“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.
I am a firm believer that things come into your life for a reason, whether those things are good or bad or just simply to make you stop and think. I believe that what we hold onto emotionally and spiritually manifests itself in our physical bodies. That toxic relationship you are holding onto, that job you should of left months ago and then bang…..the sickness or injury occurs like a bolt out of the blue to gently remind you ‘I told you so’. These ‘reminders’ may manifest in minor symptoms like a flu or a common cold, or they can be more serious such as a weight gain, an auto-immune dysfunction, thyroid issues or a more sinister chronic disease.
Upon researching the topic for this article I thought it would be relevant to survey the people I come into contact with on a day to day basis, namely my personal training clients and secondly, my social media audience. I wanted to find out the health issues that were important to them. What were the burning topics they wanted more information about.
Quite surprisingly, the overwhelming response to the survey was ‘hormone health’. This was not isolated to women going thru menopause but women experiencing inflammatory problems bloating, poor digestion and elimination, skin problems, auto immune dysfunction, thyroid disorders and body fat that they just could not shift no matter how they little they ate or how hard they exercised.
As I dug a little bit deeper to find out more about what all of these women had in common it seemed that they were all ‘rushed’, ‘stressed’, ‘had no time for themselves’ let alone ‘not enough time in the day.’ A lot of them felt overwhelmed with life, coupled with trying to do it all and be it all! (sound familiar?). In regards to their diet, they were living off multiple cups of coffee throughout the day coupled with processed food and bookended with some wine of a night! (A concoction for a minor and major health melt down!)
Naturally as adults we all want to be liked, loved and to fit in on some level. If we pulled the curtain back and were completely honest with ourselves what frightens a lot of us is what other people think of us. In this pursuit of other people’s approval we have exhausted ourselves from keeping up the appearance of being kind, thoughtful, energetic, inspiring, funny, independent or strong or whatever other adjective we think we should live up to. It is more important for people to see us like this to maintain this like/love familiarity, unfortunately at the expense of our health.
The “Rushing Women’s Syndrome”:
Dr Libby Weaver a Nutritional Biochemist first identified the term ‘The Rushing Women’s Syndrome’ due to the health issues of the women she started seeing in her practice. They were stressed out, strung out and busy, busy, busy. Dr Libby observed in her clients the effect that long-term stress was having on these women. Some were presenting with polycystic ovarian syndrome, adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalances, auto immune diseases like Graves disease and hashimoto’s, unexplained weight gain and infertility problems.
Dr Libby looked at the biochemistry of what happens to your hormones when you are in this long term stressed state and the role that nutrition and other lifestyle factors has on your overall health.
What Dr Libby found was that when we get stressed our bodies ‘sympathetic nervous’ system or our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This stress response causes our bodies to release adrenaline, our blood pressure fluctuates, and our digestive system shuts down. This elevated adrenaline changes the fuel that your body perceives as safe and appropriate for you to use. During this process the body is making a decision whether to use glucose (carbohydrates) or fat as the fuel it burns. Most of the time when our lifestyle is in balance, the nervous system uses a combination of both glucose and body fat as fuel. When we operate on a high level of stress all of the time the body thinks it is in danger (fight or flight) and it recruits a fast acting fuel to make it feel safe again, which is glucose.
Over time, us women have lost the ability to use body fat as a fuel because our bodies are under constant stress. This inability to burn body fat results in our fat levels increasing, our clothes getting tighter, our moods fluctuating and as a result we turn to sugar to top up the fuel tank.
“The body cannot differentiate between different types of stress whether it be financial, emotional or environmental our bodies response to this stress is always the same.’
Sarah Wilson’s Story (I Quit Sugar):
Sarah Wilson an Australian journalist, built an entire “I Quit Sugar’ movement off the back of her thyroid problems. Her burnt out thyroid later escalated into infertility, her hair started falling out, her nails started pealing off in sheaths and eventually she was diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome. At the time of her sickness she was editing Cosmopolitan magazine, running 30 miles a week, sleeping 5 hours a night and propping herself up on black coffee and red wine. She was burning the candle at both ends until her body crashed and her thyroid completely ‘imploded’.
After hitting rock bottom with her health, Sarah was forced to look at alternative ways of healing herself. A pharmaceutical drug was prescribed to help regulate her thyroid but this was a band-aid solution. Sarah knew in order to get well she had to completely overhaul her lifestyle. This lifestyle change involved a multi directional approach of eliminating all processed sugar out of her diet and starting a daily meditative practice.
The role of Nutrition on your Hormones:
The most important question to ask oneself when making a decision about what to eat is ‘will this nourish me?’ We want to eat foods that helps us stay alive and to drive the biochemical pathways of our bodies so we have the energy to look, feel and function at our most optimal level. We want to be focused on whole and real foods that give us the nutrients we need to drive the inner workings of our bodies.
When selecting what to eat, go for foods in their most natural state such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean cuts of protein that are packed full of macro and micronutrients. When we eat a diet of processed food or when we don’t eat enough we become deficient in certain micro-nutrients like iron, zinc and magnesium. When we restrict our food, or cut out certain food groups, this results in our biochemical pathways not functioning properly, which can have major ramifications on our health both immediately and later on in life.
How do we have ‘happy hormones’:
There are a number of things we can do on a daily basis to bring our sympathetic nervous system down which are:
- Firstly, start to recognise when you are in that sympathetic stressed out response state. Are you experiencing symptoms of feeling rushed?, Is your heart racing?, Do you have shortness of breath or are you sighing a lot? All of these are symptoms and signs of adrenaline which is driving that sympathetic dominance. Ways to overcome this are to start exploring your perception of urgency and pressure. Is what you are experiencing really worth stressing about?
Start saving this stress for situations when your’e really need to rely on that fight or flight response such as a medical emergency vs not stressing about the 200 unopened emails in your inbox.
- Get brutally honest with yourself about how much caffeine you are drinking. A lot of people would really benefit from taking a break or cutting their intake right back to ideally 1 cup per day. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases our blood pressure and our heart rate and too much of it can increase our anxiety our heartbeat and cause heart palpitations.
- Take note of what is stressing you out, is it in relation to what other people are thinking about you? Try to see situations for how they really are, rather than what you perceive is to be happening. Cull your circle of influence down to 5-10 people and take on board their opinions rather than those of strangers on social media.
- When you feel stressed and exhausted, try to reduce the amount of high intensity exercise that you do as this releases more stress hormones (cortisol) into the body. Instead, try to activate the ‘green zone’ of the parasympathetic nervous system by participating in activities that energise you rather than deplete you. This could involve Yoga, pilates, tai chi, meditation, stretching or some concentrated breath work (diaphragmatic breathing). Start listening to yourself and tuning into your body. Ask yourself the questions ‘what feels good for me?’ and ask yourself ‘why’ are you working out.
- Eat a diet that is rich in micro and macronutrients as this governs the inner workings of our bodies and determines how we think, feel and act. Eat food that is good for your soul occasionally such as take out or alcohol, everything in moderation
- Lastly, avoid restrictive dieting as this slows the metabolism down. Our bodies do not understand that we have a choice about whether to feed it or not. When we restrict our body, it thinks it is in a famine and it’s not sure when it is going to get fed again. When this process takes place we start producing an enzyme that breaks muscles down, when our muscles break down we lose energy and with less muscle mass our body fat increases. This is a very important reason why diets don’t work in the long term. No one can sustain a diet of deprivation, nor is it healthy. Instead of focusing on how little you need to eat or how intensely you have to work out, focus on how you can nourish your body optimally so it performs at it’s best.
Remember that the true currency of health is not how much we weigh, but how much energy we have!