ToM Part II: The Rise of Mobility
In the first article of our Trilogy of Mobility (ToM) we found that static stretching has little to no benefit for increasing performance or decreasing injuries, and we saw how it may actually hurt our performance if done before training/competition. We also looked at some alternatives to static stretching such as dynamic stretching and eccentric strength training. If you missed that article, here is the link:
In this article we’re going to look at the differences between flexibility and mobility, and why mobility is a better approach to take for performance and injury prevention. We’ll also give you the steps to increasing and maintaining mobility. I’ve posted some videos to help illustrate the concepts as well.
Mobility vs. Flexibility
Let’s get started by defining both mobility and flexibility. Flexibility is being able to get to an advanced range of motion (ROM) for a muscle or joint. Mobility is the ability to move throughout the entire physiologic ROM of a muscle or joint. While these may sound similar, there’s a big difference between the two ideas and the goals of each. Flexibility is about getting as far into the end ranges of motion as possible. It doesn’t take into account how we get there or what’s going on in the beginning or middle ranges. Mobility looks at the whole movement.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp. So, in order to clarify, I’ll give you an example. All gymnasts are incredibly flexible, it’s a requirement for the sport, but all gymnasts aren’t mobile. They can bend forward and rest their elbows on the floor, showing incredible hamstring flexibility. At the same time, a gymnast can also complain of clicking or catching in their hip when they first start to bend over or halfway through bending. For this gymnast, something is holding them up on their way to full hip/trunk flexion. Even though this athlete has the end range of motion, they don’t have the unrestricted mobility throughout the entire range of motion.
There are a couple of other major differences between mobility and flexibility. First, flexibility implies movement in one plane of motion- full trunk flexion, full arm extension, etc… Mobility implies movement throughout all planes of motion that a specific joint is designed for. It addresses three dimensions of movement as opposed to one. Mobility is about function whereas flexibility is about position. Another image would be of someone sitting in the splits (incredible flexibility) versus someone performing a head kick (incredible mobility). Mobility looks at control and strength of movement as well.
While flexibility is primarily concerned with lengthening a muscle, mobility looks at all involved components in the movement of a joint. It takes into account the joint’s shape and its surrounding capsule, the involved muscles, the rest of the surrounding soft tissues, and motor control/neuromuscular dysfunction.
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of why mobility is the idea that we need to have going forward. Flexibility isn’t bad; it just doesn’t address the whole picture. So then how do we get mobility? The following steps are what I’ve found as a practitioner to be the most effective in creating mobility, but there are certainly other ways to get there.
Addressing Dysfunctional Soft Tissue
The first step to increasing mobility is to release and relax the soft tissues surrounding the joint. The two big categories in this step are muscle and fascia (the ligamentous capsule is huge as well but we’ll address that in the next section). In order for us to have full range of motion in a joint, it’s very important that the surrounding muscles aren’t overactive. Let’s take for example the hip as it’s one of the most important joints in the body as far as mobility goes. In order for the hip to do full extension you have to have relaxed hip flexors. For the hip to be able to fully abduct, the adductors need to not be overactive, and so on.
The other main soft tissue component is the surrounding fascia. While this is a whole other exciting topic and one that we could (and probably will) write many articles on, for now we’ll stick to the basics. Fascia is connective tissue that covers all of the muscles, separates them (although it often blends muscles together as well) and allows them to move and slide freely over each other. Fascia is a brilliant bit of biology and when free and unobstructed, it supports and connects our body- allowing us to connect complex movements and perform them seamlessly without losing power.
Unfortunately when fascia becomes tight and dysfunctional (and it’s prone to doing so) it can create a straight jacket effect on our muscles and joints, stifling movement and our ability to generate and maintain power. It also is prone to “knotting” and creating those painful spots on our muscles.
So both of these structures (muscle and fascia) need to be loose and not overactive in order for us to have mobility. How then is the best way to achieve this? This is a complicated answer. For us practitioners there are many different tools and techniques. There are various manual therapy techniques such as cross-friction massage, strain counter strain, ART®, myofascial release, and many more.
