Strength, Flexibility and Will

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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.

Picture this…

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.

What gives?

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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23 responses

23 responses to “Strength, Flexibility and Will”

  1. Hiro Boga says:

    Jonathan, this is an interesting analogy, and question.

    In one sense, both strength and flexibility serve will (and willingness).

    When will is aligned with wholeness, then strength and flexibility are naturally in right relationship with each other. They partner with will to create that which serves the whole ecology of your being, your business, your life.

    When will is out of alignment with wholeness — when it’s serving a thought-form or concept rather than the organic essence of your being, your life, or your business — then strength and flexibility develop independently of each other. This is usually when problems of imbalance arise.

    Strength, flexibility and will are spiritual qualities. As such, they are interdependent and function as part of a spiritual ecology. To separate them artificially is to fight reality. With predictable results.

  2. Lynn Sherwood says:

    This reminds me of the story of two persons trying to get across a swift river. The more physically powerful one saw the task as strength overcoming the current, focused on the other side, jumped in and fiercely swam toward the other side. He quickly became exhausted from his extreme effort, the river overcame him and he drowned. The less powerful one jumped in, drifted with the current while steering toward the opposite bank and emerged from the river on the other side quite a distance downstream. I am certain I have butchered this classic story, but the essence of its message relates to your example: stuff gets done by awareness and use of the flow rather than fighting with brute force. The 60 year old woman was in tune with the flow of her body and natural forces.

  3. nora says:

    Jonathan, while I agree that flexibility is just as important as strength, I’m going to disagree that it’s better or more important.

    You can be a muscle-head with no flexibility and that’s not good… but you can also be super flexible and have no strength but where will that get you? A big floppy mess is where. You need both! The key is not one or the other, but a balance between the two.

  4. dave r. says:

    i really enjoyed this post…thanks…more “flexibility”

  5. Natasha says:

    I think the real analog here maybe the factor of resistance. Because of the flexibility the woman had, and due to the flexibility of some people and business owners, resistance is generally less which allows for easier adaptability to change, which is inevitable in life and business. A good picture of strength without flexibility, and resistance to change, was evident in a lot of too-big-to-fail businesses that were not prepared for certain cyclical shifts or obselences in their industry (among so many other factors that were involved). Some of them were very resistant to finding more innovative ways to deal with their finances, or were resistant to pivoting the way they did business. People exhibit this when they feel learning and reading stops after high school or college and refuse to expand themselves and accept the changes in the world around them. Some people do this with a tremendous amount of resistance and lose out a lot on experiences and exposure to new things.
    I love the example shown…it really made me think about my own strength and flexibility and how they definitely affect the way I move through my life.
    Thanks, Jonathan! 🙂

  6. Jeff Munn says:

    Thanks for the post, Jonathan. I’m reminded of that old saying, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    How often do we try to solve business problems with the same old strategies, and how often do we think they will work better if we just try harder? If we just build a better spreadsheet?

    Instead, I’d say flexible thinking, having a “beginner’s mind,” and being willing to continually question our assumptions is the way to go. Things work until they don’t. Those who succeed are the quickest to drop the old ways and find new ones.

    Jeff

  7. Chuck Frey says:

    The killer app is the ability to think creatively and flexibly. Like a yoga student perfecting different moves that bring different muscle groups into play, we need to be able to approach our challenges from multiple perspectives. Our brains can do so much “heavy lifting” and can make it look effortless, if we train them in basic idea-generation and creative problem solving techniques!

  8. Ana says:

    Hi Johnathan,

    I just received this post (which I love) and replied to it with a note and attachment of an article I thought you might find interesting. I got a error message though. The article is called Reason Being and it’s about entrepreneurs, specifically an organization called Unreasonable Institute. I found it in a magazine called REBELS. When I read it, the spirit of it made me thing of you and the work you do here. Since I can’t attach it here (and I can’t figure out how else to send it to you), perhaps you can find it on the following website (that includes everyone else): rebelmagazine.com. I tried finding the article on the site but could not find it, maybe you’ll have better luck. If you want, email me and I’ll send you the article as a PDF.

    You know, I read this blog all the time. I’m a 9-5 48yr-old woman who’s dying as an admin in the corporate world. I don’t just want to have a career, but a vocation. It takes so much self confidence, trust and risk. When I read your blog, I’m continually amazed at what you guys do out there. I’m slowly changing historical family patterns and it is painful…just doing the things I need to do to have an inch of self confidence, etc. is exhausting — but I know the latter (dying as a secretary when I can be so much more and make a difference in people’s lives) is worse. When I’m asked “What do you want to do?” I either have 3 things I want to do unrelated to each other and do not know how to begin, OR, I freeze on the question.

    Anyway, thanks for your posts (I love the latest one) and I hope you find the article interesting. I admire all who comment here and do what you do. Sorry to take up so much space.

