Mobility? What is that? It is something for yoga gurus or Pilates enthusiasts… – that is the typical answer of old school strength coaches to the question whether they check and use mobility in their training programs.
Sorry my “old” colleagues, but that is something very important!
This Joint by joint training system has been created by Gray Cock and Michael Boyle, and is essentially saying that, for efficient movement, some of our joints need more mobility whilst others need more stability. As you can see, all major joints in human body which need to be mobile such as ankle, hips, thoracic spine, part of the cervical spine, glenohumeral joint and wrist joint are coloured with pink. What they brilliantly discovered is that if we lose mobility in one joint segment, our body will have to replace that lost mobility with another upper or lower joint. If hips are not moving properly, the body will start to compensate that movement and most often the lower back will start to move too much. According to Dr. Stuart McGill, leading authority of spine biomechanics and function, that is the recipe for lower back problems – read pain. If ankles are too stiff and don’t move properly, there is a big chance for knees to suffer and start moving too much what, in the end, can cause knee problems. As far as the upper body is concerned, if the thoracic spine is rigid, scapula starts to move too much creating shoulder instability. And we could go on listing…
I found out that too many coaches do not know the difference between flexibility and mobility. They think it’s the same thing. Mobility is not flexibility! By my definition, flexibility is ability of a muscle to reach a maximum length between 2 joints, whilst the mobility is maximum range of movement between structurally connected joints. Mobility includes joint range of motion together with tissue and muscle flexibility and some stability. When you notice someone with flexibility problem, you never know is this actually a muscle length problem, a fascia problem, a passive connective tissue problem, a capsular problem or maybe a stability problem in another body region. By doing so, stretching is definitively not the only way to solve the problem.
To make mobility easier to understand, I will give you some of the “lack of mobility” examples:
Let’s say you have a client or an athlete or you personally have tight hamstring musculature. If your hamstrings are always tight, you can stretch them day after day but nothing will change. Why?
Muscles don’t just get tight because they want to be tight; they’re tight because someone, namely, our brain ordered them to be tight. But why in the first place our brain wants them to be tight? Because by acting so, our brain is protecting the instability in some other joint, compensating another area of the body that isn’t generating enough tension to stabilize it or, we might have lost mobility in some other joint. For example, you can have a thoracic hyperkyphosis and by this, whilst standing or walking, you are leaning too much forward. In this situation your brain sends the message to the hamstring: “Hey guys, be always contracted and protect us from falling down on our nose!” The stretching itself can only help to reduce neural drive to our upper leg backside musculature for a moment and for a while shut down protective mechanisms causing a muscle to be tense. But what is more important, it doesn’t address the cause of the muscle being tense and that’s why you can stretch all day long but length changes will be difficult to notice. Stretching in this situation can’t help because this is the joint alignment problem, you lost the thoracic MOBILITY and you need to correct your upper back posture. Start with some thoracic MOBILITY drills, extension, extension with rotation in order to correct the standing posture. As soon as you start standing more upright, the brain will send the message to the hamstrings musculature: “There is no more danger of falling forward, you can stop working overtime!”
During basketball match the coach is yelling to an athlete: “Lower your legs” or “Your stance is too high”. But the athlete, as much as he tries to be lower, no difference can be noticed. I witnessed many similar situations in other sports as well. Where is the problem? We FIRST have to check his MOBILITY in the hips and ankles region! How deep will be his athletic stance depends on his ability of making as deep squat as possible with his own bodyweight. Athletic stance is always somewhere in the middle between max depth bodyweight squat and normal stance. If your athlete is capable of performing only 30-degree deep bodyweight squat, you can imagine how his athletic stance will look like. While he is not able of performing a bodyweight squat to a minimum 90-degree angle, his movements on the court will not be optimal. Before every workout in the gym or on the court, he needs to mobilize his hips in all 3 planes of motion as well as to gain ankle mobility primarily in sagittal plane. There could appear some stability problems as well but that is not the story for this blog.
Pay attention next time you see a 1 or 2 years old children how easily they stay in perfect deep squat position for a long period of time. How is possible that a 1-year old child can deep squat and we can’t? Is he/she having stronger legs? I doubt it… This is a sign of great mobility with which we are born and then we had to gain stability for this mobility system to be able to stand up and to do a perfect squat. This was a normal neurodevelopment strategy by our Mother Nature. So if nature gave us tons of mobility when we came into this world, it is something we have to primarily test and, if it’s necessary, emphasize first before starting with our training or rehabilitation in order to achieve results faster.
These are the “symptoms” when certain person misses mobility in one or more joints. Because all of that, the importance of mobility in everyday training is very important. Mobility needs regular work on a daily basis. During the general warm up, spend some time doing calf-hip-thoracic mobility and you will be surprised how easier and more fluid you will feel when you start to play your sport, exercise in the gym or run. Come on people, let your joints become more mobile!