“A tree that is unbending in easily broken’ Lao Tzu
Flexibility and mobility work in conjunction with one another when it comes to how well we move our bodies. True athletic performance and freedom of movement can only be achieved when our bodies have an acceptable passive range of motion (flexibility) combined with maintaining active control thru our joints (mobility). Healthy mobile joints (not too mobile (hyperextension) set the foundation for functional strength and fitness.
If we have sufficient range of motion and control over that range, everything else can become a lot easier.
The problem lies in knowing where to start.
How do you improve mobility and flexibility? What stretches do you need to do and for how long? Does Yoga and Pilates help with the above?
It can me a minefield of information out there so let’s try and break it down. I will also share some of the methods I have found useful over the years in self assessing my own body and that of some of my clients. Hopefully you can apply some of this information to assist your own practice so you too can achieve some freedom of movement.
Mobility is Key to Strength Training;
When it comes to achieving our fitness and strength goals there is a direct link between mobility and strength. Most people look at increasing reps and weight in order to achieve those elusive strength gains but in actual fact, the best thing we can do is to work on our mobility.
Basically, if we improve our mobility, we can improve our strength.
So, Why is Mobility so important to Strength?
Improved Mobility = Lower Risk of Injury
Trying to lift too much weight, poor technique thru lack of control and strength can put you at risk of injury. If you have mobility issues in one joint or another in the body, generally you will find another joint in the body will compensate for this lack of mobility. This can lead to compensation injuries and strains due to the added stress on these joints.
Most of us have experienced some kind of injury or pain in our bodies. In some cases, it can sideline us from working out hard and delay further strength and fitness gains until we recover.
When we improve our mobility and have a greater range of motion, this reduces the pressure on any one single area of the body. It also reduces our risk of injury and allows us to train with heavier weights and add more neuro-muscular demand on the body.
It is worth mentioning, the wrong type of random stretching, mobilising through pain, or doing a bunch of long static stretches prior to intense exercise can also increase your chance of injury.
A study published online by ‘Harvard Health Publishing’ on “The Importance of Stretching’ (March 2022) discusses the mounting evidence that has demonstrated that stretching the muscles before they are warmed up can actually hurt them.
According to David Nolan, a Physical Therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. David found that, ‘when everything is cold, the fibres aren’t prepared and may be damaged. If you exercise first, you’ll get blood flow to the area and that makes the tissue more pliable and amenable to change’.
All it takes to warm up the muscles before stretching is 5-10 minutes of light activity, such as a quick walk. You can also stretch after an aerobic or weight training workout.
He recommends that you hold a stretch for 30 seconds. ‘Don’t bounce which can cause injury. You’ll feel tension during a stretch, but you should not feel pain’. If you do, there may be an injury or damage in the tissue. Stop stretching that muscle and consult a professional in this area.
Improved Mobility = Faster Recovery
Lifting more weight is dependent upon several factors and one of them is consistency in your training. When our bodies are tight and restricted in movement it can take a long time to recover from a training session. This can affect our progress and strength gains as a result.
Improved Mobility = Better Technique
Good technique is the key to getting stronger and lifting more weight. Without optimal mobility, good form is hard to achieve. Through experience with training clients, if someone cannot get into the correct position for an exercise, for example a squat. They will not be able to perform the lift or movement properly. There are certain give aways in terms of restricted mobility that you need to look out for. An overhead squat assessment (OHSA) is one of the best measures of how healthy your kinetic chain is. Before you embark on any strength training program my recommendation would be to hire a professional in this area such as an exercise physiologist or an experienced personal trainer.
Other great assessments in these areas include:
- The FMS Screen by Gray Cook is widely used and I feel gives us a lot of useful information.
- A gait analysis is also useful for assessing running mechanics.
- The Landing Error Scoring System gives a decent overview of jump landing biomechanics.
How to Improve Our Flexibility and Mobility:
The right type of stretching is the most effective way to improve flexibility but it is often an afterthought for the majority of us. All too often I see gym goers finish a weight set or step off a cardio machine and walk straight to the changeroom or leave without any kind of warm down.
What is not known with 100% certainty is the right type of stretching. Static Stretching (holding a stretch for 30 seconds or longer) has been found to help increase hamstring strength but is it the best method when compared to other types of stretching?
In the case of Dynamic Stretching (active movements where joints and muscles go thru the full range of motion) it has been suggested that dynamic stretching shows the most improvement in flexibility. This effectiveness is not only linked to a loosening up of the muscles, but the increased movement during the stretch contributes to an increased range of motion.
