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The Basics of Mobility Training - Part 1

Want to improve your mobility or flexibility? Here are the basics to consider for mobility training (AKA flexibility training).
The Basics of Mobility Training - Part 1

To be upfront, this article is not going to teach you how to do the yoga pose you see in that image. Nobody needs to bend like that…

You don't.

Okay well, not nobody, but 98% of people are not dancers or gymnasts or in some other niche profession where they need this level of mobility.

I get the appeal. I do. It looks cool. It's a great party trick for sure.

But do you need that much flexibility in your hips and back to function in life?

No. No you probably don't.

Most of us, simply need enough mobility to do the things we do regularly in life.

Again, unless you're in a profession where extreme levels of mobility are required to fulfill the job requirements. In which case, you're probably going to spend a good part of your day doing flexibility training already and this article isn't for you.

The thing about flexibility (and by extension mobility) is that you only need enough of it. And too much of it is basically just as bad (if not worse) than not having enough.

This is an article about building enough mobility, not extreme levels of mobility.

Mobility vs Flexibility

Alright first and foremost, let's figure out what we're dealing with in this article because I just used these two terms seemingly interchangeably. And although they tend to get used as synonyms, the reality is they mean two different things:

  • Flexibility = "The range of motion at a joint."
  • Mobility = "The ability to move efficiently/effectively."

You can use the terms relatively interchangeably but the word flexibility is more specific to each joint.

If you say you lack knee flexibility or hip flexibility, or even hamstring flexibility – although the hamstring technically crosses two joints – that's technically a more appropriate use of the term.

But when you broadly say you lack flexibility what you probably mean is you lack mobility. In other words, the combined efficient movement of several joints in unison. Or at least mobility is the thing that matters more in the big picture.

Yes, the semantic police will say I'm playing with words but these specifics provide clarity.

The truth being that combined joint range of motion (AKA overall "Flexibility") is arbitrary if you cannot also control that range of motion. Meaning flexibility refers to the potential for movement, not how much actual movement capacity someone has or doesn't have.

And that's a big part of the problem with flexibility in general, especially hyperflexibility. Movement potential is not nearly as important as your ability to voluntarily control that potential.

Mobility requires flexibility and strength (or control/stability).

For example ...

Touching your toes is a longstanding, extremely common gauge people use to assess flexibility. It's simple and addresses several muscles/joints at the back of the body.

But it's most commonly associated with hamstring flexibility.

Yes you will require some hamstring flexibility if you want to bend down and touch your toes, but it doesn't end there. Flexibility for this action can come from a lot of other places like knee hyperextension, hip extension and you also need flexibility in your spinal erectors; You'll need to weight shift onto your heels while maintaining your balance; And you probably need some abdominal and hip flexor strength to pull your torso down to your toes because gravity might not be enough on it's own.

There are strength and coordination elements that really facilitate this action, and it's not as simple as hamstring length.

Hypermobility vs Hypomobility

Chances are you think improving flexibility, means doing the splits, or touching your toes or looking contorted, but there is so much more to it than that…

How do you know if you have too much flexibility or not enough?

  • Hypermobility = "Excess overall range of motion"
  • Hypomobility = "Lack of overall range of motion."

Or 'Hyperflexibility vs Hypoflexibility.'

  • Hyperflexibility = "Excess range of motion at a joint"
  • Hypoflexibility = "Lack of range of motion at a joint."

Like a lot of things in life, it's easy to assume that "more is better." And thus a lot of people get caught up chasing extremes. One of those extremes can be flexibility.

Especially if you're already pretty flexible. Human beings are fundamentally simple creatures that participate in leisure activities we feel we're good at or have the potential to be good at. It's called self selection.

So it's no wonder that you see hypermobile people actively pursuing extreme yoga or dance. It plays to their strengths (seemingly). But like nearly anything, it is not without risks. The biggest one being joint laxity and the instability that comes with such a thing.

Yes, not being flexible enough in certain joints can be problematic, but it's probably less problematic than excess range of motion. It's possibly more of a symptom of a lack of movement amplitude or previous injury (and inadequate rehabilitation).

Quick Sidebar: Women are far more likely to be hypermobile but most people generally suffer from (especially dudes) hypomobility. And you generally don't need much to move yourself out that hypomobile zone really. Managing hypermobility is a lot more challenging.

Movement Amplitude

Movement amplitude is the range of motion an individual is exposed to at both ends of capacity.

Most people live and move within something resembling the orange sine wave. And if you don't test your capacity in a blue wave capacity, eventually your movement amplitude narrows and you lose amplitude capacity. To maintain your movement capacity you need to keep a reasonably wide amplitude semi-regularly.

This is where mobility (or flexibility) training comes in.

Contortionists (and similar professions) display some of the highest movement amplitudes in existence, so I'm not saying that's desirable but I will get into a few concepts that I think are desirable below.

I've worked with a few dozen ex-gymnasts and dancers now. All of whom had been constantly experiencing various levels of joint pain in one or numerous joints.

