Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
29 Apr

The Importance of Mobility: The Hips

hipPeople are exceedingly mobile these days. We can jet halfway across the world at a moment’s notice, check email on our phones, hop in the car and be in another state in five hours, conduct business from anywhere, transfer schools, and shave while reading the paper on the morning commute. Social mobility, financial mobility, spatial mobility, information mobility. Mobile workforce, mobile phone, Google Mobile. Yeah, clearly, mobility is highly prized.

What about joint mobility?

Too many people discount, or even outright ignore, this crucial aspect of physical fitness. Raw strength, speed, and stamina are all important, especially to athletes or weekend warriors, but everyone of any age or fitness level needs the ability to move their limbs and joints through their full range of motion as ordained by nature. That goes for grandmothers, teens, and couch potatoes alike. Though not everyone will be picking up barbells or running sprints or long jumping, we all have to function in a three-dimensional world. We all have space and gravity with which to contend if we’re planning on enjoying and experiencing all life offers, and that’s accomplished by moving through spatiality and against gravity. To thrive in this environment, we require the full, unfettered use of our limbs, joints, and muscles. Losing the shoes is a big step; so is getting strong and fit. One of the biggest, in my opinion, is regaining and maintaining maximum joint mobility.

“Regaining,” because we are born with joint mobility. Ever watch children play? They’re bendy, flexible little sprites with perfect squat and deadlift form. And they don’t need formal training to get there! Attainment of joint mobility, then, is regaining what was lost, not inventing something new.

Regaining’s the easy part. You’ve got to maintain your mobility, too, or else you run the risk of misplacing it all over again. Once you learn the mobility exercises, it’s actually really pretty simple to maintain. People generally fail out of sheer forgetfulness or laziness. If you can incorporate mobility drills into your regular warm-ups or daily activities (or even institute them as standalone workouts), maintenance becomes second nature.

Everyone has to pick up groceries, or walk up stairs, or perform any number of mundane tasks requiring the use of joints and limbs. If those joints and limbs are going to be useful, they have to be mobile. They need a full range of motion.

And if you are an athlete, mobility is even more important. Strength without the ability to move your body and limbs fully and completely – without the ability to use your strength in the real world – is pointless. Strength development itself suffers without proper joint mobility. The strongest lifters are the ones who move weights (or just themselves) through the full range of motion using compound movements and utilizing healthy, active joints. If you have poor joint mobility, performing quality squats, deadlifts, presses – any compound movement that requires precision and communication between joints and limbs – it’s going to be that much harder, and the risk for injury that much higher.

Power output and speed will be compromised with poor joint mobility. When you shoot a rubber band, the farther back you pull it, the more tension there is, and the farther it shoots. The greater your joint mobility, the greater your range of motion, and the more tension – and therefore power – you’ll be able to generate.

Most importantly, maintaining adequate joint mobility keeps our joints healthy. Just as our bones and our muscle fibers require physical stimuli, like load-bearing activities, to maintain strength, density, and to initiate positive structural changes/adaptations, our joints require regular movement and usage to maintain health and mobility. Think of your joints as hinges to a door; if the door is never opened, never used, and subjected to steady environmental or elemental decay without reprieve, that hinge isn’t going to work well. It’s going to rust, and it’ll creak and groan if you’re even able to get it moving. Same thing goes for the sedentary office worker, the bodybuilder who only focuses on pecs and biceps, and the daytime TV watcher. Their joints aren’t being used to their full potential (if at all, in some cases), and their mobility will suffer. Like the Tinman in Oz, their joints will “rust” over and the simplest tasks will become difficult, almost Herculean in extreme cases (and in old age).

Hip Mobility

Our joints, limbs, and muscles represent a collective of individual pieces, all working together to move the body, manipulate objects, and propel us through three dimensional space. Mobility in all areas is crucial, but it helps to consider them in segments. After all, different people will have different levels of mobility in different areas of the body. Perhaps the most common mobility deficiency resides in the hips. In my own case, it was a lack of hip mobility that was the proximate cause of my downfall as a runner/triathlete. I basically “seized up” after fifteen years of overuse in a very limited plane of movement.

