Despite years of yoga and gym work, Alice Hart-Davis couldn’t shift her bad back or overtight shoulders. She checked in with flexibility expert Martin Jefferies and discovered the one move we all need to do every day to stay supple
"The trouble is,’ says Martin Jefferies, after he has shaken out my legs to assess my hip alignment and winced at the dire, over-tight state of my back and shoulders, “your muscles don’t even like you, let alone trust you.”
I don’t understand, so he elaborates. Apparently, over the years, I’ve taught my muscles to adopt ‘rigid’ as their ‘default’ setting. Maybe that’s why my back feels stiff as a board much of the time. As I now understand it, too many unresolved minor injuries and ‘coping-strategies’ on the part of my muscles have reduced some of my joints’ natural movements and left my muscles constantly in the ‘on’ position. Adding strength to these muscles has simply given them more bullets to shoot me with. Throw in way too much time staring at a computer with my hand hovering over a keyboard I was never actually taught to use properly and the results I noticed were, Martin says, almost inevitable. With most of us doing much of the same, especially the inescapable hours of desk work, it’s no surprise that he’s very familiar with all the symptoms.
Martin is an unusual bodyworker, but a brilliant one. I first met him and wrote about his work some 13 years ago though I’ve hardly seen him since, so when he got in touch and suggested I have an ‘MOT’ to see how my back was holding up, I jumped at the chance. My back is always stiff but it used to be much worse with my L4/L5 lumbar disc in my lower back always feeling like it was about to ‘go’ and occasionally ‘going’, as backs do, at the drop of a hat. Now, after six years of yoga to mobilise it and resistance training to stabilise it, it’s far better, even if it does stiffen up overnight. I was about to find out why neither activity had actually resolved the problems with my back and fix a few other issues that my body had given up reminding me that I had.
Martin was adamant that strength training my already ‘rigid’ muscles was actually a major cause of my stiffness, and set about persuading them to “shut up and calm down”. His methods are idiosyncratic; he has adopted elements of many different bodywork disciplines, joined up the dots and called the whole package ‘SuppleworX’. He happily admits to ‘cherry picking’ but he is as scathing of most disciplines as he is about the futility of what you, I and most flexibility teachers call ‘stretching’ (“It’s like catching your clothes on a hook and just pulling till it rips,” he says.)
For him, it is all about understanding what muscles are trying to do, namely, keeping your joints working within a safe range of movement and, where those muscles have clenched themselves up in a misguided attempt to keep everything stable, persuading them to relax their grip. When muscles are holding where they shouldn’t be, they encourage other muscles to join in which compresses joints causing pain, loss of movement and potential joint distortion and nerve impingement. His work aims to show those muscles that life would be altogether easier for them and everything around them if they just learned to take it easy. Case in point, with my arm at full stretch to the side or over my head, the range of movement was limited not just by the muscles in my shoulder, but by all the muscles across my chest, through my armpit and right down the side to my hip. I don’t know which ones started it, but they were all joining in.
I love the whole idea of teaching my muscles to hang loose, so go along with his suggestion of a few sessions of bodywork, along with stopping all the exercise that I’m doing for a few weeks, just until I can learn not to jam everything up so tightly the whole time.
I feel quite woozy from the sudden absence of tension. It’s the strangest feeling. I find I’m standing completely differently
Rather than attempting to ‘stretch’ my muscles, Martin uses a technique loosely based on Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching.
This involves working the joints against resistance to show them not just where they should go but how to get there and back safely and comfortably. If that’s all that’s needed that’s all they get but, when any area still resists its optimal range of movement Martin gives them a strong massage to release muscle fibres and fascial tissue which is literally ‘stuck’ - that’s why I’m stripped down to my underwear in the photos.
In the before and after picture, Martin is demonstrating how far my elbows are prepared to move back behind me once my over-tight pectoral muscles across the front of my chest have released. He’s understandably protective of the techniques that took him 20 years to perfect so I can’t tell you exactly what he did but I can tell you that it took about a minute and needed no pressure at all from him to get my elbows back. He's increased my range of motion by several inches, something I thought would only ever happen after years of yoga and maybe not even then.
After an hour of this, I stand up and feel quite woozy from the sudden absence of tension. It’s the strangest feeling. I find I’m standing completely differently, with my ribs stacked over my hips just like yoga and Pilates teachers always tell you to do but rarely show you how, my shoulder-blades dropping down my back and my head balanced freely on a neck that is able to turn from side to side without twangs of pain.
It doesn’t last for more than two days alas, but after a couple more sessions and learning how to replicate the most relevant movements at home, I can manage to hold onto much more of the freedom he gives my limbs for longer.
The ‘shoulder circles’ exercise described below is one of my favourites and is good for anyone who is desk-bound. The tips of my shoulders start making a bee-line for my ears after a few hours of computer work so I do a few of these every 30 to 40 minutes as a ‘fire fighting’ exercise when I’m at my desk and whenever my neck or shoulders feel tight.
The night after the fourth session, when I climb into bed and find my limbs almost melting into the mattress, I get a glimpse of what it could be like to live in this new, floppy but functional state. Blissful!
Alas, the next week I mess things up by doing too much back-unfriendly stuff in a short space of time (shifting furniture, heaving packing cases, sleeping in a strange bed, etc) but this glimpse of heavenly floppiness has given me something to work towards. Since Martin sorted that little glitch out, I’ve been making better progress and have even got back to the gym and the yoga studio without messing up his work too badly and now that I know which of my muscle groups are most likely to give me trouble and how to SuppleworX them into submission (particularly the long chains of them that run from my hips up the sides of my body and into my arms, and the diagonal ones across the back) they are becoming easier to manage.
Do my stressed out, untrusting muscles like me better now? I think so. At least, we’re learning to get along a whole lot more easily.
One day, Martin says he’s going to write the full handbook of all his secrets which will “help people to rid themselves of pain, look, move and feel better and stop wasting their time and money on things that simply don’t work”. But until then, you’ll need to catch him in person, on Sundays, in Highbury, London N1, unless you happen to live in Gloucestershire where he spends the rest of the week.
SHOULDER CIRCLES: do this if you’re desk-bound
Stand or sit with shoulders relaxed and your left arm dropped loosely at your side (if your arm is not dangling loosely at your side this will not work). Now make the biggest, smoothest circle you can with the tip of your left shoulder.
Do 3 or 4 in each direction then put the opposite hand on the top of that shoulder and push it down with middling pressure and make the same circular movements whilst pushing down throughout. Repeat with the other arm.
This exercise backs off the most dominant muscles and encourages all the others to get involved which improves coordination. If you're stuck behind a desk all day do this one as often as you can, as much as once or twice an hour.
Email Martin at email@example.com and he’ll get back to you with all the information you need. Sessions, from £150.
Find Alice Hart-Davis at @alicehartdavis and thetweakmentsguide.com