Remember the dreaded Presidential Fitness test from your 6th grade gym class? In front of your other nervous, pubescent peers, you had to perform a series of physical tests to prove your athleticism. Who could run the fastest? Who was able to do the most pull ups? Who could stretch the furthest in the V-Sit test? I can remember that I left gym class feeling inferior to my limber friends as my tight hamstrings would not allow me to reach the V-Sit marker. As an adult, I can reflect and understand that I was not necessarily any less “fit” than my peers in 6th grade, but I was indeed struggling with my range of motion.
What is mobility?
Athletes are often perplexed by the topics of flexibility and mobility. Flexibility can be defined as the ability of a muscle group to lengthen or stretch. As a sixth grader struggling to reach my presidential v-sit stretch, I struggled with my flexibility. On the flip side of the coin, mobility is the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion.
Refer to the straddle stretch. This is an example of static stretching with the intention of increasing flexibility. As with most static stretches, your goal is to stretch your body until you feel slight discomfort, hold, and repeat.
Another way to increase flexibility is through dynamic stretching. Different from static stretching, dynamic stretches are not held. Instead, dynamic stretches are reached through movements such as high kicks, lunges with a twist, and jump squats.
If the goal is to improve mobility, athletes should focus on a completely different set of exercises. For example, focusing on similar muscle groups of the saddle stretch, the hips and the adductor muscles, side to side lunges will improve mobility. The strength and coordination required for this movement will improve an athlete’s mobility. Preparing the body for a workout and recovering after a workout are equally important. Refer to this list of suggested movements to use before and after a crossfit workout.
It is important to note that there are two measures to an athlete’s mobility. An active range of motion (AROM) measures the ability to move using only the body’s muscles. A passive range of motion (PROM) is different because it measures the athlete’s ability to move into a position with the assistance of a person or tool. The active range of motion is a stronger indicator of the athlete’s mobility.
An athlete’s mobility is a reflection of their body’s alignment and body positioning. If the body is out of alignment, the muscles will not work properly, and the body is at risk of injury. On par with most fitness topics, there are many myths and misconceptions about mobility.
Myth #1 - Increased muscle strength will lead to decreased muscle mobility
We have all seen them - Muscle Chads and their inability to walk through the doorway? Yeah, “muscle-bound” Muscle Chad is not mobile. However, it’s not that gaining muscle decreases mobility or flexibility, but physical training without attention to the range of motion can leave you feeling stuck, tight, and restricted. As long as you are intentionally training with a full range of motion, you don’t have to worry about fitting through the doorways.
Myth #2 - Stretching increases your elasticity and muscle length
The end points of our muscles, ligaments, and tendons are fixed. While your degree of stretching may improve through practice, the anatomy of your body would have to physically shift to lengthen your muscles. Stretching does however impact your neurological response to the pain caused by stretching. Through practice, your nervous system relaxes your muscles and you are temporarily able to stretch further than before. Consequently, the myth is debunked - your muscles are not lengthening, but you are stretching closer to your capacity.
Myth #3 You’re a better athlete if you are more flexible.
Because we all have a set stretch tolerance, it is possible to have too much flexibility. That neurological response to the pain of stretching is actually termed your “flexibility safety margin,” and if you condition your body to surpass that safety margin, you are more susceptible to injury.
Myth #4 Athletes should stretch before their workouts to reduce the risk of injury.
In a series of 5 controlled studies, limited evidence showed that stretching before a workout could reduce injuries.
Rather, athletes should focus on active warm ups to loosen the soft tissues in the body, especially targeting the muscle and tissue groups that will feel the load of the weight in the workout. For example, if an athlete is entering into a workout that emphasizes pull ups, the athlete can warm up using exercises such as the banded pull apart and pass throughs or prisoner arm rotations.
No matter your level of athleticism, the collective human goal is to live a good life. A live well lived normally includes a series of setbacks and victories. So what should you do if you find yourself struggling with your mobility? Whether you are recovering from an injury or you are utilizing new muscles that you’ve never trained before, in order to increase your strength, you must focus on your mobility. If you are facing a mobility setback, the best way to to improve your mobility is to lift lighter. While you may feel weaker, the reality is that you must invest in your mobility first before you are able to increase the load on your lifts. Simply put, it is time to retire the routine stretches from your 6th grade gym class and focus on your mobility.