Feeling stiff? Loosen up with answers to the most-asked mobility questions

Humans are built to move. Our underlying mobility influences how we move, which ensures that we have options to keep moving with less risk of pain and injury.

So whether you’re a competing athlete, or someone simply aging with grace, mobility is the start of a successful movement practice.

What is mobility?

Before explaining why mobility matters, we need to understand what it is. Some use the terms mobility and flexibility interchangeably, but they aren’t synonymous.

Flexibility is your passive range of motion. Think of a classic hurdler stretch where you fold over one leg to stretch your hamstrings while sitting on the floor. How close you can get your torso to your leg displays flexibility, but the leg isn’t weight-bearing and there’s no active control of the position. The floor is doing the work for you.

Mobility is a more complete term and encompasses your active range of motion and the control necessary to move. Think of a single-leg Romanian deadlift. Just like the stretch above, you’re lengthening the backside of your hip and leg and closing the angle between your torso and leg, but you must do it actively, in control, with full weight-bearing.

When do you use mobility?

As you move through life, how you move matters. EXOS has historically defined optimal movement as the interdependence of position, pattern, and power. Simply put, position is your active range of motion, or your ability to make shapes. This is the demonstration of your mobility. The whole body works together as one chain, and as we move, multiple segments make shapes or positions in relation to one another to make a larger, global shape.

Take a lunge for example. In order to achieve the bottom of a lunge, which is a global shape, you can look at flexion of the ankle, knee, the hip, to see how they all work together in achieving the desired shape.

Once shapes are made, pattern refers to the strategy you employ to move between shapes. For example, the lunge isn’t a static position. It includes moving from standing to the bottom of the lunge and ascending back to standing. Finally, power refers to any performance qualities you build on top of the foundation of position and pattern. These could be variables like strength, speed, power, or capacity.

How does mobility affect your everyday life?

Mobility matters because your position directly influences your pattern of movement. Try this experiment: Right now, sitting or standing where you are, slouch over, crane your neck forward, and round your shoulders forward. Now from that position, lift your arms overhead. Take note of how that feels.

Next, reset your body and demonstrate good posture or positions. Sit or stand tall, move your shoulders back and down, and have a proud chest. Now try lifting your arms overhead again. The second felt much easier didn’t it? Your optimal position positively influenced the pattern you could choose.

In the first example, your poor position negatively influenced how your arms went over your head. And here is the main point: Your brain is a problem solver and it wants to complete tasks you tell your body to do.

So if you’re pressing a dumbbell overhead in the gym or hoisting your carry-on into the overhead bin on an airplane, your brain and body will find the easiest way for you to get that done. But if you have poor shoulder mobility and find yourself in poor positions, your arms can’t extend overhead. So how does your body make up for that? You extend your spine and place undue stress on your back because you had poor mobility at the shoulder.

There are many examples of the common ways people compensate due to one segment of your body lacking mobility, but these compensations are the common culprits of some of the most common pain points: shoulders, backs, knees, and necks. And often they’re the symptom not the cause. The back pain may be due to a lack of mobility at the shoulder or hip. The knee pain may be due to a lack of mobility at the hip or ankle.

Mobility matters because it’s a key piece of optimal movement through a combination of positions and patterns, which not only decreases the likelihood of pain and injury but also increases performance. And pain and injury are an essential factor that tend to stop us from moving. Sustainable performance depends on your movement quality. And a vital piece of that movement quality puzzle is your mobility, which is why it should be a focus of any training program.

How do you start to improve mobility?

At EXOS we focus on soft tissue, mobility, then stability. The easiest place to start mobility work is through the use of self-myofascial massage or soft-tissue massage techniques. This can involve a use of a foam roller, mobility ball, massage stick, or percussion / vibration devices like the Hyperice Hypervolt or Vyper. When applied appropriately, these techniques can help relieve muscle tightness, soreness, and improve range of motion.

However, it’s important to note that self-myofascial massage and soft-tissues techniques alone aren’t sufficient. They should instead be viewed as good practices prior to mobility work.

The soft-tissue work can increase tissue extensibility, or pliability of the tissue, and put your body in a state where it’s ready to learn and work. But it must be followed by active mobility work, so the solution is to learn to control this newfound range of motion by taking advantage of the decreased tightness and soreness complaints.

Of course you can benefit from static and prolonged stretching as well, but we prefer to make the stretching more dynamic and active for better results. The closer you can make your passive range of motion to your active range, the greater the carryover to functional tasks and the more you can feel totally capable and in control of your movement and achieve sustainable performance.

Think you might need to see a physical therapist? Here are four signs.

About the Author

Stefan Underwood

Stefan Underwood, CSCS, XPS, has spent the past 15 years coaching elite athletes through the lens of movement efficiency. He is EXOS' director of continuous improvement, focusing on internal education and methodology evolution.

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