A Three Step Approach To Optimal Movement: Part I – Mobility
If you are interested in optimizing how you move, then I’ve got a three part series coming up that will get you on the right track. We start today with Part I, in which I discuss the importance of achieving optimal mobility first in your pursuit of moving better. If you don’t make mobility training a part of your regular exercise routine, then you’re missing out on one of the most vital parts of optimizing your movement. And no, doing a few hamstring stretches before or after your workout does not count as mobility training!
Read on to find out more…
There’s an old adage in the fitness and rehab worlds that you need to “stretch and strengthen” to achieve optimal health and movement. While there’s certainly some truth behind this philosophy, I believe that it’s severely limited. Today, I want to talk a little bit about why that’s the case, and what you should focus on instead as part of a good fitness routine.
The main idea behind the mantra of stretch and strengthen is that you need to achieve both optimal flexibility and optimal strength in order to maintain good movement and musculoskeletal health. In theory, that’s a good idea, but in reality, there’s a lot more that goes into optimal movement and musculoskeletal health than just being simultaneously flexible and strong.
So, what do we actually need to ensure that we’re covering all our bases in a fitness routine? I’d argue that we need optimal mobility, stability, and proper loading of each movement pattern – in that order. Today, we’ll take some time to discuss mobility, and in parts II and III we’ll talk about stability and loading the movement pattern.
Hopefully, after all that, you’ll begin to see why simply stretching and strengthening doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to optimizing how your body moves.
Mobility is the first thing that I like to check off the list when I’m assessing a new client. Why? Well, simply put, they’ll never be able to stabilize and strengthen in a range of motion that they don’t have. So, if I want to get someone to move optimally, then I need to first make sure that they have enough mobility to allow them to get into the correct positions before trying to load a strength exercise.
You may have noticed here that I’m actively not using the word flexibility, but rather I’m choosing to stick with mobility. What’s the difference between flexibility and mobility? Well, flexibility refers simply to passive range of motion at a joint. Mobility, on the other hand, refers to active range of motion at a joint or at multiple joints within a movement pattern.
I really don’t care as much if I can lay you on a table and passively raise your leg to 90 degrees, or what your hip flexor length looks like on a Thomas Test. There’s a time where performing these various baseline flexibility tests is warranted to make sure that there is not a true soft-tissue or joint limitation. But, in reality, they don’t tell me a ton about how you actually move.
Thomas Test to assess passive flexibility of the hip flexor
The reason for this is because good movement doesn’t solely rely on flexibility, rather it relies on an optimal interplay between mobility and stability at each joint within a movement pattern.
For example, say someone can lay on their back and can passively get their leg up to 90 degrees of hip flexion in a straight leg hamstring stretch. Yet, when they get on their feet, they fail to be able to bend over to pick up something off the floor without compromising their spine by rounding their back.
Passive Straight Leg Raise Test. Image Source
Obviously, they don’t have a flexibility problem, as they can easily get their leg up to 90 degrees while laying on their back. But when they get on their feet and have to move in a functional manner by engaging multiple muscles and moving with multiple joints in a coordinated fashion, they lose joint integrity and round their back.
This is a mobility and stability problem, not a flexibility problem, and that matters a lot more when it comes to real life human movement.
So, with that being said, we must determine a person’s mobility limitations, not just their flexibility limitations, in order to truly understand how they move. We have to know whether or not they can actively move through a range of motion without compromising their form, not just if they can move through that range of motion passively.
For that reason, I like to use the Functional Movement Screen as a standard to look at a person’s mobility. This allows me to see if they have enough active range of motion to get through a multi-joint, functional movement pattern. Frequently I see people who have more than enough passive flexibility, but when going through the movement screen, they lack active mobility and stability while performing a functional movement.
Once we determine what a client’s mobility needs are, then we can start to address them. This may include a fair amount of passive flexibility work up front, but we also need to be sure that a mobility deficit is addressed with mobility drills in which the client is trained to move actively through the range of motion while stabilizing their body, and not just by using passive stretches. People can stretch their hamstrings or hip flexors for years and not make any progress when it comes to mobility because they never train with mobility drills.
A good sign that a corrective exercise, such as a mobility drill, is working is that there is some immediate improvement in the movement pattern. It may not immediately solve the problem, but it should illicit some immediate results. If that’s not the case, then you’re probably doing the wrong exercises and need to try a different strategy.
Once you try a mobility corrective exercise to improve a specific pattern, and you retest the pattern and see some progress, you know you’re on the right track. Continuing with this drill and continuing to track progress will ensure a long-term improvement in mobility.
One other crucial avenue to look at when attempting to address a mobility deficit is neuromuscular tension. Now that may sound fancy, but it is a crucial concept to understand in order to optimize mobility and function.
Basically, each muscle in the body is innervated by nerves from the nervous system. In that respect, muscles are really just like puppets that do whatever the nervous system tells them to do. Because of that, a muscle is rarely “tight” because it truly lacks flexibility. More common is the scenario in which the nervous system is putting the brakes on it for some reason. This could be due to a number of different factors, but the bottom line is that if we can get the nervous system to release the breaks, then we can immediately improve mobility.
A couple great ways to do this are with breathing work, and myofascial release.
Breathing is one of the few ways in which we can impact the autonomic nervous system. Simply taking a few deep breaths will get it to calm down and release tension throughout the body. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see some pretty significant and immediate effects on mobility just by performing 10 deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
In a similar manner, myofascial release techniques, such as foam rolling, massage therapy, and other similar options, not only affect the muscles and fascial network, but they also affect the nervous system. They do so by activating receptors that are within the muscles and tendons which sense pressure and consequently tell the nervous system to release tension throughout the muscle.
So, incorporating breathing, myofascial release techniques, and quality mobility drills will get you well on the way to making some significant and long-term improvements in mobility.
Incorporating these techniques into a regular fitness routine will allow you to make a much larger impact on your movement than passive stretching, not only within the gym, but in everyday life as well.
However, as soon as we start to make some progress on mobility, we can’t stop there. Once we see some improvement in mobility, we should progress to stability work within that new-found range of motion.
As important as mobility is, it does not and cannot stand alone. If you only focus on mobility and do not incorporate stability work and functional loading of each movement pattern, you will not have optimal movement success.
Stay tuned for the next post in which I’ll discuss some key factors when it comes to building on mobility work with stability training.
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