Different instruments can also be used to break up fascial adhesions including gua sha tools, cupping, and Graston® (or other similar metal tools). I personally also have found great results with acupuncture as the needles allow me to get into the deeper layers of muscle/fascia with ease and less discomfort for the patient. The point is that most sports practitioners are well trained in relaxing overactive muscles and breaking up fascial adhesions, and finding the right practitioner can save you a lot of time and discomfort in trying to do it by yourself.That being said, the best combination is always to have body work done on you and then to maintain/enhance it by doing your own body work at home.
Both fascia and muscle respond really well to pressure and compression so that should be the focus of your work. This can be achieved by rolling on either a foam roller or lacrosse ball.“Voodoo flossing” is another great technique to do at home or the gym to quickly break up fascial adhesions. If you’re not familiar, it involves wrapping a band tightly around a muscle or joint and then moving back and forth. This combination of compression, tension, and movement breaks apart fascial adhesions and restores the natural sliding ability of the tissues. There are many other little tools and techniques to free up your muscles/fascia, but those should get you started.
I would also like to note here that many of these activities aren’t the most pleasant of things to do. When tissues are normal they don’t typically hurt with body work, when they are abnormal, they can be pretty painful. Stick with it though because the more you do this stuff, generally the less it hurts, and over time many people start to look at it as pleasant pain because they know it’ll lead to a looser and higher performing body.
Below I’ve posted some videos of rolling and flossing to help you. It’s important to remember that your practitioner is your best friend in making sure you are doing things correctly so consult them with any questions that you may have. It’s always better to stop and wait until someone can make sure your form is right than to do something crazy and end up hurting yourself.
Freeing up the Joint Capsule
The next step after freeing up the surrounding muscles and fascia is to work on the joint itself. Most major joints in the body are synovial joints, meaning that they have a ligamentous capsule that surrounds them, providing stability and a container for lubrication in the joint. This capsule tends to get tight when we have chronically overactive muscles and fascial dysfunction.
Tightness in a capsule then leads to decreased range of motion in the joint. Decreased range of motion leads to aberrant movement patterns which, for many people, ultimately end in pain and/or injury. Additionally, a tight capsule will also change the way the bones of the joint sit and will often times lead to impingement syndromes or labral/meniscal injuries. You may have heard of the condition known as “frozen shoulder” which is one the best examples of joint capsule dysfunction (tightness and inflammation) and how it can lead to pain and decreased ROM.
In order to stop this pain/injury train before it leaves the station, we need to free up the joint capsule. This will allow full passive and active ROM and ensure that the bones articulate correctly in the joint. This can be achieved by either stretching or compressing the capsule and through the use of various techniques such as joint manipulation, joint mobilization, strapping, and needling.
For now we’ll show some ways that you can, on your own, relax a capsule and increase mobility. We’ll stick with using the hip as our example joint, but the same concepts apply to ankle, knee, shoulder, elbow, and wrist as well. With the hip, the posterior part of the capsule tends to get tight (mostly due to sitting for long periods of time), pulling us into external rotation and preventing normal internal rotation. The trick then is to free up that posterior capsule. You’ll notice that many times bands are used to get increased stretch and traction forces into the joint capsule. You’ll also notice that there are many different ways to open up a joint capsule so if one isn’t working for you, it’s ok, just try a different variation.
If you want more videos on mobility, YouTube is where it’s at. As you may have noticed a lot of the videos here are from mobility master Kelly Starrett. His site Mobility WOD is one of the best resources out there and I recommend that you check it out.
That concludes part II of our Trilogy of Mobility series. Our third and final article will address what to do now with our newfound mobility. We’ll look at adding stability to joints, transitioning mobility into movement, and what happens when we get too much mobility. As always, don’t hesitate to contact us will any questions or comments that you may have!
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