Adding stability to these joints has been the solution more often than not. So reducing the sine wave or at least not expanding it passively. The problem being certain types of stretching are so ingrained in these athletes that it's almost a mindless daily instinct to stretch aggressively.

Oh and stretching has a short-term pain numbing effect. But it really only masks the pain for a short amount of time though, and does not resolve the underlying issue.

In effect once these athletes stop the near- daily training, they slowly lose a lot of control over their extreme ranges of motion but keep doing the passive stretches. Passive tissues like ligaments generally don't tighten up again so the joints stay loose, but active control is lost. So people in this situation need to emphasize joint stability/control and exclusively stick to active (not passive) varieties of stretching.

Active stretching methods are not commonly known but these techniques utilize the muscles surrounding the joint to create any stretching effects. If the muscles surrounding the joint don't have the strength to get into a position, you don't get much of a stretch. But again, I'll explain more of that in part 2.

How do you know if you're too flexible?

This is the Beighton Laxity test:

Beighton Laxity Assessment (CC Aleksandra Lacheta)

It's five simple tests you can probably do yourself at home.

Test# Joint Tested Left Right
1. Passive hyperextension of the elbow beyond 10° 1 1
2. Passive dorsiflexion and hyperextension of the pinky finger (fifth MCP joint) beyond 90° 1 1
3. Passive apposition of the thumb to the flexor aspect of the forearm 1 1
4. Passive hyperextension of the knee beyond 10° 1 1
5. Palms of hands flat on the floor via active forward trunk flexion with the knees fully extended 1

The last assessment is scored a 1, while the first four can be scored up to 2 because they are done one both sides. If you score a 9 you're hyperlax. Whereas other scores likely have different meanings. The original design of the assessment is that a score of 4 or more is positive.

However, follow up research has muddied that interpretation somewhat. Some indicates a score of 5/9 or 6/9 is more appropriate, while others still think that 3/9 is enough of a threshold for a positive test.

I'm not going to add to that debate here because all I really want to know with this assessment is broadly what type of flexibility training is most appropriate for an individual.

Flexibility remember still presents itself on a joint-by-joint basis and it's still possible for an individual to have an inflexible joint or two, despite scoring a positive Beighton laxity assessment.

This is just a good assessment for you to try before rushing to the assumption that more flexibility is the answer to whatever flexibility issue you think you face.

It also serves as a bit of caution because a lot of people may 'feel tight' but present as clinically excessive (positive assessment) or normal. This provides you with some objective reasoning on the matter.

Mobility is Not Necessarily Stretching

If you feel inflexible the current popular approach is to stretch. But mobility training is really about finding optimal movement patterns for the individual.

And I use this word to take all some attention away from the traditional concept of "stretching" as the end all solution for improving flexibility.

Stretching has its place, but by itself is an incomplete model, especially passive forms of it – which I'll explain in part 2. Instead let's shift the thinking towards the entirety of the system and focus on the concept of mobility.

Which do you think is more important overall?

The range of motion at one joint? Or efficiently moving multiple joints from one position (or posture) to another under control?

Don't miss the forest for the trees. Think about the sum of the various components, rather than any singular component — to which flexibility is really only one component.

There seems to be optimal ranges of flexibility that often lead to optimal mobility and thus movement but I just can’t list them all here. Because 'optimal mobility' is context dependent. Some people need more flexibility and mobility than others, so that should play a big role in how you approach this kind of training.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of flexibility training (and the methods within that discipline) you have to cater your approach to individual ability and needs.

In fact I often take about an hour, or more, to go through mobility (and needs) assessments with some of my clients. Selecting relevant assessments (again based on needs) as I go or in advance.

We test strength, endurance, explosive power, energy systems and other stuff too, but mobility is a foundation point for almost all of your training. If you can't comfortably get into a valuable training position, it's going to be hard to train whatever qualities you may need.

But I almost always start with broad assessments and zero in on specific joints as potential issues become apparent. It’s amazing how frequently good flexibility at a joint does not translate to good mobility on a larger scale.

Especially when muscles need to co-activate and coordinate around multiple joints during movement. I've seen plenty of clients over the years with perfectly flexible hamstrings, who still struggle to touch their toes.

Your quality of movement is what matters most, not the end ranges all your joints can achieve. And quality movement translates into better training sessions, probably reduced injuries and consequently better results.

Mobility Training Considerations

Sometimes the flexibility at a joint is not linked to just stretching or getting massage treatments.

Sometimes you lack flexibility at a joint because of something completely different.

For instance, many people feel that their hamstrings are tight, when in fact their hip flexors are tight, pulling their pelvis into an anterior tilt position that pulls on the hamstring too.

In that case, the hip flexors are the real problem, not the hamstrings. And no matter how much you stretch your hamstrings, they won’t feel any better.

You might try a flossing technique like this though, or simply stretching your hip flexors.