People have forgotten (or don’t know) how to use their hips the way evolution designed them to be used. Instead of sitting back with their hips to pick something up, followed by a hip extension (thrust forward) to bring it up, they’ll bend at the waist and lift with the lower back. Picking up a potted plant? You can get away with poor hip mobility – for a while. Picking up a weighted barbell, a child or a bag of peat moss with poor hip mobility using your lower back? That’s an injury waiting to happen.

We sit too much. I know I do, and it’s especially bad to do so right after working out (yet I still do it sometimes). Sitting impacts hip mobility in two major ways: it weakens the glutes and it shortens the hip flexors. Both your glutes and your hip flexors figure prominently in the activation of your hips, so when they’re weak and/or inactive, the lower back takes over. Now, the lower back, or the lumbar spine, isn’t designed for a ton of activity. It’s mainly there to provide support and stability. It’s the core, after all. But with poor hip mobility brought on by excessive sitting and a weak posterior chain, your hip extension is no longer sufficient, and in comes the lower back. That potted plant is beginning to look a little heavier, eh? And that’s not even mentioning the barbell.

It’s a shame, because our hips are obviously designed to generate a ton of power. The ligaments, the tendons, the musculature, and the bones in that region are all dense, hardy, and robust – they’re made for activity and mobility – but too many people are selling their hips short. And when that happens, the other joints and muscles (like knees or lumbar spines) have to pick up the slack. It’s an adaptive mechanism that perhaps any multi-limbed animal possesses: the quick substitution for an injured limb/joint by an adjacent one. It’s not meant to be a lasting solution, though. We’re not meant to limp through life using one joint to do another’s prescribed task. It just doesn’t work, and it’s exactly why most people lift with their backs instead of their hips and then complain about back or knee pain.

Restoring hip mobility will help in several areas. It should reduce or eliminate lower back and/or knee pain stemming from overcompensation. It should improve your power output by allowing you to fully engage your posterior chain in training exercises like squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and any of the Olympic lifts, while making them safer. It should improve the strength and power of your hip extension, extremely vital for performance of the aforementioned lifts, but also for vertical leaps, sprinting, and any basic explosive movement. It will improve your rotational strength; instead of rotating with the lumbar spine (a huge no-no), you’ll generate power with the hips – perfect for throwing a good punch, swinging a golf club, or tossing a big rock at prey. It’ll improve speed, especially sprinting speed.

Most of all, hip mobility will improve your relationship with the rest of your body. Because the hips are the most common sites of poor mobility, many people are walking around with dysfunctions borne of overcompensation. Fixing hip mobility won’t fix everything, but it will eliminate a major stressor on your system as a whole and allow you to focus on the smaller, but no less important, sites and joints.

Read on to learn how to regain and maintain hip mobility.

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Hip mobility is something I’ve been trying to work on a lot lately. While I’m only 25, I can certainly tell that it is dwindling slowly even though I’m an incredibly active person. I attribute it to my job and sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post on regaining hip mobility!

    Nick wrote on April 29th, 2010
    • I think a lot of hip problems stem from lack of understanding of all the possibility for movement around the area. You’ve got two femur heads with a huge range of motion, the sacrum which is the “wedge” of the pelvis, and then the two large, elephant-ear shaped hip bones, all connected to the spine-back and belly. I think a good place to start to regain “hip” mobility is to get down on the floor and start exploring all of these joints in a relaxed way. You will improve your awareness and thus use of the area! Hope that helps.

      Christina wrote on April 30th, 2010
  2. Grok strikes again! Since chairs are not naturally plastered to our rears, it only makes sense that standing is better.

    I’ve seen a lot of fitness programs starting to have at least some focus on joints (P90X Yoga X DVD, Convict Conditioning, etc.), and I think people are starting to realize that a lot of athletes and regular people wind up in the exact same position as Mark from failing to specifically train this particular area. If you can’t move your joints, then you can’t really do anything, can you?

    John Solter wrote on April 29th, 2010
    • Tell that to the goofballs who do nothing but train “beach muscles.” LOL

      I think if they actually did anything that required strength, speed, or stamina, they would just pop.

      And yes, sitting is the worst thing for a person’s spine. Of all my patients, my white collar workers are always the slowest to come around. Having a “cushy desk job” is NOT what it’s cracked up to be.

