Mobility has become one of those fitness buzz words/phrases like “functional,” “core stability” and “interval training.” It seems like everywhere you look fitness professionals are always talking about mobility; there are even sites like ROMWOD & MobilityWod dedicated to this latest craze. So what is mobility? Why is it important? And what can you do to improve yours?
Mobility is NOT Flexibility:
The dictionary defines Flexibility as “the quality of bending easily without breaking.” The dictionary defines Mobility as “the ability to move or be moved easily.” So now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on with our day!
That didn’t clear it up? Ok, let’s dive deeper.
Let’s look at it this way, flexibility is the ability of your soft tissue to stretch. Let’s look at the butterfly stretch as an example. If I’m able to sit in a butterfly stretch with the soles of my feet together and my knees on the floor, we should all agree on the fact that my hips have the flexibility to allow me to get into that position. So now what? How does that flexibility translate to real life?
Let’s say that I’m a hockey goalie. Having the flexibility to open my hips up should mean that I can easily move into a kick save position to stop the puck right? Nope… Just because I can sit in a deep butterfly stretch DOES NOT mean I can actively move myself into that position with purpose and strength. It just means that my body will allow me to passively move into that position. Thus the difference between flexibility and mobility.
“Mobility is the ability to ACTIVELY move into end-ranges of motion and to control your body in those end-ranges.”
Mobility is Tough!
Most of us go to the gym and go on autopilot as we do our mobility work. We stretch, we foam roll, then we do our workout and do the same thing all over the next workout.
Think about that…if you did the same strength workout over and over and never got stronger, would you be happy? Of course not! But many of us perform the same mobilization work over and over again and find ourselves with the same ranges of motion every time.
Let’s revisit the hockey example. Hockey players tend to be extremely stiff, so their coaches will often send them to yoga to make them move more dynamically. It’s not that yoga’s not great, but it’s not specific enough to achieve the result that the coaches and player desire. It’s largely a pursuit of passive flexibility, and basic human physiology states that you cannot achieve active results with passive training. The intensity is so low that a true strengthening effect isn’t being attained, since strength requires muscular efforts nearing eighty percent of a person’s maximum voluntary contraction. The body may learn to be more “bendable,” but the nervous system is never taught to maximally activate the muscles in the extended ranges, which is required for a sport like hockey.
We have this idea that when you’re flexible, or bendable, your nervous system will automatically be able to use that flexibility when it produces movement. What the neurology tells us is that that’s not exactly true; unless you train the body to access your flexibility, it’ll never be able to use it in movement production.
Take that hockey player who wants to play more dynamically, to display more motion or more range of motion. What he needs is to get to these ranges of motion and maximally create neurological control of them. If someone’s going to skate past you and you want to reach back and grab onto them, and you’ve only trained to hold very low intensity postures like in a yoga class, that doesn’t translate into the ability for you to be able to maintain a high amount of neurological output in order to generate a lot of force in those ranges of motion. It’s just not specific for the outcome you require, and that’s a very fundamental physiological law: you have to train for the outcome you desire.
Great, So Where do I Start?
Start moving! The BEST way to improve your mobility is to train the body on a regular basis, moving joints through their full range of motion, challenging joints to expand range of motion, ensuring joint health, monitoring joint health, promoting joint health, what these things do is it prepares your stuff: your muscles, your ligaments, your capsules. That tells your brain where you are in space. And when your brain has a more accurate picture of where you are in space and what you’re capable of, it can then organize its movements better.