In 2002, Kelly Starret posed a very simple challenge to the viewers of MobilityWOD, which has now become the most popular fitness blog in the world – can you get into a full hamstrings-resting-on-calves squat and stay there for 10 minutes? At least 10 minutes in this position constitutes normal mobility. Much of Africa, India and Asia would have no problem doing this. For anyone living a predominantly seated, indoor lifestyle, we become so stiff as we grow that it’s a battle just to get to the bottom of a full squat to begin with. This is not healthy.
There is a definitive full range of motion for every joint in your body. Most of us don’t need to be even half as mobile as a gymnast or an Olympic weightlifter for the purposes of general exercise. However, most gym goers view mobility as a short but necessary coda to their workout at best and, at worst, a complete waste of time. Either way, everyone should be doing more mobility.
Mobilising does not mean just doing the odd stretch. There are lots of ways to mobilise, and lots of tools you can use: resistance bands, barbells, massage balls, hockey balls, theracanes, wooden dowel etc. The principles are straightforward. First, if you want long-term soft tissue adaptation, two minutes per position is the minimum. Second, always start with your spine, then move to your shoulders/hips, and finally move down along a given limb. Third, mobilise purposefully i.e. to improve your running gait or deadlift set up.
So why mobilise at all? First and foremost, improved mobility dramatically decreases your chance of injury. If you have ever pulled something in your lower back picking something heavy off the ground, you might have tight hamstrings. If you’ve ever had pain in your knee after a long run, it’s often your hips that are at fault. If you’ve got a stiff neck, you might need to work on your upper back. The list is endless and pre-habilitation is always easier than rehabilitation.
Second, conventional stretches often involve assuming bad positions for the rest of your body. One of the main reasons to stretch your hamstrings is to improve your hip hinge for jumping, running, deadlifting, and squatting. In all of these movements, your core is activated and your back is flat. When most gym-goers stretch their hamstrings they’re seated on the ground, with their core offline, and their back rounded as far forward as possible. Your hamstrings are not attached to your back; they’re attached to your pelvis. Functionally mobilising your hamstrings means imitating the movements you’re actually trying to improve. Try lying on your back with one leg in the air and a towel wrapped around the base of the foot.
Third, achieving better positions means more power. For example, if you raise your arm from your side to directly overhead, your shoulders provide about 165 degrees of motion, whilst the remaining 15 degrees comes from your upper back. If you don’t have the flexibility in one or both areas, you compensate by arching your lower back, which makes if very difficult for your abs to stabilise your core. The stronger your core, the easier it will be to support the weight over your centre of gravity, and hence, you’ll lift more weight.
Fourth, muscle length isn’t the only thing that affects our mobility. For starters, every joint articulates inside a leathery joint capsule. This capsule can become adaptively stiff if the joint is placed in a bad position for prolonged periods of time. After sitting down for a few hours with the head of your femur pushing into the front of the hip socket, your femur will remain off-centre when you stand up. As a result, your hip will be unable to achieve full range of motion, and your hip movement will be askew when you go to run, jump or lift. Furthermore, your muscles are arranged in layers and slide across one another when they contract. If the tissue becomes knotted or matted down from underuse or a bad motor pattern it will restrict your movement. Stretching the muscles from end to end is a very ineffective way to deal with this problem; using a foam roller or a massage ball is the choice option.
To summarise, we all need to stop thinking about mobility as an annoying postscript to a real workout and realise that, if you’re an active person, it is a basic maintenance requirement for your body.