Some people lack shoulder mobility due to a lack of T-Spine Mobility, while others lack calf mobility due to hip tightness.

Joints can play an integral role in the mobility of another joint, particular the joint above or below or the joint 2 joints above or below.

This explains why knee pain is often caused by something happening at the hips or ankles and very rarely is a problem at the knee.

I’ve worked with clients where fixing a seemingly unrelated shoulder mobility problem apparently deals with their low back pain quite effectively.

Sometimes you can stretch and stretch and stretch to no avail. A lack of strength in the front of the calf can actually lead to a lack of good mobility in the back of the calf.

Even if you passively stretch your calf all the time, your active range of motion never improves because you don’t have enough strength in Tibialis Anterior (muscle in the shin) to counterbalance the muscles in the back of the calf.

A similar problem can happen when the quadricep muscles and hip flexor muscles are tight and the glutes and hamstrings are weak (a common positive test).

Stretching often has no effect on these issues. As a more flexible hip flexor that isn't balanced by a strong glute/hamstring just won't stay elongated in a better position. You keep stretching and stretching, but the tightness just keeps on returning.

More problems still are entirely related to the soft-tissue quality in a muscle. Which is kind of a broad mystical way to think about it.

Neural adhesions — most people know them as knots, others as trigger points — can create the sensation of a shortened muscle.

No amount of stretching appears to help "release" or relax these muscles into a better position. At least not without the presence of some kind of massage technique combined with an opposing strengthening or stabilizing action.

I often use self-massage massage in tandem with stretching for this reason. Strength coach Mike Boyle likens this to pulling an elastic band with a knot in it, the more you stretch it, the tighter the knot gets. That's probably an overly simplistic representation of what's going on, but it is vivid imagery.

A Philosophical Summary

If you stretching something and it doesn’t feel looser over time, it probably doesn’t need to be stretched. Or at least, you need to try something else. More often than not, you need to add more muscular control and manage nervous system tension.

There are perhaps hundreds of examples of where strength, soft-tissue quality and flexibility are integrally related, this is why a focus on mobility is far more important than merely stretching.

Using a multi-faceted approach becomes ideal so we’re going to touch on some of these modalities now.

With all that in mind, the best time to really get your static stretching work done is at night before bed (3 hours post-workout):

  • Have a hot shower, bath, jacuzzi tub, whatever
  • Foam Roll and target specific tissues with a lacrosse ball
  • Stretch selected muscle groups that elicit tightness (focus on fascial/muscular stretching and not capsular)

Or 20 minutes in the morning/lunchtime for dynamic mobility work:

  • Foam Roll and do some specific lacrosse ball work
  • Choose 5-10 dynamic mobilizations that address areas you have difficulty with

Static stretching is done best about 3 hours post-workout.

However, I realize this schedule is not exactly practical for many people. Thus with many of my clients, we employ a lot of these strategies during the warmup and cool-down, which is also perfectly okay.

The more frequently you can work on mobility, the faster results you get – obviously – and unlike strength training you can do it every day with little problem.

Warm Ups

I put the majority of my mobility work for clients in the warm up. Starting with:

a) Soft-Tissue Work

AKA: Self-Myofascial Release AKA: Foam Rolling and other soft-tissue work (Peanut Rollers, The Stick, Lacrosse Balls, among other things…)

b) Mobilizations

Active Stretching Patterns for key areas and optimizing common movement patterns like squats, lunges, etc… (traction, distraction, flossing, tacking and other strategies may or may not be used…)

c) Activations

Turning on select muscle groups that may be lagging a bit in development or can assist the workout greater through a little activation warm-up.

This can often mean the lagging opposite muscle of a tight muscle (that would otherwise balance it out, otherwise called the Antagonist muscle to the tight muscle).

These 3 things take roughly 5 minutes each or less when you get in tune with your body for a roughly 10-15 minute warm-up.

They can be done daily due to low threshold too, which means they make a wonderful 15 minute daily routine if you’re up for it.

The Cool-Down

I’ll then help people cool down (or if I know they will do it later, as I indicated above, static stretching before bed, as the optimal time for that kind of work is more towards 3 hours post-workout) with a little static stretching on key areas we assessed as tight, this is to keep the neural tension down into the next day.

I also encourage them to stretch these muscles using some of the strategies in the warm-up, and above on their off-days when they are not at the gym, or do not see me. With favouritism towards active forms of stretching or ‘mobility drills.’

I also sometimes recommend static stretching before bed because it increases parasympathetic nervous system town (relaxation response) and helps people sleep better.

Optimally, I like to have a hot shower and/or foam roll a little to loosen the tissues up before static stretching for best results.

Note: I highly recommend the use of assessment from a skilled coach to get the specifics of your lack of mobility or excessive mobility dialed in.

This is far more effective than guessing for yourself or simply relying on yoga or pilates (or one other type of treatment alone) to get you the flexibility where you actually need it.

I’ve always wanted to say this:

To Be Continued…