      Jared wrote on April 29th, 2010
      • What about sitting on a yoga ball at your desk? does this help any?

        xfitter wrote on September 13th, 2010
  3. mark -thrilled to see this post and as someone recovering from S1L5 and piriformis issues – i am really psyched about tomorrow’s post.

    barb wrote on April 29th, 2010
  4. hip mobility is one of my top priorities! i use yoga to achieve this…don’t even think about full lotus without loose hips :)

    misathemeb wrote on April 29th, 2010
  5. Hip mobility and strength is only one of the many benefits I’ve reaped from going primal. Now it’s easier for me to do everything, whether it’s carrying loads up the stairs, holding an awkward position while fixing the plumbing under the sink, or just painting my toenails.

    julietx wrote on April 29th, 2010
  6. For anyone considering a CrossFit Journal subscription… there are some amazing videos in there, all about mobility (and lots of hip stuff) by Kelly Starrett, who’s absolutely amazing.

    I’ve been following what I learned in those videos, and my mobility is through the roof. (I also have to admit, I’ve got a bit of a man-crush on Kelly; total stud, and amazing to listen to.)

    Just do a search for “Kelly Starrett” at http://journal.crossfit.com , and you’ll be amazed.

    Adam Kayce wrote on April 29th, 2010
    • I am going to have to agree with you 100%. Kelly’s stuff alone is well worth the $25 subscription. He has the unique ability to make stretching and mobility a really exiting topic. Makes me want to quit my desk job and go to PT school.

      Totally have a man-crush on him as well.

      chrisclimb2102 wrote on April 30th, 2010
  7. Funny, I was thinking about posting on this very subject today. As i have been watching my children grow, I am continuously amazed at how intuitive human movement really is. When they want to pick something off the floor, they don’t think “ok, so push the hips back, flex at the hips, knees & ankles, make sure there is adequate pressure througout the foot, and work on maintaining a strong back”

    No, they simply squat or dead lift and it is beautiful to watch. I am constantly carrying around my iphone so that I can catch them in action but because they are so efficient, they always catch me off guard!

    One of the great benefits of hip mobility and the ability to do the yogi or child squat is that of digestion. Holding the squat for a few moments in the morning certainly allows the intestines to release its load! Just don’t get caught with your pants down with out a toilet!

    Karl MacPhee wrote on April 29th, 2010
  8. Loss of hip mobility is what lead me to PB in the first place. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to solve my problem. I used to be a marathoner too and had to quit after manifesting IT band syndrome largely caused by my right femur being too far impacted into my hip joint. It is very frustrating because I have had this problem for two years now. A year ago I went to a PT and they could literally yank my leg out of my hip with a forceful jerk but they needed to do that once a week and no one else could do it the way the PT did. It really limits my back squat–about 60% of my force comes from my left leg. Very very frustrating. If anyone has any ideas or has gone through the same thing let me know.

    Michael wrote on April 29th, 2010
  9. Just foam-rolled my legs/hips for the first time in a week yesterday. Oy vey, am I sore today!

    Office jobs really take their toll…

    Seriously people, use a foam roller/tennis ball, because we can’t afford daily massages!

    Lis wrote on April 29th, 2010
  10. Good timing on this post. I did my LHT workout yesterday and then came to work (i.e., to sit for long periods in front of a computer) and wouldn’t you know it, but lower back stiffened up and is still tender today.

    I don’t blame the LHT workout, because I’ve been doing this type of thing for months. I do blame too much sitting (with bad posture a lot of the time) and not enough yoga to increase flexibility (my scheduled class doesn’t resume for another 2 weeks so I practice at home now).

    It’ll be swimming, yoga and walking for me until this goes away. Thanks for the timely post.

    Chris Sturdy wrote on April 29th, 2010
  11. Thanks, Mark. My top physical priority is hip mobility. Eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s post…..

    tpmjr42 wrote on April 29th, 2010
  12. Another awesome post, Mark! I love how you are so passionate about health of others :)

    Usman wrote on April 29th, 2010
  13. Here’s a yoga video for opening up the hips. I haven’t done it, but I liked watching the video. :)

    Alan M wrote on April 29th, 2010
  14. I’d like to add that hip mobility keeps your pelvic floor muscles in shape, which is vitally important. Pelvic Floor Disorder, which is tightened, shortened, weakened muscles can cause or be a contributing factor to painful sex, difficult childbirth, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, incontinence, organ prolapse, interstitial cystitis, IBS, etc. A great book that deals with this is Heal Pelvic Pain by Amy Stein.

