the body's innate locomotor function. The system was developed at the Prague School of Rehabilitation and Manual Medicine which was founded as part of the medical faculty of Charles University in Czech Republic during the Cold War.
The DNS framework focuses on the role of the central nervous system in controlling movement and regulating musculoskeletal stability. It is largely based on the study of how the CNS matures from birth to early childhood and the way our hardwired genetic motor programs begin to manifest themselves as we grow. We are naturally evolved to use stabilization in a functional way to move safely, efficiently and effectively. However, as we’ve seen, modern life begins to restrict our ability to do so as we age. The objective of DNS is to help people restore their innate ability to move.
While many experts have worked on the continued development of DNS, its main founders are Vaclav Vojta, Karel Lewit, Vladimir Janda. Each of them contributed a unique point of view based on their individual experiences making DNS a very robust system grounded in keen observation of movement patterns in adults and infants.
The basic insight behind DNS is in understanding how the central nervous system establishes programs that control human posture, movement, and gait. This ‘motor control’ is largely established during the first critical years of life. Over time postural habituations and adjustments to them lead to a divergence between how we are meant to use our bodies and how we actually use them to move. To address these imbalances, the Prague School emphasizes neurodevelopmental aspects of motor control in order to restore dysfunction of the locomotor system and associated syndromes.
Together this team formulated concepts and principles that tied into postural habituation and the tendency of certain muscles to tend toward tightness and others towards weakness. The main building block for the methodology is understanding the kinetic chain —an engineering concept used to describe how interrelated body segments, joints, muscles, and spine work together to create movement.
The concept explains how the body is a series of overlapping segments which are connected at the joints and how movement of one joint will affect other joints in the kinetic chain. Analysis of how each part affects the whole helps to understand why as our posture becomes misaligned there is a tendency for certain parts of the chain to be overloaded while others are underutilized.
As we age, areas in the neck and lower abdomen tend to weaken while transitional areas of the spine and extremities end up being overused and prone to injury. Not surprisingly over-utilized areas tend to have the most degenerative changes over time.
Based on these insights, physiotherapist Dr. Pavel Kolar created the clinical protocols of DNS to restore locomotor function. The method draws from the movement patterns of babies as the blueprint for efficient and effective movement. These innate patterns can be re-learned by following specific exercise protocols and getting the CNS back to its original ability to facilitate the transfer of load as we move.
Similar to PRI, the techniques applied by DNS also pay attention to breathing and the stability of the diaphragm. As referenced above, one common postural syndrome stems from sustained seating positions. When we are young, we are able to keep alignment of the body but if we fall into repetitive postural habituation, gravity ultimately wins. Our shoulders slump forward and our ribs rotate inward inhibiting the diaphragm's ability to descend.
In response, the brain adjusts by recruiting other accessory breathing musculature which in the long term results in changes in our respiratory patterns. The effect is overutilization of these models. DNS routines seek to re-establish our natural balance so our breathing can flow freely
As in the case of FRC and PRI, the appeal of DNS has transcended the context of rehabilitation and is now being adopted by athlete populations looking to integrate its principles to help with injury prevention and performance improvement. Nevertheless, most of the application of DNS techniques is still concentrated in Prague, with only 18 certified instructors worldwide thus far.
So, it’s a real treat to be able to apply some of their science-based techniques in your own home.
Key Building Blocks
DNS exercises based on the different stages of CNS development of infants. Any exercise can be done alone, or as a dynamic sequence transitioning through each stage (i.e. from 3-month, to 6-month, and so on).
Many exercises will start in a raised and engaged child pose while extending the thoracic spine. From this start position, you can move into other exercises that work on the scapular, thoracic spine, abdominal, and cervix.
This drill is in the 3-month neurodevelopmental stage. It focuses on bringing the shoulders up and back, lifting the thoracic and cervical spine.
3 to 6-Month Transition
This exercise is a transition from the 3-month prone to a 6-month position lifted onto the knees and wrists by lifting the chest up and driving the hips up and back down.
4.5 Month Transition
This exercise also starts from the 3-month prone. But instead, the knees come out into a folded frog called a 4.5-month transition. Then, you offload one side and roll over onto the other side until you are in a 5-month side-lying position.
Czech Get-Up Sequence
This sequence transitions from 3-month all the way to a 12-month squat and back. Called a Czech Get-Up. It goes from laying down to standing to a deep squat before going back down into a lying down position. The sequence should be performed with slow, controlled movements.
Bringing it all together
Stability is often overlooked in a world oversaturated with strength training and cardio. But the body's ability to maintain control of joints, movements, and muscle tissue is imperative to both strength and stamina as we age.
The best way to get started down a path of greater stability and movement control is to combine exercises from these different methodologies. One great example of how to do this is shared by dancer turned fitness trainer Beth Lewiswho was a guest on this excellent episode of Peter Attia’s podcast.
As a trainer, Lewis became very interested in trying to understand the reason behind the limitations in functional movement that so many of her clients showed. Her curiosity led her to investigate a broad range of techniques including the ones outlined in this article. Rather than sticking to any single approach she developed a training philosophy she calls the “Way of No Way,” inspired by Bruce Lee’s agnostic approach to martial arts. She encourages each person to try new things and ultimately find what works for you.
Whether you begin to implement FRC, PRI, DNS or a combination of all three, we recommend an attainable and approachable integration of stability into your exercise protocol. The key is to recognize the patterns of movement of your body and to continuously challenge your ranges of motion so you can gradually increase them. Consistent practice is the path to restoring the ability to move you had when you were a baby. Let’s go!
Share your experiences with stability training with us or anything we may have left out: email@example.com
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