Just stretch it out.
After you’ve killed your workout, you’re legs are a bit wobbly and you’re arms feel heavy, the best thing you can do is stretch, right?
Or maybe you’re hurting a bit, those knees are creaking and popping or you can already feel the pain in your shoulder comin’ back. You must not have stretched enough before that workout. You forgot to get all Gumby in your warm up, huh?
This is the typical recommendation from most trainers, advice giving workout buddies or know-it-all gym junkies.
If you’re sore – stretch!
If your form sucks – stretch!
If you’re achy, tight and in pain – stretch!
But this my friends, isn’t the answer.
Just stretching, the static holding kind, doesn’t actually solve any of the real issues – it doesn’t improve your position, it doesn’t erase pain, it doesn’t make you faster or stronger.
All it does is increase your flexibility. It takes your muscles and pulls them to the farthest they can go – their end-of-range position – and the holds them there. That’s what flexibility is.
And sure, that seems like it might be helpful. But being able to hold your max range and being able to do anything while in that max range are very different things.
That’s the difference between flexibility and mobility. Two words that are often used to mean the same thing – but really aren’t the same thing at all.
Stretching is very rarely the answer for any of your gym problems. Mobility is.
The Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility
The most basic, easy to understand definitions are:
Flexibility: the length of a muscle
Mobility: how a joint moves
Now those definitions are obviously boiled down to the nitty-gritty and don’t provide much clarification, so let’s expand them just bit.
Flexibility is the length of a specific muscle. Can you sit, with your legs stretched out in front of you and touch your toes? Super, that’s some flexibility you’ve got there. You can elongate your muscle as far as possible, to it’s end of range, and hold it. And the further you can stretch that muscle, the more flexibility you have. If you’re lacking in flexibility, you can measure it in inches or centimeters. Oh no Sally, you lost 2 centimeters on how far your muscles can stretch… That’s flexibility for ya.
But mobility is much more than how far you can stretch your muscle.
Mobility is an umbrella term. And everything underneath that umbrella is related to your mobility. Yes, flexibility falls under that umbrella. In order to have mobility, you have to have some flexibility, you have to have muscles that can stretch.
But you also have to have coordination, strength, motion in your joints, stability, movement across a plane and the ability to bear weight. All working together. It’s the bigger picture of how your body moves. Not just holding one movement, its about moving every which way and doing it safely and pain free.
To get into that healthy, supple body, you have to mobilize it. So mobility is not a one-and-done, cross that off the list kind of an action. It’s a constant commitment to evolve your body in different ways and to keep it limber and healthy.
Mobility guru, Kelly Starrett defines mobilization as:
“a movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance.”
So what limits your movement and performance?
Soft tissue restrictions
Motor control issues
Limited range of joint motion
Neural fluidity restrictions.
According to the guru, mobilization is the process to address all those movement problems. To turn your body into a supple and pain free specimen.
It’s more than just being stretchy. It’s about having functional movement.
That’s a Bit Sciency – Let’s Just See an Example
When you squat, you use tons of muscles in your trunk and lower half. But let’s simplify it down to your big leg muscles – you quad and hamstrings. Can you sit on the floor with your feet stretch out in front and reach out to touch your toes? Can you stand, bend one leg behind you and get your foot to touch your butt? Congratulations, you’ve got some hamstring and quad flexibility.
If flexibility was all that mattered – just being able to do those means you should be good at squats.
But we already know the spoiler – flexibility isn’t enough.
Because to do a squat, you have to keep your toes forward, neutral spine, knees out, hips open and get your ass down to that grass, all with a weight on your back.
And elastic hamstrings and quads don’t make all of that happen. That comes from ankle and hip joints with fluid and high ranges of motions, trunk and spine stability, the ability for your muscles to coordinate in a joint effort and for your skin, nerves, muscles and tendons to all slide smoothly against each other to get you down low and then back up.
That, my friends, is mobility. And just having elastic muscles doesn’t get you there.
Why Do We Care?
Every person should care about mobility, although I’ve been around the block a few times and know that most people don’t.
If your goal is weight loss or muscle building, it’s easy to only think about your training. Focusing more on calorie burn or muscle gains. And when you run short on time at the gym, mobility is the first thing that gets cut from your workout plan (if it even made it into the plan in the first place).
But this is a mistake! Because for elite athletes and novice gym-goers alike, mobility can IMPROVE YOUR PERFORMANCE in the gym. Drastically.
Being able to hit your full range of motion, combined with strong stability and strength, makes your training more effective.
You know how trainers always get on you about using the right technique. Having proper form in every exercise you do (if they aren’t harassing you about it, you should probably find a new trainer). Sure, proper from keeps you free of injury, but form is important because it actually makes that exercise effective.
Technique is technique for a reason. You can deadlift more weight if you’re back isn’t rounded. And lifting more means bigger muscles.
You can squat lower if your hips and ankles can move. And if you’re going lower, you’re activating your muscles more. And more activation means, you guessed it, more muscle growth.
We care about form to prevent injury, sure – but we also care about it because it makes our training better and our results faster. Mobility helps with those.
And sure, even if you aren’t that worried about how much weight you can lift, mobility is still important to PREVENT INJURIES.