Pilates (or the Pilates method) is a series of approximately 500 exercises inspired by calisthenics, yoga and ballet. Pilates lengthens and stretches all the major muscles groups in the body in a balanced fashion. It focuses on taking the exercises slowly and mindfully so that you spend time extending your muscles and regulating your breathing. Props can be used to progress movements such as Pilates balls, circles and blocks but generally all you need is some comfortable clothes and an exercise mat.
Yoga relies on improving your strength, flexibility and breathing through a series of increasingly difficult stretches. It’s designed to help you become more mindful through breathing techniques and building awareness of your body and mind connection. Continual yoga sessions and progression loosens the muscles and connective tissues of the body, which leads to a reduction in pain during and after exercise. Yoga is also relaxing. It is a calming and meditative practice that requires prolonged and mindful movements that increase your feelings of relaxation and lowers your cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
That being said, Yoga is largely positive if you’re looking to increase mobility or to improve flexibility for athletes. But it’s not 100% necessary and may not be individualised to your exact needs.
Resistance Training is normally associated with building muscle and strength but it can also be quite useful for flexibility and range of motion improvements.
The results of preliminary study published in the online National Library of Medicine by Morton, Whitehead, Brinkert and Caine “Resistance Training vs. Static Stretching: effects on flexibility and strength found that,
“Carefully constructed full-range resistance training regimens can improve flexibility as well as the typical static stretching regimens employed in conditioning programs”.
So there we have it, by no way an exhaustive list on how to improve your flexibility and mobility but hopefully it sheds a light more on this topic.
A few takeaways worth noting, the best mobility program will vary from person to person. There’s no one size fits approach. How often you practice your mobility will depend on the individual’s goals, preference and individual makeup.
In an ideal world the best results come from working with a coach in person who can assess your individual background, restrictions and goals. Some people respond well with 10 minutes a day whereas other people need more. The most important ingredient in all of this is ensuring it is sustainable and works in with your lifestyle.
Like any other training program compliance and consistence will yield the best results.
Recently there has been a shift away from the terms ‘health and fitness’ to a more encompassing term used to describe our overall health called ‘wellness’. You only need to look on social media for an increase in the amount of people describing themselves as ‘wellness warriors’ using hashtags such as #nourishing and #fitmotivation whilst striking the latest Yoga pose. I should know! I am one of the converted as well!
The shift for me has been a positive one as more and more research has come out to support the fact that our overall health is made up of much more than what we put into our mouths and what type of exercise we do.
Whilst our diet and exercise play an important role in how we look and feel, these are just smaller parts to the bigger picture to what I describe as, our ‘Holistic Health’.
Our Holistic Health is comprised of the following 5 lifestyle factors:
We have somewhere between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts on any given day that is 35-48 thoughts per person per minute. As you can imagine that is a lot of information for our rational brains to process. When we think, we manipulate information to form concepts, engage in problem solving, reason and make decisions. Not all thoughts are deemed equal, and sometimes when we are under stress or are feeling tired or depleted our rational brain finds it hard to make decisions and think positively this can be described as ‘stinking thinking’.
Long-term stress can wreak havoc on our physical health thru the presence of injuries and mental health concerns. If left untreated, the ill effects of stress can lead to time off work, niggling injuries that don’t get better and even the breakdown of oneself and our relationships.
In order to maintain positive thinking and manage stress levels it is important to take time out everyday to ‘switch off’ from distractions and allow yourself to be present with your own company and thoughts.
Options to help manage stress levels include mental awareness apps such as ‘Head Space’ which encourage you to take 10 minutes out of everyday for some mental wellbeing activities. Other ways you can help manage your stress include participating in a Yoga class, practicing some meditation or Tai Chi and even doing some adult drawing or colouring in.
How we breathe effects the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood at any given time replenishing our brain and other vital organs with essential nutrients. We take on average 20,000 breaths per day which, makes it an important part of our health to get right.
Breathing correctly can reduce your stress levels, improve the performance of your workouts and boost your immune system. Poor breathing can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, hyperventilation and even insomnia and depression.
When we are stressed our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode and our breathing becomes more shallow and frequent. This causes us to breathe like we are hyperventilating which in turn increases our heart rate, leading to palpitations and contributes to feelings of anxiety and being out of control.
In order to breathe correctly we should focus on what we call ‘diaphragmatic breathing’. This technique involves placing one hand on our chest, say our left hand, and our right hand on our abdomen. When we breathe in and out your left hand should remain still and your right hand should move up and down. If your left hand is moving your breathing is too shallow and you are not using your diaphragm correctly. Practice taking slow deep breaths in and out until you perfect the technique. Take note of how this correct breathing technique will help boost your workouts and your health.
