When we talk about mobility we’re talking about the balance between our flexibility and stability. Limitations here can often lead to poor range of motion and decreases in physical performance as well as being a precursor to injury and the cause of pain, so it’s pretty important to be working at improving your mobility on a regular basis.
In a previous article we talked about how struggling with mobility can often cause us to lack confidence with a movement or to become frustrated with our progress, and it certainly can feel like a fight at times, when your asking body to do something like stabilise a barbell over your head while you move through a full range squat – that’s no easy feat! So in this article we’ll cover 4 specific strategies to help you make a start on getting more mobile.
Before we get into it a couple of things that are important to recognise are that we’re all built a little differently and have varying degrees of mobility, one person’s arms, legs or torso can be a different length to another’s so we’re each going to look slightly different when performing the same movement. Also our movement journeys up to this point are unique, some of us have moved for most of our lives, exercising or playing sports, while some of us are really just beginning to move our bodies for the first time, so it’s key not to compare yourself or your ability to anybody else.
Strategy #1 – Motor Control
The first port of call when addressing a movement issue is to look at your motor control, that is your ability to coordinate and control your body throughout the range of movement. Good motor control requires a full understanding of the mechanics and technique of the movement as well as adequate stability in key positions, for example you might be able to lift your knees above your hips when lay on your back (a test of flexibility), but getting into the bottom of a full range squat with the hips below knees can prove impossible if you lack the strength and balance (a test of stability) to get there. What’s needed here is practise, lots of slow, controlled and deliberate reps focusing on moving as well as you possibly can.
Strategy #2 – Soft Tissue Therapy
The goal of soft tissue therapies such as sports massage, foam rolling or trigger point massage with a lacrosse or hockey ball is to break up adhesions within the muscle fascia, a layer of thick connective tissue that wraps the entire muscular system, and restore it’s sliding and gliding properties. Layers of fascia and muscle tissue can become ‘laminated’ together and lose the ability to move freely which can present as muscle tightness, pain and/or reduced movement capacity. The most effective way to restore this capacity is to apply pressure across the fibres which creates a sheer force and encourages the tissues to move. A simple and effective way to do this is with a foam roller, either before or after exercise. As an example, you can lay the quads of one leg on the roller and rotate your body from left to right to apply a sheer force to the tissue. What you’re looking for is a change in the feel of the muscle, you’ll often be able to feel a lump or bumps under the roller that will dissipate with enough time under pressure.
Strategy #3 – Joint Mechanics
Our joints are designed to move through certain ranges of motion, although restrictions in the capsule surrounding the joint can often limit the amount of movement we’re able to achieve. One way to improve joint mechanics and create a stretch in the joint capsule is to add a band or external load to particular mobilisations that allow the joint to move through greater ranges of motion and in better positions. This type of mobilisation can be most effective prior to your workout and can often improve the range of motion you are able to achieve at a given joint in a matter of minutes. What’s important to remember is to maintain good positioning while holding the stretch, you want to try your best to replicate the ideal position of the movement you are trying to improve.
Strategy #4 – Muscle Length
These are your classic static stretches that put your body in a certain position and ask you to hold it for a length of time. Using techniques such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) or Contract and Relax, which involve applying opposing force to the muscle for short intervals during the stretch, are more effective than static stretching alone as they engage the neuromuscular and muscular systems simultaneously. Stretches like this are intended to increase muscle length, and so are best done after your workout. Primarily because your muscles will be thoroughly warm and more malleable, but also because increasing muscle length and decreasing muscle tension is not something you want to do if you’re about to go and lift something heavy or do something explosive.
Putting It Into Practise
Aim to do a short session of each day focusing on your target areas, and remember to link the mobilisation to the outcome you’re trying to achieve. If the goal is to improve your squat make sure you test it before and after the mobilisation, assess whether it is the same, better or worse. It’s also important to measure your progress over time, and how you do this will vary depending on the desired outcome. If you’re looking for increased range of motion and better position in movements, take photos and videos for comparison. If you’re looking to reduce pain, rate your pain on a scale from 1-10 and plot on a graph, and if you’re looking to improve performance in your workouts or your sport, perform tests that you can repeat periodically to ensure you’re trending in the right direction. Whatever your goal and whatever strategies you use, a small amount of mobility work done consistently is the best approach to take and the one most likely to lead to improvement.