A lot of people are talking about mobility these days. Here's a post to help you make sense of it all...
What is mobility?
The available range of motion at one or more joints that allows a specific movement to be performed.
Why does mobility matter?
It allows us to move. Depending on the movement, there are different mobility demands on particular joints. Take for example, a squat. In order to perform a full depth squat, you must have a prerequisite amount of ankle, knee, and hip mobility. Lack of mobility in any one of these areas will be a constraint. This means that the body will have to “borrow” motion from somewhere else. In the squat example, a lack of hip mobility could result in borrowed motion from the lumbar spine (one potential cause of the dreaded “butt wink”). So in order to move smoothly and efficiently, you must have the mobility required to perform a given movement.
It is imperative to evaluate mobility in the context of a specific movement pattern. This is the biggest error that I see in athletes looking to improve their mobility. They come across a new stretch or mobility routine and begin to hammer away in search of better mobility. But when does someone have enough of it? Well, it depends. The movements that an athlete has to perform for their sport will determine the amount of mobility that is required. A dancer is going to require significantly more mobility than a basketball player. An olympic lifter is going to have certain mobility demands that a powerlifter would not have. Breaking down a movement pattern and assessing mobility of each involved joint is the best way to identify and then systematically address limitations to improve performance and reduce injury risk. This also helps us to avoid wasting time doing arbitrary mobility work that could be better spent in ways that actually transfer over to performance in your sport.
Lastly, mobility is only as useful as the control you have over it. If you cannot control mobility at a joint, you will not be able to use it. If you take a very flexible individual who has never lifted weights, and put them under significant load, I guarantee they will not be able to access all of that mobility that they have. This is because they lack the strength and control required to move under load. So when working to improve mobility, we also need to keep in mind that stretching and passive mobility techniques in themselves are not sufficient. They need to be followed up by active or loaded exercises to gain strength and control over the newly acquired range of motion.
What limits mobility?
There are 3 primary limiters of mobility:
Knowing your limiter will determine the appropriate type and dosing of an intervention to use. It will also give you a realistic expectation of the improvements you can expect. For example, if bony approximation is the limiter, you are not likely to change that. Your bone structure is determined in large part by genetics and development, especially in adolescence. Knowing this can save you lots of time and frustration. On the other hand, neurologic tone usually improves rapidly after a stimulus is applied. This explains most of the short-term improvements we see after foam rolling, banded mobilizations, stretching, etc. If true muscular shortness is to blame, this takes more of a long-term approach, but does improve when a stimulus (i.e. stretching) is consistently applied over period of time.
At this point you might be thinking...this all sounds good, but I still don't know what to do to improve my squat or overhead mobility, and that's really what I'm looking for. Well if that's you, STAY TUNED for upcoming posts where I'll be sharing videos of actual assessments and mobility drills you can perform to start unlocking some mobility that may be holding you back in your training!
Joby Philip, PT, DPT