Mobility. Such an enigma. A word a hear thrown around a lot that I feel like needs defining. People talking about good versus bad “mobility”, or that they don’t have the time or the right tools to increase mobility. I also feel like people use the word “mobility” as a replacement word for flexibility – which is understandable, but very far from the truth. People also miss the “mobility” mark by using mobility exercises as warm-up up for full-blown workouts. Take a looksie here at my recent post on warm-ups for more info. So let’s spend a few minutes defining the word and discussing some different facets of mobility that may be new to you.
Mobility, in simple terms, is the ability to move through a functional movement without any restriction. Different sports or tasks all require different amounts of mobility. Mobility can be limited and affected by a whole plethora of factors. Joint capsule stiffness, muscle length, neural tension, strength and motor control are all aspects that define your mobility.
Flexibility, on the other hand, is just simply looking at muscle length. So someone can be very flexible, but at the same time, be lacking the strength to control their excessive movement – so they would not have good mobility.
So, do you see how flexibility is just a piece of the puzzle to having “good mobility”?
So now that we are all enlightened – what types of exercises do you feel like need to be included in working on your mobility?
I would never hate on anyone working on general mobility because they want to. Right on. But if we are all honest with ourselves, we do things daily where we might have sticking points or opportunities to work on our mobility. Whether that is you are an Oly lifter and need to feel more comfortable in the bottom of your squat, or you are an air conditioning technician and need to be able to work in an overhead position for minutes or hours on end. We need to make sure our mobility drills are specific to our goals, our sport, and our life.
Before you roll your eyes or scoff at my audacity to type that. Hear me out. As stated earlier there are MANY aspects that affect our mobility. Foam rollers, bands, lacrosse balls etc are all great tools that have an appropriate time and place to be used. But to be able to lay your head down at night, and be comfortable with your mobility work for the day, you need so much more than laying on a foam roller for an hour.
People, athletes, coaches and health professionals make claims that foam rolling and similar modalities do things like “break up scar tissue” or “decrease adhesions”. Evidence tells us a different story and that story, simply put, is that we cannot generate enough power in the human body to, on a cellular level, change tissue and fascia. “But Brooke, I feel so much better after I foam roll! It has to be doing something!” Well, of course, and I would agree, but the WHY is so much different than our tissues are actually stretching and changing. To be honest, we aren’t exactly sure the mechanism but our best guess is that it is a neurophysiological effect. When we foam roll or stretch with bands, we, as humans, have a perceived change in tissue. We FEEL less tight. So then we can go into our squat work out or run and feel less tension, so we can obtain greater depths, better positioning or have less post-workout discomfort/pain.
So, what is the point of all this? Foam rolling works but for a different reason than we all think. So how should this change the way we “work on mobility?” The studies that have looked at this neurophysiological change that happens in our tissues reveal that this change or response can happen quickly and is short lived. Ideally, we use our foam roller on specific muscle groups, for a few minutes to obtain this response and then immediately follow it up with task-specific (de ja vu?) drills that allow us to work in better, more efficient ranges and positions. That is where the magic happens.
One of the most annoying things in the world is the type of a word document and then to accidentally exit out of it without clicking save. Spending time stretching without strengthening and stabilizing in the newfound range is the same.
Spending time stretching and rolling is void if you don’t immediately follow it up with strengthening in the new ranges you have obtained. As stated earlier, new ranges of motion and increased movement from stretching and rolling are short lived. So people efficient with their time and good stewards of their joints will gain range, and then immediately follow up with a strengthening drill that allows the muscle to gain strength in newly found ranges and positions.
Even better, why not stretch and mobilize while strengthening at the same time? There are times and drills that can accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, and from experience, feel like this tend to be the most effective for rehab patients as well as athletes.
Mobility is a complex idea that I believe is best accomplished when an athlete can come at it from all angles – static and active stretching, neural glides, controlled stabilization, and strengthening. There is no tool, gimmick or amount of jackhammering that is going to obtain mobility for you. So broaden your mobility horizons – and as always, contact your local physio for specific drills and corrective exercises to help you obtain your mobility goals!
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