    So, if your hips are still nice and flexible, don’t lose it!

    Kara wrote on April 29th, 2010
  15. I’ve become a big fan of two yoga poses for increasing mobility and radically reducing chronic stiffness: “down dog”, and “screaming pigeon.” I do them while resting between sets. Thanks to these two simple poses, the elimination of grains, and supplementation with turmeric and fish oil (both powerful anti-flammatory substances) I’ve been able to kick my two-Tylenol-at-bedtime habit, and helped rehab my shoulder, elbow, and Achilles tendinitis.

    Joe G. wrote on April 29th, 2010
  16. Great post, Mark. I see a lot of patients who have had hip replacements and they seem to be happening at younger and younger ages. And I am seeing significant hip arthritis in 30-40 year olds. Moving the joints is what brings nutrients in and pushes toxins out. Loss of mobility = loss of function = joint destruction (arthritis). You either move it or lose it, pun intended.

    The other cause of arthritis is chronic inflammation as a result of Syndrome X. This happens due to imbalances in the Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio, oxidative stress, and inflammatory dietary habits. So, in effect the PB is addressing this from two fronts, with physical activities and nutritional guidelines that will help combat this growing problem.

    Grok On!!!

    Jared wrote on April 29th, 2010
    • I’m 56 and just discovered PB. I’ve had both hips replaced already and was told by the surgeon that the only running I should do is “scooting to get out of the way of a car”. My question is how do I work in the sprinting aspect of the training with such limitations? Thanks for your consideration.

      Brad Rieger wrote on June 28th, 2011
  17. A great post Mark.

    I do about 6 weeks skiing a year and for the first few days of the season I find I have to deliberately concentrate and “exaggerate” to induce the needed range of movement in my hips and lower back.

    Looking forward to your exercise routines.

    Thank you for bringing it up.

    LeonRover wrote on April 29th, 2010
  18. It seems as if my hips become the most soar after a workout. I am usually in great shape and rarely feel soar after a workout.

    But, when that time comes where I maybe went too hard, adding some weight to the workout, went faster, or whatever, my hips are usually the ones that hurt more often then any other part of my body.

    This is why I am super excited for tomorrow’s post!!

    As I type this I am sitting down… I will now be moving to my standup workstation :)

    Primal Toad wrote on April 29th, 2010
  19. “Losing the shoes is a big step; ”

    I was just over at the Soft Star Shoes shop ordering a new pair of moccasins, and I got to see all the new RunAmoc minimal running shoes they are making now. They look really neat. I hope we’ll hear some reports from their new owners when they get out on the streets and trails.

    Nancy wrote on April 29th, 2010
  20. Stunning timing, Mark! I am training for an endurance event (in June) and have been thinking that by improving my hip mobility I can eliminate the minor discomfort I have started to feel in my knees and lower back.

    Can’t wait for tomorrow’s post!

    ZebraCracker wrote on April 29th, 2010
  21. Interesting timing.

    I have been working on my flexibility for a while now. My hips have been the worst. Just last night I finally, for the first time ever, managed a flat-footed squat. I used to have to go up on my toes to be able to squat or I would feel too much pressure on the backs of my calves and in my hips.

    Pidgeon pose, holding/relaxing into squat position every day, and other yoga stretches have helped so much. I look forward to seeing more recommendations tomorrow.

    Kat wrote on April 29th, 2010
  22. I’ve been doing the Agile 8 warmup before my daily workout.

    Just search Agile 8

    I’ve also started stretching post workout with splits (front, side, frog) pike, corba.

    brian p wrote on April 29th, 2010
  23. Hi Mark,

    This is an important topic.

    One of my favorite exercises for this is to raise up the kick-boxing bag and do both slow and full-throttle kicks as high as possible. This motion really helps me feel strong in my hips with a good range of motion.

