Mobility & Flexibility Training: When, Why, and How
First off, when discussing flexibility and mobility, it is very important to distinguish between the two terms, as they are often erroneously used interchangeably. Like most topics in the healthcare and fitness industries, there is some gray area when arguing if something is a flexibility or a mobility exercise.
By definition, flexibility is “the ability of a muscle or muscle groups to lengthen PASSIVELY through a range of motion (ROM)”
(Example: bending forward to touch your toes)
On the other hand, mobility is “the ability of a joint to move ACTIVELY through a ROM” (Example: lying on your back and raising a straight leg off the ground).
The main difference between the two terms is active vs passive movement. Keep that in mind as you read and digest some of this information.
Before we get into this post a little deeper, I want to bust some common myths of stretching and mobility exercises:
Muscle stretching (dynamic or static) does not reduce the risk of injury.
Stretching does not reduce soreness after lifting or other athletic events.
Stretching is no better than passive recovery in the recovery of strength
Improvement in ROM with stretching during the first two months is not due to increased muscle and tendon length, but rather nervous system adaptations improving the tolerance of stretching
*If you want to nerd out, there are some reference articles at the bottom of this blog for you to read, which support these myth-busting statements.
So why is mobility training so important? And why should you be performing mobility and flexibility exercises?
During normal human movement, whether you are competing in a sport, or doing a simple movement like reaching to the back seat of your car, your body needs to be able to move in various positions, often close to your end ranges of motion. Injuries often occur at these end ranges, but rarely do people train their bodies in those positions.
Let's look at squatting for example, as it is a very functional movement we perform as humans, yet so many people lack the flexibility and mobility to perform it properly. Being able to move through a full-depth squat requires mobility all the way up at the shoulder and spine, with an even greater demand at the hips, knees, and ankles. Now, if any one of those joints, or the muscle groups that control those joints, do not have adequate ROM or control to complete the movement properly, the risk of injury dramatically increases and we will not be yielding the full benefit of the exercise. Overuse injuries can occur when these poor movement mechanics are then loaded with weight and performed repetitively.
You can see the difference in hip, knee, and spine mobility (active control) between the two athlete in the image above.
Left: Spine is in a neutral, tall, and erect position. Hips and knees are deep into flexion. Ankles can't be seen, but you can tell the shin is angled forward, so her ankles are dorsiflexing well.
Right: Lumbar spine is fallen into extension (arch). Hips and knees are not deep into flexion. Less shin angle, indicating limited ankle movement.
Which one is likely to experience pain during weighted squats?
Now that you know the importance of having proper flexibility and mobility, it is crucial that you understand when to perform this type of training. Prior to any strength, power, or athletic event, it is beneficial to perform mobility exercises as part of a dynamic (moving) warm-up routine. Research shows stretching, especially when held for greater than 60 seconds, immediately before activity, negatively affects performance. So no sitting around touching your toes before you compete or hit the weights! Instead, try performing mobility exercises to get the most out of your potential. Research varies dramatically when discussing dosage of a mobility movement. I would recommend performing the mobility task between 5-10 times and holding the position for a brief 5 seconds in a controlled manner. We're basically training the tissues and nervous system to be ready to control movement in these ranges of motion that haven't been accessed in a while. At the bottom of this article, we have listed a few mobility exercises that we find very effective when working with our client, so keep on reading!
This does not mean that flexibility and static stretching is useless; however, there is just a time and a place to perform them. If you are dealing with tight muscles, ie. hamstrings, quads, lats, etc. the time to stretch them is after the muscle has been warmed up a bit, but certainly not prior to an athletic event for reasons mentioned above. Going back to our squatting example, let's imagine we are trying to perform a front squat, but the flexibility of our lats will not permit us to perform the exercise with proper form. After warming up the upper body for about 5 minutes, it would then be a great time to stretch your lats to improve flexibility. When performing static stretching, research shows that the dosage should be completed at least 5 days per week and held for approximately 60 seconds per muscle group. There are somewhat diminishing returns when performed beyond that dosage.
To really lock in that new flexibility you gained from stretching and to make it lasting, useful mobility, I would recommend performing mobility exercises after stretching to then use this new ROM you have created. This means actively moving your joint through its full range of motion.
So now that you are equipped with the knowledge of when, why, and how to perform flexibility and mobility exercises, as promised, here are some drills that we like to use at AFI to help people move better, get stronger, and hurt less!
For more videos on mobility, specific strengthening exercises and other therapeutic and performance-based training, check out our social media pages:
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Connor Meyerhoeffer, PT, DPT, CSCS