By Garrett Giles
What is mobility training and do I need to be doing it? To understand mobility training, we must first understand what mobility is. Mobility is the ability to move a limb through its full range of motion. This is not to be confused with flexibility which is simply the length of the muscle. Mobility is a controlled voluntary movement through its entire functional range of motion. Mobility training is the process in which you work to improve mobility in all or a single joint. In doing so you reduce the potential of imbalances, thus reducing the risk for injuries, allows for full benefits of exercise by moving limbs through their respective full range of motion, and helps you move better whether that is for daily activities or for sport.
Through daily activities, injuries, exercise, or sport, joint range of motion can decrease resulting in what is known as a compromised joint. Meaning your joint is vulnerable. To protect against this vulnerability your body will make compensations around that joint and even other places in the body, which often increase the likely hood for injury to occur. A compromised joint can even cause pain in unrelated areas! Joint mobility training stimulates and circulates synovial fluid. Joints do not receive direct blood supply therefore they do not receive nourishment. When you stimulate and circulate synovial fluid you increase the turnover rate of the fluid in the joint, which provides nourishment as well as removes waste in the joint.
So now that we know what mobility training does and why it is important, how much should you be doing or do you need to be doing it at all? Some say it should be every day, some say once a week, and some say not at all. Honestly joint mobility training should be something that is added into your day-to-day workout regimen as needed. If you are having joint mobility issues, meaning you cannot get each joint through its full range of motion, then you need to add some mobility training to your workout regimen. Depending on how severe joint mobility is limited, will influence how much work you need to put into joint mobility training. If your joint mobility is severely limited, then an everyday pre- exercise regimen may be necessary, once full range of motion is regained then mobility training can be reduced to a few times a week, then to once a week, and as needed form there. If you have no issues getting all joints through their respective range of motion, mobility training may not be necessary, but that does not mean that it is not a bad idea. If you do not think it is necessary to add mobility training to your workout, make sure you keep an eye on your body alignment and function to ensure that you do not develop any muscular imbalances or dysfunctions. As soon as you start to notice any loss of mobility, take a proactive approach and start working on it immediately to prevent an increased risk of injury in that joint or elsewhere in the kinetic chain.
So what does mobility training look like? Joint mobility training typically involves foam rolling, mobility drills, and some stretching. Foam rolling is also called self-myofascial release. Basically that is a fancy word for a self-massage. Foam rolling helps break up fascial adhesions around the muscles and help increase joint mobility and optimal muscle contraction. The tighter the muscles are that surround a joint the less mobile they will be, so foam rolling is a quick easy way to help increase joint mobility. Foam rolling can be incorporated in the beginning of your workout with your warm up and is something you can do every day to help improve or maintain mobility. Mobility drills are exercises that take the muscles, tendons, and the joint through their entire range of motion. When performing these types of exercises, it is important to perform them using high levels of control. There are many types of mobility training exercises, which will be specific to each and every joint. Some examples are wall slides for increasing shoulder joint mobility and leg swings to increase hip joint mobility. Mobility drills are great to incorporate in the beginning of your workout or even as a workout on their own. Incorporating a stretching routine after exercise can also help elongate the muscles that surround the joint thus helping the joint move through its full range of motion.
Joint mobility can be crucial for athletes, regular exercisers, or even people that develop mobility issues in the work place. Mobility training is a great warm up before exercise, which not only helps manage imbalances and reduces the risk of injury, but also improves exercise by moving joints through their full range of motion. While mobility work may not be necessary for everyone, it is still a great tool to help maintain joint health. So next time you are about to exercise try throwing in some mobility drills beforehand and see the improvements in your workout!
- What is Mobility? (And why it’s so important)
- So What is Mobility?
- How to Build Mobility (two ways)
- Movement 20XX was built mobility and structural balance in mind
- 7 Stability and Mobility Exercises You Should Do Before Every Workout
- 5 Exercises to Help Maintain Proper Muscle and Joint Function
- The Types of Stretching
- Deep Tissue Massage
- 4 Mobility Essentials to Buy Right Now
- Mobility Training 101: How To Stay Flexible, Warm Up Before Your Workout, and Soothe Sore Muscles
- Myth: Getting strong and building bigger muscles reduces flexibility
- Myth: Stretching makes your muscles, tendons, and ligaments longer and/or more elastic
- Myth: The more flexible you are, the better
- Myth: Stretch before your workout to reduce injury risk
- Myth: Stretching makes you stronger
What is Mobility? (And why it’s so important)
Mobility is one of the keys to longevity in training. Working on mobility will also unleash A LOT of hidden potential in your body.
orking on mobility will help you break through plateaus and improve your overall health. You also need mobility to get strong and move well.
Mobility isn’t something we do for the sake of “getting more mobile”. Mobility work is done because it’s necessary in order to maximize one’s potential and working on it has numerous of great benefits.
