Mobility is a term that has been thrown around quite a bit in the rehab and performance world as of the last few years, but the concept is nothing new. It has been recognized for centuries that if you can’t go there you really shouldn’t train there. Many different movement/training systems have mapped out what positions and ranges the average human should be able to move into. I am not going to delve into the differences between the poses of yoga and the fundamentals of the FMS. Instead, I want to take a birds eye view of what may be going on when we lack general mobility.
Stretching and massage are readily available as methods for any of us to gain more comfortable range, and it’s so common place it has become common sense. Beyond what our experience shows us the literature has shown that a variety of forms of stretching are effective at creating short term increases in flexibility. It should be noted that it also has been shown that static stretching creates a temporary but significant decrease in muscle power production (1).
Self massage, in the form of foam rolling/stick massage, has likewise been observed and shown to create temporary improvements in mobility immediately after. Interestingly, it has also been shown to not have negative effects on power production immediately after, as static stetching does (2,3).
So they both work, and both have benefits, and both will and should continue to be a part of folks exercise/rehabilitation regimes when/where appropriate.
What complicates all this is that when a muscle is tight or inflexible, it may not need to be stretched/mobilized at all. Taking it a step further, if a muscle/joint/area is habitually stretched/massaged and it just keeps coming back, you can bet stretching/massage is not the solution.
Oftentimes the loss of flexibility or perceived tightness in limbs is just a sign that either what it is anchored to isn’t doing its job well enough, or other surrounding parts on the limb itself are failing to kick in. Often it is both.
Often this loss of flexibility/tightness is driven by toned up patterns we habitually take. The simplest example is that the proximal portion of the body is not able to hold itself steady enough to move the distal segment. This is the case of playing tug of war in the mud. With no firm footing, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, and you’ll become exhausted quickly trying to dig in.
SOMETIMES IT’S MOTOR CONTROL
A great example of this can be hamstring tightness or lack of mobility. Stretching and foam rolling/stick work will temporarily quiet the tone, but that misses the problem; there is a lack of tone proximally!
In the video below I demonstrate how one can increase “hamstring mobility” just by grounding my torso and making my abdominals fire a little harder via holding a weight.
Click HERE for the video.
Oftentimes this loss of distal mobility is just a motor control issue. A person may have learned to take what has been termed a high threshold strategy (think powerlifting tension all day long) just to hold their head up and respire. The result can be, among other things, cervical musculature with high resting tone. Because of this excessive cervical recruitment, they may not be able to move their neck much in standing, and assume their neck is stiff. But if they place themselves in an easier posture (hands and knees, prone/supine), their neck may actually move fully.
Click HERE for a video demonstrating this.
The loss of active cervical extension, like the case with the “tight hamstrings “, is likely just due to poor proximal fixation. Stretching/massage inhibits muscles, and if you don’t train something else to fire up in its place, instability can occur. Stretching something that isn’t really tight can likely exacerbate the situation, and perpetuate the underlying motor control deficits.
SOMETIMES IT’S POSTURE
A third possible cause for the losses of mobility can be that there is an actual bony/connective tissue block. Two common examples of this are a lack of shoulder mobility and/or hip mobility. This, again, is typically driven by inefficient core/proximal stabilization patterns that results in torsional states of our thorax and/or pelvis. This comes down to our posture. By posture I mean the habitual way one engages and manages gravity and their daily demands.
There are several predictable patterns of postural deviation. These patterns have been described for decades in the osteopathic literature(4) and most recently delineated by the postural restoration institute (5).
Two common patterns they describe are the right brachial chain (RBC) and left anterior inferior chain (LAIC). Simplified, this is driven by our tendency to center our weight more over our right heel/leg, and lean our torso more to the right. Michelangelo’s David is a perfect example of this.
The effect is that our ribcage and pelvis become toned up in this posture, and structures are only able to move easily in certain directions.
With the upper body you will often see a loss of the ability to internally rotate ones right shoulder. In the lower body you will often see the inability to extend and adduct ones left hip. This will present as right glenohumeral tightness and left ITB tightness, as shown in the videos below.
Click HERE for video of Right GH IR “tightness”
Click HERE for video of left ITB “tightness”
The typical approach would be to stretch the shoulder and ITB, but that would just create pathology. Instead, by doing a simple activity to open up the right ribcage and pull back the left pelvis, the “tightness” can be relieved, and normal mobility restored(6).
Click HERE for a video of this activity.
Click HERE for the after effects of this drill on GH IR.
Click HERE for the after effects of this drill on left ITB.
AND SOMETIMES IT’S JUST LOCKED UP
As if that wasn’t enough, a fourth possibility is that a joint/structure can lack mobility because of a mal-tracking or positional fault of the joint. When these are present, much like the malpositioned thorax/pelvis described above, pushing into the end ranges does not feel good. Sometimes it feels like you are pushing into a wall. Sometimes it is quite painful.
These are often present post trauma, whether acute or gradual/repetitive. This is also often present with underlying degeneration to the joints. Since I didn’t want to induce this in myself, I will just encourage the reader to do a Google search for videos of the after effects of manipulation or mobilization with movement. When a joint restriction or tracking issue is present, often it requires the skilled hands of a practitioner, be it physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopath.
AND SOMETIMES IT REALLY IS JUST TIGHT
Now there are times that a mobility deficit is a straight forward flexibility issue, with little other underlying factors. This often the case post acute injury/surgery such as a knee/shoulder arthroscopic procedure, or delayed onset muscle soreness after a bout of intense exercise. But again, often motor control, postural tone and joint maltracking cannot be ruled out as prolonging or intensifying symptoms.
Regardless, the question should always come back to why the part is habitually tight/restricted. With all of the above mentioned situations there are dozens of approaches to effectively restore comfortable, normal mobility. But this will rarely be maintained unless the underlying cause is addressed. Often there are habitual postures/movement patterns that drive these deficits. Whether it is the tendency to center ones weight more to one side (typically the right), forward head postures held for full work days/commutes week in an week out, or just crappy form taken during rigourous or prolonged exercise routines, the driving habits are always there.
1. Page, Phil “Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation” Int J Sports Physical Ther. 2012 Feb; 7(1); 109-119
2. MacDonald GZ, et al “An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force” J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar; 27(3);812-21
3. Cheatham SW, et al “The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: A systematic review” Int J Sports Physical Ther. 2015 Nov; 10(6); 827
4. Pope, Ross E “The common compensatory pattern: its origin and relationship to the postural model”
6. Boyle K et al “The value of blowing up a balloon” North American J of Sports Physical Ther. 2010 Sept; 5(3); 179-188