Improved mobility can ensure that you can still lift those weights again tomorrow. As people train and get fatigued, it’s easy for their form to get compromised. And training day after day with improper form gives you a natural tendency for bad form.
Can you imagine doing 100 deadlifts with a rounded back? You betcha you’ll be feeling that back tomorrow.
And will you be making it into the gym tomorrow when you can hardly roll yourself out of bed?
So how does mobility actually help this? Let me copy that mobility guru Starrett’s example: the door hinge.
Have you ever hung up a door and tightened that hinge just a bit too tight? Well every time you open and close that sucker, you’ve got the door rubbing all up against the frame. And after enough times, you’ve got a pile of dust underneath from those pieces of wood shaving against each other constantly.
Your tight muscles and joints are just like that tight door hinge. They pull everything in tight and every time you move, they rub up against each other. This isn’t supposed to be happening. And we sure don’t want a pile of ground up muscles, nerves and bones piling up in our bodies.
Movement should be natural. It should be fluid and easy. When you’re tight and stiff, with limited ranges of motions, your body is just grinding itself up. Eventually leading to nagging aches and pains or huge, irreversible injuries.
But the problem to many gym goers face – they don’t feel pain when they do things wrong. And by the time they feel that pain, it’s too late to fix the damage.
Mobilization should be like a seatbelt.
When you get in the car, you (should) put your seatbelt on before you even start driving. You don’t wait until it’s seconds before an accident to try and get that sucker on!
You don’t wait until things start hurting to start protecting your body!
You start now. And you start working at it daily.
Because mobility is what’s going to get us into old age with a body that still works.
Let’s face it, every year that passes we get a little slower and a littler fatter. Because our metabolism naturally slows and our muscles naturally weaken. But your mobility can actually increase as you age. It’s all about protecting your body.
Mobility matters. And it should be used as preventative rather that curative.
So How Do You Actually Mobilize?
So we know that mobility is more than just static stretching.
What else does it really include?
Improving Joint Mechanics: Our joints are all designed to move in specific ways. But when we continue to train (or walk around life in general) with poor form and restricted movements, we get our joints all out of whack. This is a big culprit for injuries and long term issues. Mobility also works all the tissues and tendons around the joint to make sure it moves smoothly and safely in the directions it should.
Improving Sliding Surface: Your skin, nerves, muscles and tendons all have to slide around, on top of each other, smoothing if you want to reach full ranges of motions. But those suckers can get stuck and start fusing together – restricting your movements and bringing injury, poor form and sucky workouts. Think about trying to squat in skin tight jeans, it just ain’t happening. Mobility works to break the fusions that shouldn’t be there and keep all your parts sliding smoothly.
Improving Muscle Dynamics: This is what most people think when they picture mobility. Working to increase your ranges of motions in your muscles. Mobility does this by working to increase your ranges of motions through movements, not only static holds, and it does it in positions that mimic what you’re trying to improve. So you improve you squat dynamics in positions that mimic a squat.
If you haven’t done much mobility work in past, then I recommend you get started today! Here are a few tips to get the mobility ball a rollin’.
1. FOCUS YOUR GOAL:
You can’t go from stiff as a board to limber Gumby over night. And you certainly can’t fix every joint issue, stuck sliding surface or muscle restriction all at once. There’s a saying – the more you say, the less you’ll do. If you want your entire body to be mobile and supple, then you’ll have to mobilize everywhere (and yes, that’s the ultimate goal). But it’s unrealistic to mobilize every joint, skin surface and muscle movement everyday. Instead, pick your weakest and most immobilize areas and start there. Choose just 2 or 3 areas to work and give those your focus. After you see great improvement in those, then move on to other areas.
2. HAVE A PLAN:
Wishing and hoping doesn’t get you mobile. And sporadic stretching mixed with a few random mobility drills won’t either. Instead, dedicate a plan – one you’ll stick with. Can you give 10 minutes each night to mobilization? Awesome, do that! Once you’ve stuck with that for awhile, can you increase it to 15 or 20? Start small and focused and build up as you go.
3. USE IT OR LOSE IT:
As you work on mobility, start using those movements in your daily life. If you’re working on your squat mobility, then after you mobilize, practice your squats. Squat down when you’re going to pick something up instead of just bending forward. The more you practice, the more natural it becomes for your body and the more you’re body will keep that mobility work progressing. If you mobilize and never practice those movements, you’re body never learns to need to keep it.
4. FAKE IT TIL YOU MAKE IT
Mobility isn’t easy. And sometimes it sucks. Foam rolling tight muscles or using a band to oscillate your sticky joints can be painful. Mobility isn’t a relaxation technique – it’s hard work and requires dedication and commitment. Now don’t go crazy and force yourself into movements you aren’t ready for, but a little discomfort can be a good thing. You just have to grin and bear it. Literally, start grinning when it’s uncomfortable. Because even a few seconds of fake smiling can trick your body into thinking you’re happy about that horrible stretch of the groin. It helps the time go faster. And eventually, you’ll be limber and supple with a functional body that doesn’t snap, crackle and pop at every turn.
Mobility matters folks. Its the best and only way to keep your body safe, healthy and performing. If you ignore it now, you’ll regret it later.
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