ith fitness facilities being shut down for the next few weeks, many of us will go back to sitting on the couch. Instead of being frustrated by restrictions and getting kicked out of the gym, why not use this time to improve your joint health and mobility!
Many patients will say that they have poor flexibility or mobility but are not really sure what they are referring to and use the terms interchangeably. Every single one of us can benefit from more mobility but it is very important to understand what it is and how exactly to go about improving it.The first thing that we need to make clear is that mobility training is NOT stretching, mobility training requires a lot of strength and control. When it is performed correctly it can be physically exhausting on the body. Many people spend hours dedicating time to improving their strength but are unaware of how important it is to also dedicate time for their joint mobility. I always question patients as to why they are not working just as hard to improve their mobility when they are spending many hours per week on their stretching and strength training. I do not want to mislead you into thinking that stretching is not beneficial for you however, it is important to note that something simple like a child’s pose or pigeon stretch is not enough to create significant long lasting changes to your joints/tissues. There is also a difference between stretching and mobility, so let’s take some time to understand what they are so we can be more clear.
Mobility is defined as the active control of a joint, it is the combination of strength, flexibility and control. Mobility training involves conditioning or priming joints at their end range of motion which then expands the joints workspace and contributes to long lasting changes.
Flexibility is defined as the passive control of a joint and flexibility training or stretching creates temporary changes to the tissues. Flexibility is the muscles ability to passively lengthen. Therefore flexibility is a component of mobility but mobility and flexibility are not interchangeable.
So why do we need mobility? Having full range or better yet full mobility in our joints helps decrease the risk of injury. Improving your mobility teaches your joints how to bear load at vulnerable or extreme positions. We typically sustain injuries when performing a movement that is outside of our bodies “comfort” zone or safe range. If we maximize the mobility in our joints we are making them more comfortable in extreme ranges and less susceptible to damage while under load. In addition, If someone suffers from poor mobility it can cause surrounding joints to compensate. Therefore improving mobility in one area will help reduce the risk of injury at another! It is important to note that no joint in the body is exclusively mobile or stable but rather has a combination of both. Some joints need more mobility (hips and shoulders) and some need more stability (knees, low back). An easy way to test the difference between flexibility and mobility on yourself is to raise your knee toward your chest. The mobility you have in your hip is measured by how far up your knee comes without assistance. If you then place your hands on your knee and actively pull it closer to your chest, this is displaying the flexibility in your hips.
The next question you are probably asking yourself is when do you incorporate mobility training into your schedule. The answer to this is that the more mobility the better but the general rule of thumb is before activity is more useful than after. If you are going to be spending some time strength training or going for a run, you want to maximize the joint range of motion before the activity so that the joint can perform optimally and be loaded in its end range of motion. A good example of this is if you were to perform a back squat. Many people have limited mobility in their mid to upper back which can cause limited extension or a forward shift of the upper body when performing a squat. If you were to work on upper back (thoracic spine) mobility prior to squatting it would help increase the movement (extension) of the upper back and prevent the forward shift in your upper body.
Now that you have a better understanding of mobility and how it can impact the risk of injury, let’s look at some relatively simple steps you can take to maintain your joint mobility and incorporate it into your physical training;
Train at end range: The goal of mobility is to expand the joints range of motion or better yet “workspace”. The only way to increase this is to load the joint at its end range. The more you load in those ranges, the more your body will begin to deem it a safe zone. It is important to know that when training in new ranges, keep your weight low and progress slow.
Time-sensitive: the longer you hold a position, the more load that is placed on the tissues and the greater the adaptation. This goes for both mobility and stretching, holding something for 5 seconds will not create a change in the tissues. It is important to take time and be patient when performing mobility exercises and stretches so that adaptations can occur.
Frequency: as funny as it sounds “if you do not use it you lose it”. The more often that you work on something the better it will be. Mobility training is not a one time thing, you must incorporate it into your schedule just the same as you do for your strength training and stretching.
Although mobility can be a complex topic and improving your mobility will require patience to achieve, you can take comfort in knowing that with a proper assessment, diagnosis and systematic approach to treating the limitations, you can improve your joint range and eliminate the risk of injury. If you have struggled with limited joint mobility or feel like you have areas to improve, feel free to reach out to our team of experienced healthcare providers to assess the issue and get you back on your road to training! Take this time while we are stuck at home to improve your mobility and reduce the risk of future injury. Remember if you are moving better you are going to perform better.