“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.