The New American Athlete: Flexibility Vs. Mobility

Flexibility and Mobility sports fitness

The Following is an article by Dave Connor M.Sc. in Exercise Physiology and founder of the Bozeman Fitness Project.

With the recent surge in Americans exploring new avenues of fitness with crossfit and marathons, proper knowledge and maintenance of the body will be key.

Enter Dave:

Mobility vs Felxibility.

Throughout the eight years I’ve been in the fitness industry I have witnessed a paradigmatic shift in the way people in general define, understand, and approach their own bodies. In 2013 there are more untrained athletes (in the classical sense) performing incredible feats of endurance and strength and generally pushing the limits of the human body. Along with their new-found strive for fitness, Americans have experienced the inevitable injuries, setbacks, strains, sprains, and discomforts associated with exercise, training, and performance.

Mobilizing and improving the body’s ability to move comfortably in space is extremely important whether or not you are an athlete. Only paying attention when something hurts means it is too late. Mobility and flexibility are not one and the same. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to move passively through a range of motion using gravity, body weight, or other methods to pull it to a specific length. Mobility refers to the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion in a position of strength and stability. Flexibility has little functional meaning in the world of athletes, recreational fitness enthusiasts, and all others using their body every day: the end range of motion that a muscle is capable of producing in a passive setting far less important that that muscle, or group of muscle’s ability to move actively with stability. Mobility involves much more than passive motion: mobility involves the whole body and there is a neuromuscular component, soft-tissue and joint capsule component, motor control as well as a flexibility component.

When we think in terms of flexibility we are thinking of the ability of a muscle to move through a range of motion, regardless of the position’s functional value. This is passive range of motion and is not very useful to an athlete — or any one, really, without considering the other components of mobility. Tight muscles, adhesions, and other soft tissue issues must be addressed alongside flexibility because stretching provides only a temporary fix to often-chronic problems.

As an example, imagine you have very flexibly ankles: you are able to move your knee far in front of your toes while holding a static stretch or the foot in to a great angle of dorsiflexion — this is ankle flexibility. Now try to squat down with feet together, butt to ankles and see what happens. The knees will likely no longer be in front of the toes and you will fall backwards. This is because of a mobility issue far larger than the ankle. A joint will affect the joint above and below itself—therefore knee pain is often a result of hip immobility or severe ankle restrictions. These need to be addressed using the techniques described below.

Another example of a position of functional instability and less-than-ideal positioning is that which occurs during the sit and reach test (Derek’s note – The V-sit/ sit and reach is seen in the presidential fitness challenge done in elementary schools). When you perform a sit and reach, the back is flexed in a position that is extremely dangerous and unstable when applied when standing. Image loading this unstable position with some additional form of resistance. When considering mobility work and stretching, it is important to maintain a stable position of the joints involved (e.g. spinal neutrality). Stretching the hamstrings while rounding the back is not something I would ever recommend.

How to mobilize.

There are various methods that anyone can use to deal with soft tissue and joint capsule restrictions, as well as functional range of motion issues. Compression (using elastic bands), foam rollers, lacrosse or tennis balls, and other tools can be used for trigger-point release. High compression for short periods of time helps increase blood flow, break up adhesions in soft tissue, and increases lymphatic drainage-essential for tissue recovery and repair, while also improving the body’s ability to move through essential ranges of motion without restriction. Targeting issues with tools such as foam rollers and lacrosse balls is also beneficial and helps reduce soft tissue issues including knots, adhesions, and other restrictions that develop from training (and sitting alike).

Stretching is also essential and should be included in the mobilization of body segments, and should include proprioceptrive neuromuscular facilitation (contract-relax stretching). Other valuable resources include manual therapists such as massage professionals, and physical therapists who practice Active Release Techniques.

When to perform mobility work

Mobility work is important for all athletes and is much more than simply applying and holding the end-range of motion to a muscle. Soft tissue work can be performed any time, though it is most often undertaken prior to training or exercise. This is a good strategy because it helps prepare the body for movement and may assist with range of motion and neuromuscular issues. However, mobility work can be undertaken post-exercise and is a good addition to stretching.

In summary, mobility and flexibility do not share common definition. Mobility is the functional ability of the body to move with stable and strong, flexibility simply refers to a muscle’s ability to lengthen without regard to function. Mobility should be the primary focus of preventative care of the athlete’s external body. When engaging in high amounts of exercise and training it is essential to add soft tissue work, compression, and other modalities to the stretching regimen that is almost universal. Changing the way you understand how we move and care for our bodies now will pay dividends in performance immediately and keep you healthy in the long term.

Dave’s recommended products:  The rumble roller and Trigger point tools


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