    I also do the Olympic lifts and other fun activities, but there is something Primal about kicking that bag …

    Best,

    Brent

    epistemocrat wrote on April 29th, 2010
  24. Great post Mark and I can’t wait for tomorrows! As someone who had part of their femur replaced at a young age I am now experiencing the repercussions of that at almost 30. I definitely thought Philippe had a lot to offer in his session about the correct way to lift and how important the hips are for creating power. I have been consciously lifting very differently since!

    Greg wrote on April 29th, 2010
  25. Heh, my whole family is inflexible. I wasn’t even able to sit comfortably in the cross-legged position when I was in kindergarten (I remember, because they made us sit like that for floor activities, and it hurt my joints). However with yoga in the last year I’ve made huge gains in flexibility.

    Thankfully I have good natural form – many years as a tiny person doing relatively heavy household tasks has made me very aware of what won’t hurt me. People make fun of me for bending and lifting with my back straight (and butt up)!

    Bonnie wrote on April 29th, 2010
  26. Tai chi is wonderful at gently working the hips. Every move uses the hips and they are (should be) properly aligned.

    Also, since I became an “apple,” I’ve been standing through work meetings:)

    Debra wrote on April 29th, 2010
  27. My favourite is “Ass to the Grass” squats. You need to use a slightly lighter than usual load but your key is to come as close to touching your bum to a blade of grass as you can with a good (but not too heavy) weight load. Keep your reps to around 5-8 total but really make an effort to do a full, controlled squat until you can’t go lower. I am built like a fire hydrant but I can still go REALLY low and always work on remaining as flexible and strong as possible.

    Mike Cheliak wrote on April 29th, 2010
  28. Long time reader, first post. Great article. Yoga (or similar exercises) are a must for everyone. I’ve always thought it compliments other training by stretching and giving flexibility to your body. My partner does Crossfit and I wish that they would finish their sessons with a series of Sun Salutes – great way to massage your own muscles after a good workout. I really notice the difference when I take a break from Yoga – life gets harder as my body becomes less flexible…

    Thanks Mark, for an easy and enjoyable website to read.

    Caralyn wrote on April 29th, 2010
  29. very hip…!

    rik wrote on April 29th, 2010
  30. Nice unique post. I’m going to incorporate Yoga into my workouts soon too to face issues such as this. I also want to go barefoot, that’s be awesome.

    Richard, Personal Development Author wrote on April 29th, 2010
  31. Another well-timed post. I have an office job and a really chronic computer games habit, so I can be sitting at a desk from 5.30am – 10.30pm, barring travel to and from work and exercise sessions. This has been going on for over 20 years and unsurprisingly, my hip mobility has suffered.
    I’ve never been able to squat properly so last year I took it upon myself to (wo)man up and just do it, and began a campaign of squatting. Despite relatively light loads and careful application, I now have a lower back injury where there was once nothing more than the odd ache if I stood for too long. Now I can’t squat, deadlift or do anything that stresses my lumber spine. What a pain (literally).
    I’m getting ART and working on my mobility more but nothing seems to be able to counteract 20 years of sitting. I definitely recommend not leaving it too late.

    Indiscreet wrote on April 30th, 2010
  32. This is something that has gotten so much better for me since becoming primal and adding yoga to my exercise routine. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

    Primal Mama wrote on April 30th, 2010
  33. Extensive foam rolling and the Magnificent Mobility DVD from Eric Cressey have alleviated nearly all of my back pain. I was an offensive lineman for 10+ years of my life, with multiple Lumbar disc bulges and I can currently Front Squat ATG with no pain in my Vibrams!

    Brad wrote on April 30th, 2010
  34. You’ve touched a nerve with this topic ;-) Foam Roller & Lacross Ball after workouts and sprints, along with contrast showers goes a long way for full range of motion for me. http://s116928477.onlinehome.us/myorelease.htm
    Painful as hell, but effective.
    http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/flexibilityandstretching/ss/FoamRoller.htm

    michaelchasetx wrote on April 30th, 2010
  35. Could poor hip mobility be linked to spinal injuries received in car accidents which have never been treated? Could letting things like that go for 21/22 years cause other joint to start degrading from over compensation maybe? Is it at all possible that poor joint mobility in general can be linked to having too many children (pregnancy hormones = softened joint connective tissue = joints go out very quickly and don’t always make it back into the right place?)

