Excellent movement is the product of many elements working together. To move well one needs stability, strength, coordination, and mobility. Mobility is often confused with flexibility. Flexibility is the passive range of motion (ROM) of a joint, how far it can go. Mobility is how much control there is over the end range of movement. If you need more ROM to excel at a particular movement your time will be better spent on improving your mobility rather than flexibility. Connections between good mobility and lack of pain in clinical research are becoming more common. While research is showing that having too much flexibility and not enough mobility can actually be detrimental 1.
Many people say “I need to stretch” when they mean to say “my body doesn’t feel right, I need to take care of it”. Now, the question that needs attending to is not should I stretch but how should I stretch? I take this further and like to ask if stretching is even the right word. This question has a fluid answer. More research comes out on this topic every year. Movements that were considered healthy and important are often re-evaluated due to new findings.
Many of the leading theories on mobility have something to do with increasing the capacity of muscle tissue to lengthen it. This theory insists that If you are stiff you need to stretch out your tissue like a pair of new shoes. Once the fabric has lengthened you will feel more comfortable. Then, If you don’t stretch often enough you will return to a state of being too tight. This is something I often hear influencing people’s training in almost every athletic club and gym I’ve trained in.
A new theory has been emerging over the last 10 years that what is changing might not be the stretchiness of your fabric but the brains tolerance to stretch sensations. That what is inhibiting your movement if you feel tight is not limitations in your tissue length but a neurological fear of damage if you travel too deeply into certain movements. This is something that is exacerbated after injuries, repetitive motion, and inactivity. To improve your mobility you need to convince your brain that the movement will not cause damage to any of the involved structures 2.
In practice, using techniques with this theory in mind are proving more effective and less painful to overcome mobility blocks. The gist is to spend more time exploring the outer range of your ROM in a slow controlled and safe fashion. If you build the strength to lift your leg higher, the brain is less likely to think that there is a risk of injury.
Expanding mobility in this way leads to improved power and performance in extended positions, such as the squat. A baseline of comfortable mobility is also important to maintain to avoid pain. If you regularly use your body to accomplish a variety of daily tasks this should happen mostly on its own. The issue is when a movement pathway is extremely underused or underdeveloped due to injury or inactivity. the brain can begin to perceive a threat in that mobility. Potential real threats include instability and lack of control, further damage of an injured area, or a subconscious belief such as “my muscle will tear”. If the brain thinks an area is threatened its response is probably going to be a pain signal, even if there is no actual damage 3!
Static stretching, on the other hand, has been shown to have a negative impact on power movements such as squats, sprints and box jumps immediately thereafter 4. In fact, there is evidence supporting that static stretching as you did in P.E. class might actually be a waste of energy for most goals. A warm-up is certainly important. But you’re probably better off doing a bit of mobilization and performing movements that are similar to what you are warming up for. If you are trying to perform a cartwheel with straight legs, working on your cartwheel is going to get you there faster than trying to lay flat in your middle splits. There is a baseline of necessary mobility, sure, but if that mobility is lacking it is more effective to use very active mobility training to prep for a cartwheel 5.
The bottom line is that mobility is a fundamental aspect of any movement discipline. Whether your focus is running, CrossFit, gymnastics, parkour or just to be healthy, we want to optimize our mobility in an efficient and thoughtful manner. Using proper techniques for your movement goals to increase or maintain functional ROM will lead to quicker gains and more stability. Not all exercises are worth their time and its best to focus your energy on mobilizations that will support the kind of movement you love and keep your body feeling stable, strong and healthy.