Mobility, stability, flexibility??
A lot of people come to me telling me they need more flexibility and ask what stretches are best to get them into their desired position.
The answer has a lot to do with individual joint mobility, stability and our nervous systems overall willingness to access these different body positions.
What do we do if we have less mobility, stability, flexibility than required for our chosen endeavours and sports?
Can we be both mobile and strong? And if I am strong but not mobile, how do I go about getting more mobility?!
The rabbit hole is endless, but I am hoping this short blog can help answer a few of your questions.
Mobility, stability and flexibility.
These buzz words are concepts that can be confusing for everyone as often they are used interchangeably by clinicians and coaches.
To give context of what I am talking about today let’s define them:
Flexibility is defined in the oxford dictionary as “the quality of bending easily without breaking” and I think it is generally an umbrella term that includes the practice of both mobility and stability at a joint or during a movement.
Some very smart people have previous defined mobility and stability as:
Mobility: the ability to move through a range of motion or produce a desired movement freely.
Stability: the ability to control that range of motion and resist force or undesired movement.
What do we do when we feel stiff or lacking in “flexibility”
As humans, how stiff or flexible we “FEEL” is not a great criterion for determining our range of motion. It is also not the most reliable way for us to track progress when working on mobility or the most important thing to pay attention to.
How we “feel” is a product of our brain and nervous system and many other external interrelated components. Due to this, it’s hard to use our “feelings” as a singular measure of mobility.
- We may feel tension or stiffness in a muscle that could be caused by fatigue –> think 2nd day DOMS after a big workout.
- We may feel stiffness or tension due to a muscle being lengthened or weaker than required –> think that muscle that no matter how often you stretch still pull up “tight”.
- We may feel tension in an area due to lack of movement, causing a lack of blood flow to that area. This means limited ability to perfuse the tissues with oxygen –> think lower back stiffness or hip stiffness after sitting at your desk all day.
- We also could just feel tight or tense in a particular muscle as that muscle is short, tight or giving feedback to receptors in our muscle that transmits to our central nervous system that tensions in this tissue exist –> think “tight” neck muscles causing a headache.
To break down into a clearer example:
Your hamstrings may feel tight; however, they may already be in a “lengthened” position.
If we paid attention to how we felt in this case, (which most people do) we would try and stretch them and chase that feeling of stiffness or tightness until it went away.
Stretching may provide relief for a short period of time but usually will come right back when the effects are worn off, so we go and stretch again.
The issue with this is if our already lengthened hamstrings are being further stretched due to feeling tight, we are effectively reinforcing something that could be causing problems or issues for our mobility or stability in the first place.
These same hamstrings could be tight, due to the Central Nervous System (CNS) locking them down, as they lack the pre-requisite levels of stability somewhere up or down the kinetic chain.
Therefore, no matter how much stretching we do, this tightness sensation will not change as we actually need more strength and stability (active neurological control) of this area.
What does the brain have to do with it?
Muscle tightness is neurological in nature. There are circumstances where it may be contractile tissue tightness, for example after a hypertrophy block where the size or cross-sectional area of a muscle increases, but in most cases when we “feel tight”, we are talking about muscle tightness as a product of the nervous system.
The king of the nervous system is our brain and spinal cord, known as our CNS.
Buzz mobility tools like foam rolling, static stretching, PNF stretching, trigger point ball release etc. have been shown to be short-lived with their benefits which is why reinforcement from the nervous system is so important to make these changes “stick”.
We need to respect the limitations of these implements and learn how to use them in a routine for the greatest effect. Mobilising the area followed by locking down the area through working on active control of this range results in increasing stability.
I am not saying all stretching and passive mobility tools are useless.
They can be useful to access a range of motion that our nervous system may not previously allow us to access to.
What is integral is that we move onto stability techniques to lock down that new range of motion so our nervous system allows us to access more range of motion in that area in the future.
In order to get new range of motion, we need methods that allow us to control (improve stability) the newly accessed range of motion (mobility) and allow our nervous system to integrate these changes.
Our body needs to be comfortable and in control of the newly found range of motion in order for our nervous system to allow us to access this range of motion again.
So what kind of things will allow us to gain control over new ranges of motion?
- Loaded stretching or using weight to help bring our body into a new range of motion, then actively controlling this weight in this range of motion. (Sounds a lot like strength training!?)
- Loading the new range of motion or spending time in the range of motion we are trying to acquire. For example, if you are trying to improve your mobility in a squat, spend time in the bottom of a deep squat!
- Spending time in the new range of motion and controlling this new range through tempo work eg. Doing sets of a 3 second eccentric into a squat, with a 3-second pause and a 3-second concentric contraction.
Don’t get stuck in the vicious cycle of mobility work – feel-good – effects wear off – repeat each day while accessing NO new range of motion or carry over.
Mobilise smarter, not harder!
Need help!? Drop a comment below and we can chat!