The average amount of water contained in the human body is approximately 50-65% for the average adult person. Considering our bodies are largely made up of water then it is crucial that we consume enough good quality water on a daily basis.
Water in the body is responsible for flushing wastes and toxins thru the body as well as metabolising and digesting food. It is also the primary building block for all of our cells, as well as helping to insulate and lubricate the body, and assist in regulating our body temperature.
The research around how much water to drink does vary but you should aim to consume 35-45ml/kg of fluid which translates into about 2-3 litres per day. An active person who trains for longer than 40 minutes per day training at a high intensity should add an extra 500-1000ml a day with athletes or people exposed to extreme heat more again.
Generally, an indication of being thirsty is the bodies way of telling you, your already dehydrated. Just losing even 1% of the bodies water has an impact on our physical performance as well as impairing our mental performance. Up to 70% of people are dehydrated at any one time a result of drinking too much coffee, juices and smoothies which are loaded with caffeine and sugar.
If your having trouble drinking enough water daily, try carrying around a drink bottle with a slice of cut up lemon or lime. Add vegetables such as sliced up cucumbers, carrots or mint leaves for a fresh zesty flavor. Add a glass of water before every meal and snack to help you feel fuller for longer and to stop the urge of wanting to overeat. Add a pinch of rock salt to assist in replacing essential minerals and salts lost thru perspiration as well as to help slow down the urination process.
Life is a about balance and when it comes to nutrition nothing beats a strong foundation of carbohydrates, good fats and proteins or what we commonly refer to as macronutrients. Where a lot of people get it wrong is when we start eliminating certain food groups in an attempt to lose weight often replacing proteins and carbs with foods loaded with hidden sugars.
The need to refuel throughout the day will largely depend upon your workload and individual energy requirements. If for example, you are a Personal Trainer like me and get up before 5am every morning to train and work, then I often need 2 small meals before lunchtime to keep me going. If you exercise during your lunch break you may find that you need a small snack before you train and a bigger meal after training to help manage hunger and energy levels or vice versa. As a general rule of thumb try not to leave longer than 3-4 hours between eating as this will help regulate your blood sugars and prevent you from overeating at your next meal.
Your 3-4 meals a day should consist of lean proteins to help build lean muscle and keep you feeling full as well as good fats such as olive oils, avocado’s nuts and seeds. Green vegetables such as spinach, kale, lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, beans and peas should be eaten with every meal to ensure you boost your immune system and help you get all of your essential vitamins and nutrients in.
We are a nation of alarming statistics with obesity levels on the rise with data from the ‘National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey’ (NHANES 2013-2014) stating that ‘1 in 3’ adults were considered to be overweight. More that ‘2 in 3’ adults were considered to be overweight or have obesity and ‘1 in 6’ children between the ages of 2-19 were considered to be obese.
‘Sitting’ has become the new ‘smoking’ with the majority of our adult population sitting at a desk for 8-12 hours a day up to 5 times a week. It’s no surprise then that the incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is also on the rise, this is adding more strain to an already overflowing health system. According to the U.S division for “Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention’ about 630,000 Americans die from heart disease every year – that is 1 in 4 deaths. In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. According to the report also, the estimated cost of covering health care services, medications and lost productivity is approximately $200 billion each year.
Coupled with the heart disease facts is our current statistics on the incidence of diabetes. According to the “National Diabetes Statistics Report’ from the ‘Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)), 30.3 million Americans have either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes that is 9.4% of the population. From this 30.3 million people, 7.2 million are undiagnosed which means they do not even know that they have it.
Alarming statistics aside, a strategy to help improve our current health situation is to get moving more often. When clients ask my advice on how often they should exercise my response is always ‘everyday’. Now this may seem a little excessive but exercise doesn’t always have to be in a gym environment it could involve taking the dog for a walk after work, swimming laps in your lunch break or playing some social sport of a weekend.
Try to stick to exercise that you enjoy doing as you are more likely to stick with it long term. For those times when you think your motivation may be an issue enlist the services of a Personal Trainer who can design workouts specifically tailored for you or grab a workout buddy as you are less likely to cancel on them.
When it come to exercise variety is the ‘spice of life’, your body is very good at adapting to exercise so ensure you do a variety of cardio, resistance training, body weight exercises and stretching.
Ultimately, the responsibility of our health and wellness comes down to 1 person….which is ourselves. In order to not be a statistic of disease we have to move more and watch the amount of processed foods and drinks we consume.
Perhaps one of your goals for 2018 is to prioritize your health, which involves quitting the excuses and putting more time into your physical and mental wellbeing.