Sink into a chair, and before long, the chair sinks into you.
That’s what Steve Maxwell has learned from people who come to him with nagging injuries—those twinging heels and sore groins, dodgy hamstrings and aching backs that just won’t go away. Maxwell has been fixing the bodies of world-class fighters—his own included—for nearly 40 years, and he’s been remarkably successful because the wisdom he taps into is even older. Ever since his days as a Division 1 college wrestling champ and throughout his career as a Brazilian jiujitsu teacher and belt holder, Maxwell has been studying ancient grappling science to see how traditional fighters managed to heal themselves and get back in the ring with no access to ultrasound, ibuprofen, or even ice. He used that knowledge to make his tough Philly gym, Maxercise, a destination for years for both federal agents and mixed martial artists (as well as the training base for his son, world-champion grappler Zak Maxwell), but it was only after he sold the business and went on the road as a consultant and traveling scholar that Maxwell made what could be his biggest discovery.
His breakthrough came when he discovered a link between the brutal training of Hindu wrestlers and the odd spinning rituals of Sufi monks known as whirling dervishes. The holy men weren’t just dancing, Maxwell realized; they were taking a page from the brawlers and rehabbing their bodies. Monks were the couch potatoes and Internet addicts of their day, spending insane amounts of time frozen in prayer and hunched over texts. All that butt time takes a toll on backs and knees and hips. Maxwell believes the monks picked up a self-healing tip from their spiritual brothers—the wrestlers—who were also considered a sacred caste.
Maxwell calls the technique “vestibular reset,” after the internal gyroscope we all have in our inner ears. Sit too long, and your vestibular system gets out of whack. You lose your sense of where your body is in relation to the ground; that’s when the fuse starts sizzling toward an injury. And why?
“Because everyone slumps in their own way,” Maxwell explains one afternoon. We’re in the shed behind the house where I work. He’s assessing the way I typically sprawl in my desk chair. “It’s not just the fact that you’re sitting that causes problems. When you stand up, the way you slump—the way your back has molded around the chair—is going to affect the way you move.”
In my case, I’m pretty much the Maxell speakers guy with a few degrees of leftward lean. Someday, Maxwell promises, that’s going to bollix my hardware and software, if it hasn’t already: My constant slump is going to throw off both my posture and my posture awareness. My inner ear will adapt to the new coordinates so that when I’m hunched over, I’ll feel like I’m ramrod straight. I won’t even know when I’m off-center. Awful will become the new normal.
“Even people who work out still end up sitting more than they move each day,” Maxwell points out. “And your body adapts to what you do most.”
Maxwell has a remedy: his own version of the vestibular reset, which he’s designed as an equally effective but less dizzying way to follow in the whirling footsteps of the dervishes and reboot healthy movement patterns. All you need is about 10 minutes a few times a week to put yourself through the same balance initiation you went through as a baby. The results, Maxwell promises, will blow your mind. He knows—he’s his own best customer.
“I carried chronic tension and pain in my mid-back for years,” he says. “Mobility and breath tension-release exercises never got rid of it. After a couple weeks of ‘baby training,’ my back has never been this tension-free. The exercises are as simple or complicated as you want to make them. They can be really easy or so challenging that even a high-level athlete would find it difficult.”
First, Maxwell wants to measure the damage. Stiffening isn’t just another part of aging, he points out; it’s a death sentence. You’re nearly seven times more likely to die within the next six years(!) if you need both hands and knees to get up from the floor. We’re creatures of mobility, so when we give up our ability to move, we’re signaling our body that it’s time to shut down. Luckily, the damage can be reversed if it’s caught in time. So Maxwell has me get out of the chair and step up against the wall. My head juts out a good four inches, and my arms torque inward as if I were still reaching for a keyboard.
“Now let’s get outside,” he says, “and take a few years off you.”
The reset, I’m shocked to discover, is a blast. I thought he was going to rack me out with all kind of grunting pretzel poses, but instead I’m rolling and crawling and generally monkeying around. “I do some form of this every single day,” Maxwell notes. “I also get up from my iPad and do the rocking, marching in place, and baby crawl as a reset to balance out the sitting on the chair.” Best of all, there’s no right or wrong way to assemble your own reset. Just pick from the menu and, baby-style, do whatever you want.
Watch Steve Maxwell explain the vestibular reset in this video:
The Vestibular Reset
Roll from side to side (back to stomach and back). Do each roll eight times on both sides (16 total reps).
- Roll over with arm, leg, and head.
- Roll over with arm and head only.
- Roll over with leg only.
- Roll over with head only (don’t use your legs or arms to help).
- Roll across the room without touching the floor with your arms, legs, or head!
- The “hard roll”: Roll left and right from the back without pushing off or assisting with your hands or feet and keeping your elbow in contact with the opposite knee. There should be no separation. Very challenging.
- Roll across the room on your stomach and holding your ankles (how pose position).
Crawl for three minutes total, alternating forward and backwards.
- Crawl forward using your forearms and thighs in a cross-crawl pattern. Keep the hips down and the head and chest high.
- Crawl backwards using the cross-crawl pattern of forearm and opposite knee.
Do each move 16 times.
- Rock back and forth from all fours—hands and knees (head up with butt to heels, and rock forward until the hips touch the floor).
- Rock back and forth from all fours—elbows and knees (bring your hips back to the heels and then to the floor).
- Without allowing the knees to touch or moving the hands, rock from a support position on your hands and toes (butt to heels and hips to floor). Keep your head up.
On hands and knees, crawl in each direction for one minute.
- Crawl forward, making sure that the opposite hand and knee touch simultaneously.
- Crawl backwards, making sure that your opposite knee and hand touch at the same time.
- Crawl laterally to the left, and then to the right.
- Crawl in a tight square. Four “steps” forward, four right, four backwards, four left. Repeat in the reverse direction.
- Leopard crawl: This is almost identical to baby crawling, but keep your knees off the floor and hips even with the shoulders. Your head stays up with the chest pushed forward. Take small steps at first—this uses every muscle in your body. Crawl forward for one minute, and then crawl backwards for one minute. Take care to keep the opposite limbs moving simultaneously.
- Sideways crawl: Start with knees together and hands apart, then move the knees apart and bring the hands together. The opposite hand and knee work together. Many find this pattern very challenging, but that’s what the reset patterning is all about. It stimulates the brain in a positive way. Crawl on each side for one minute.
- Spider-Man crawl: This is the ultimate, because it demands strength, balance, and constant attention to form. Unlike a bear crawl, which can get sloppy and allow your spine to sag, the Spider-Man Crawl requires you to keep your hips stay below the shoulders while your head and chest remain upright. Prepare to fall over a few times, but stick with it: “Your resulting fitness will be amazing,” Maxwell promises. Start with just one minute and build from there. Add a few seconds each day. Your goal is five minutes nonstop.
This is a great vestibular reset. It’s surprisingly cardio. Emphasize standing tall and lifting the opposite leg and arm. The rear hand reaches back to the thigh at waist height, as if reaching for your back pocket. Notice how the forefoot contacts the floor first, and then the heel. This is an excellent drill for teaching barefoot running. Do this at least 100 times.
Standing knee-to-elbows drill: Hold your hands behind your head. Try to touch your elbow to the opposite knee. It’s okay if you can’t touch—come as close as you can.
Vestibular reset adapted from maxwellsc.com.