When we look at enhancing performance in all aspects of life, we tend to focus most on building strength.
In athletics, we lift weights, push ourselves to get stronger, faster, better at our chosen event. We push to the point of muscular discomfort and, in doing so, experience something called muscular hyperthrophy—the tearing down of muscle in the name of regenerating more, bigger, stronger, more able muscle that allows us to do more.
In business, we strengthen by educating ourselves, building massive bases of knowledge, undertaking activities, deals, cases and projects that push us. We engage in “intellectual and professional hypertrophy,” pushing up against the limits of our abilities, injecting a certain amount of pain/discomfort, all in the name of getting stronger and rebuilding our abilities on a level that allows us to do more.
When we seek to grow in business, athletics, art and life, very often the first approach is to focus on strength.
Problem is, strengthening isn’t the only way to accelerate the march toward improved performance. Nor is it always the best.
Sometimes flexibility is the killer performance app.
Two people sit side-by-side in yoga class. One, a moderately-fit woman in her mid-60s, the other an insanely-fit former pro-athlete with ripped abs from his 1,000 daily sit-ups.
Toward the end of class, both are seated when the teacher calls Navasana or Boat Pose. This posture requires you to balance on your butt, while floating straight, closed legs in front of you and your extended torso in the air behind to form a V-shape with your body.
Both students comply, but immediately, we see a difference.
The woman’s legs and upper body sit much higher off the ground, while the man’s V is much more flattened out. Ten seconds into the pose, the woman is feeling the effort, but continues to breath comfortably through it with little outward change. Her super-athlete, abs-of-steel counterpart is not fairing so well. He’s flattened a bit more, he’s breathing more erratically and his whole body is beginning to shake.
Twenty seconds in, the woman is breathing more deeply to manage the effort and beads of sweat are forming, but she’s still okay. She’s working, but not exerting a huge amount of will or strength to stay up. The athlete beside her is on the verge of collapse, the only thing keeping him from completely throwing in the towel is the thought of being “beaten” by a woman three-times his age and who is clearly not a fraction of the physical specimen he is.
Does our mid-60s student secretly do a billion crunches every night in a covert attempt to make young punks feel small in yoga class?
Nope. Is she really “stronger” than the athlete next to her? Not even close.
Then, what allows her both the perception and the experience of greater strength?
The pose requires fair bit of strength in a relatively small group of muscles called the hip-flexors which, not surprisingly, flex your hips. The much bigger abdominal “six-pack” muscle – the rectus abdominus – plays more of a supporting role (much to the surprise of most people who are taught to believe this is primarily an ab-based posture). These small hip-flexors, then, must support the entire weight of your legs and upper body against the pull of gravity.
While that is a challenge, it’s not insanely hard to do with a little bit of training.
Then what explains the above example?
The answer is the body’s killer performance app…flexibility.
Turns out there are a few sets of muscles that lie across the back of your body that oppose hip-flexion, primarily your hamstrings and lower back muscles. If these muscles are inflexible, which is the case in most people who don’t train flexibility, no matter how strong you are, then when you try to flex your hips with straight legs to rise into Navasana, you’re not only resisting the pull of gravity, you’re resisting what can be extreme tension from over-tight hamstrings and lower back back muscles. As they reach the limit of their length, they literally try to pull you back out of the pose.
So, while our mid-60s student didn’t have nearly the brute strength of our athlete, turns out she’d been developing a fair bit of hamstring and lower back flexibility over time. When she rose into Navasana, she fought only gravity. It was challenging, but manageable. She needed to exert strength and will to stay in the pose, but it wasn’t inordinate.
Our elite athlete, though, strong as he was, fought almost violently against the end of the range of motion of his opposing muscles. His lack of flexibility made him experience the same pose as brutally-difficult, even though his “objective” hip flexor and abdominal strength, as measured in isolation, would have been a large multiple of the woman’s.
Training in flexibility allowed one person to experience the identical challenge with far greater ease than someone who trained purely in strength. And it required far less will to move into and sustain the challenge.
So, here’s my question for you…
Is there an analog to this in business and life?
And, if so, how does it work?
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