    Venna wrote on April 30th, 2010
  36. Scott Sonnon’s Intuflow and Eric Cobb’s Z-Health joint mobility systems are both excellent total body approaches to joint mobility. Z-Health is fairly unique, based on the understanding of the overarching role of the nervous system, the principles of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand, the Arthro-Kinetic (arthro=joint, kinetic=motion) reflex, and Sensory Motor Amnesia (use it or lose it). Both have Youtube videos to provide more insight.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsMPqP7hxRk

    http://www.youtube.com/user/ZHealthVideos

    Lastly, Joe Lacaze (DC), has developed some key insights into the critical role of internal hip rotation to athletic performance and overall structural health of the body. Just as Esther Gokhale illustrated the prevalence and effects of being anteriorly rotated in the torso, neck and shoulders, Joe has documented the prevalence and effects of being externally rotated in the hips (tight piriformis, weak glute medius). Just look at how many people you see whose feet point out at significant angles–this is external hip rotation in action. He has developed an exercise / rehab machine that specifically targets the internal hip rotators (mainly glute medius). It is designed for clinical settings and cost a few $K, but I have used it and the effects are immediate and dramatic (fortunately, we have one of his machines in our rehab facility where I work). There is a lot of great info about the importance of internal hip rotation on his website:
    http://www.theanswer2009.com/site.php

    To feel what I mean when referring to internal hip rotation (this is much easier to do than it is to describe):

    –lay on your side, legs straight.

    –Keeping the knee of the upper leg planted on top of the knee of the lower leg, bend the upper leg at the knee, so that the shin of your upper leg is at a right angle to the femur of you upper leg.

    –Now, using the weight of that bent lower leg as resistance, raise that foot upward by rotating (not lifting) your hip/femur inward.

    From my experience, if your low back hurts/feels tight, 15-20 reps per side will result in an immediate reduction in tension/pain.

    Tom Schibler wrote on May 1st, 2010
    • Second post on this subject…I’m a dance/yoga/Pilates teacher who is recently into mixed martial arts and Crossfit, and slowly stumbling into the world of PB. Pilates on the equipment (and Gyrotonics and Gyrokinesis) and with props address all of these issues. The exercises encourage openness and full range in the joints. You practice circling your legs from the hip joint, internal and external rotation, and many other useful movements. Check it out!

      Christina wrote on May 3rd, 2010
  37. Great information! I am a 52 year old woman who has been “sitting” way to much (online instructor and graphic artist. I also have been suffering from burnout for a considerable number of years now and restricted somewhat (living in the boonies). I have the precursor for osteoporosis and have made some changes recently to get myself “moving” but have some ways to go.

    I have added some exercise to my day (less frequent than I would like but its a start). I just need to step up the pace and move away from the computer more often. I’ve been adding some walks (treadmill as its Winter here and slippy on these back roads) and slowly integrating some dance (Zumba). I am supposed to take calcium supplements also and do when I remember (not good at remembering to take pills). I also do some yoga stretches. I am inconsistent though but working on incorporating all of the good stuff on a daily basis.

    Just ordered the book and can’t wait for it to arrive …… been a while since I felt so excited about something!

    Sorry for the babble, hope I did not get “off topic”.

    Thanks for all of the insights :O-)

    Blessings

    Pam

    Pam wrote on February 19th, 2011
  38. I can’t say enough about Crossfit and Bikram Yoga. The combo of these two have done wonders to my body.

    Maggie wrote on May 1st, 2011
  39. Fantastic points raised, particularly too much sitting=short hip flexors & inefficient (weak, if you must) glutes.
    I came across this article via the “muscle imbalance” one, which I felt missed the point when suggesting that hamstrings are antagonists to the quads and related to excessive lordosis. Its the lower part of our glute max that have the postural function, not our 2 joint hamstrings. (Postural muscles generally only cross 1 joint.

    Mike Perry wrote on August 16th, 2011
  40. Can anyone write me back about the physiological ,social and family ,behavorial factors , how they effect human body mobility.
    Thanks.

    beena wrote on October 29th, 2011

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