    • Deb says:

      Hi Jonathan,
      Listened to The Rise to The Top Interview today. Where I first met you and it was a hoot.
      I am 58 yrs old, retired educator and Loving my Life. Starting some amazing new journeys and when I read your article above it kind of connected with David’s Interview this morning. Do believe we all receive messages from the Universe for a reason 🙂
      Then I read the other comments and so part of this is for Ana.
      From another woman I ask you to hang in there. Sometimes life is not easy for women if they are not surrounded by the strength and support of others.
      I am a retired school administrator and I could NOT have done my job without the Support, Assistance, Condidence and overall knowledge of my secretary.
      That was her title but her position was much much more!!!
      I share this to hopefully help you see how valued and important you are to you Boss! I have no doubt someone with your determination does an outstanding job. Sorry for the long Comment as well but wanted to say thanks to you Jonathan and to send out a hug to Ana…………..hugs from Deb

    • Lynn Sherwood says:

      Speaking as someone who has walked in your shoes a very long time, I’m not trying to be a smart a** here, but my first thought is that you may want to stop feeling apologetic about yourself and the space you take up. When you write, “Sorry to take up so much space” in your post, you are bludgeoning us with what you think of yourself in life as well as this post. The world hears what you think of yourself (not worthwhile), and worse, your sub-conscious hears you and believes you and is encouraged to retain the very image you consciously think you want to unload. You might want to read up on affirmations, but don’t approach them simplistically. Read deep enough to get the nuances of effective self talk. It doesn’t work to just start saying things like, “I am strong (or confident or worthwhile),” because your sub-conscious will think you are boldly lying… the wording is not congruent with what you have believed so long. Good luck! I know you can find yourself….

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Ana – Thanks so much for sharing your experience, it’s one so many of us here can empathize with. You’re willingness to own the place you’re at and share your yearning to evolve is a wonderful first step. Best advice I can give you is to devour everything you can on building unconventional careers (Chris Guillebeau’s and Pam Slim’s books are great starting places), then find likeminded people (even if it’s just online for starters) and begin to take baby steps, one a day. The magic unfolds over time. Hope that helps.

      PS – YOU ROCK! OWN IT! 🙂

  9. Tara says:

    Seems this was a perfect post for a photograph – I had to google it!

  10. Knight says:

    Q:Is there an analog to this in business and life?

    Absolutely Yes!

    The Key answer to your analog Q lies in simple terms ..Business has every factor of Vitamin-M. Its the individual choice & alternatives that’s makes healthy Forex to success!!!

  11. Braden says:

    I can feel much more freedom in business and daily life when I see economics and daily living not as a one-way street in which I exert my will on a task but as a dynamic, open-minded step into the unknown and an opportunity to exercise my creative will or creative flexibility.

  12. John K. Lunde says:

    Isn’t the best comparison to this in business (or just life in general) the tunnel vision syndrome so common when we strengthen only parts of our mental capacities?

    If we set our mental ‘muscles’ to perform certain tasks to perfection but don’t also allow our creative muscles to train and perform, we lose the ability to see the best way to solve some issues.

    As the saying goes, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Even a screw.

  13. Jessica says:

    There was a study done years ago about athletics that determined the most demanding based on all aspects – strength, flexibility, stamina, ability, etc

    No. 1 was Football
    No. 3 was Hockey

    And number 2 –

    Ballet.

    Flexiblity rocks – its just knowing how to use your strength in a way that makes what is near impossible look easy.

  14. Jessica says:

    ps.. i think most entrepreneurs (at least those with a natural ability to start projects) have this flexibility engrained in them unlike biz managers who are better at battling to keep their team going.

    but entrepreneurs create art with their strength

  15. Mary Jane says:

    Jonathan,

    It seems the entire Universe is conspiring to tell me that my time to embrace Yoga has arrived! Thank you for the inspiration.

  16. You do have to stay flexible in business. Things change so fast and you constantly need to adapt your business to new technology, client needs and your own circumstances too.

    The biggest and best businesses are constantly doing this. Adapting and striving to find new ways to grow their business and their income.

    But where is the pic of you doing Navasana? I’d like to see that:)

  17. Nice yoga analogy to show that real strength is more than muscle mass or effort, it requires skill, awareness, flexibility, and coordination. I agree absolutely. In my FlexAware teaching I often illustrate the same point by talking about the way young children move. Young children, for their size and weight, are much stronger than adults, much more flexible, and have vastly greater stamina, as every parent knows. That’s because they move skillfully, naturally, efficiently. It’s not from doing sit-ups or crunches or yoga.

    One important correction about the “small” hip flexors: The main muscle that flexes the hip joints in this position is the iliopsoas, and it’s larger and stronger than the rectus abdominus. In fact, it and the glutes are our largest and strongest muscles.

    Your former pro-athlete, in part as a result of all his sit-ups, has extremely tight hamstrings and back extensors; those are the muscles pulling him down toward the floor. He’ll be much stronger when he learns to be more aware and skillfull. In other words, he’ll benefit immensely from gentle, slow and FlexAware, instead of sit-ups. But his self-image is probably based on his ability to do those sit-ups, so he’ll probably continue until he herniates a disc in his low back, ruins his hip joints, or has some other serious injury.

  18. Taking your analogy into the business arena:

    Strength = brute effort or hard work
    While..
    Flexibility = leverage and outsourcing!

    Excellent post!

    Peter

  19. Christopher says:

    Thomas Jefferson said “In matters of principle, stand like a rock. In matters of taste, swim with the current.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said over and over again: Be true. Be yourself. Don’t conform.

    Flexilibility is an issue I’m rolling around in my head.

    There is a doctor I know. He is very good at fixing people. But he is a hippy, doesn’t wear dress clothes. Wears no shoes in practice and is just happy being himself. Yet, business profesionals constantly tell him to put a tie and shoes on, get a hair cut, and look a certain way.

    Yet, he loves being himself.

    Should he bend to accomodate these other professionals or continue being himself?

  20. Executive X says:

    Thanks for this interesting article, Jonathan. I find that flexibility in the Corporate world can be a killer app. So frequently, you build corporate careers around a perceived, rigid organizational structure. Then when the company changes directions or when a re-org occurs, individual lack of flexibility can leave you jobless or stuck in a frustrating career in Corporate.

    Introducing more flexibility into your career, can help you deal with changes and get farther down the road with a career you love!