Mobility work will allow you to maximize your progress in anything you do whether it’s increasing the size of your muscles, building strength or developing movement skills.
Lots of athletes, powerlifters and normal gym-goers consider pain and aches normal and “part of the game”, but thinking this way is a massive mistake.
Pain is not normal. Chronic injuries are not part of the game. You aren’t tough because your knees are messed up by dumb training.
Almost all chronic pains and injuries are fixable, and most of them can be fixed with correct mobility work.
So What is Mobility?
Mobility is strength in the range of motion of the muscle.
The difference between mobility and flexibility is that with mobility you have control over the range of motion. For example, you are probably able to lift your leg relatively high with the assistance of your arms. That’s flexibility.
Mobility is when you are able to control the entire range of motion of the leg with just the leg muscles: you don’t need assistance to lift the leg up.
It’s possible to have strength in your muscles in just small range of motions. That’s why strength alone isn’t enough: you need to train the entire range of motion to build mobility.
There are two types of mobility
1. Mobility of the muscle / body part (isolation)
It’s possible to have mobility in certain muscles and lack it completely in others.
It’s possible to have a very mobile upper body but non-existing mobility in the lower body (think of professional rowers or cyclists).
When you work on building mobility in a specific muscle (which is many times needed), you are working on the mobility of that muscle.
Although one muscle will get strong and mobile, it doesn’t mean your entire body has a good level of mobility, which is why 2. is important:
2. Overall mobility, also known as the structural balance
Overall mobility, also known as the structural balance is how balanced and mobile your entire body is as a whole.
Structural balance is by far the most important thing you need for growth, health and injury-prevention. A balanced body that is mobile everywhere is almost bulletproof to injuries because it doesn’t have any weak links to it.
A good level of structural balance allows the individual to perform and handle any postures and positions the body is put into.
Also, because everything is working correctly, no joint is getting too much unnecessary strain which helps to prevent many chronic injuries people experience.
You will not be able to grow to your full potential without structural balance, because the body will restrict your growth in order to stay healthy and to prevent injuries.
The triceps need to counterbalance the size of the biceps. Likewise, the front side of the thigh needs to balance the muscles of the posterior thigh (hamstrings etc.). This should be obvious, but often times it isn’t.
How to Build Mobility (two ways)
1. Using the full range of motion with compound exercises
Compound exercises are big multi-joint exercises like push ups, pull ups, bench press, squats and deadlifts.
You will develop good levels of mobility by doing big compound exercises with a full range of motion. This means that you will squat all the way down. You will start the pull ups from straight arms and then pull up to your chest.
You need to be in control of the range of motion, just doing the full range of motion won’t be enough (swinging, twerking etc.).
Many people, mostly bodybuilders, use only a small portion of the range of motion which merely builds strength in that small range of motion. You want to build strength in the entire range of motion.
Sometimes using partial repetitions is a great way to isolate a muscle, but as a general rule it should be avoided.
You will develop good levels of strength, mobility and flexibility by doing full range of motion compound exercises. Then you just polish the body with isolative mobility exercises.
2. Isolating certain muscles or body parts
Although working on the compound exercises will work, it won’t be enough. This is when you need to start isolating the muscles.
Moreover, with many compound exercises you won’t be working all the muscles of your body with the full range of motion anyway.
The key is to learn how to control the weak and immobile muscles. Once that’s done, you can start building strength there.
This is also the most challenging task because very likely a muscle is overlooked because the person doesn’t know how to control or fire it properly.
Many times it can be one tiny muscle in the shoulder that is causing problems or just one random muscle that has been overpowered by other muscles that do the same function.
For example, it’s possible that you have been trying to train the brachialis muscle of the arm, but instead you have accidentally overpowered it’s function completely with biceps and brachioradialis (which are also elbow flexors).
To learn how to target different muscles and body parts, check out:
You can find all of our free mobility work by clicking here.
Movement 20XX was built mobility and structural balance in mind
Movement 20XX is a movement program, but it also includes very comprehensive strength & mobility workouts.
The entire strength & mobility workouts of Movement 20XX were built structural balance and mobility in mind because they are indeed the keys to performance and progress in anything you do.
In Movement 20XX you will do many different kinds of pull ups and pushing movements to ensure the structural balance of the upper body. You will also work hard on the lower body with active flexibility drills and other leg exercises.
The versatile training of Movement 20XX is high level stuff and it offers a great foundation for general fitness, sports, martial arts and pure strength work you won’t build with heavy squats alone.
You also need a strong and mobile body to perform different movements. Although many of the movements are simple and beginner-friendly, some of them are just pure strength and mobility.
The reason this movement flow looks soft and “graceful” is because of the good mobility and structural balance. If you want to have grace and softness in your movements, you need to start working on mobility and structural balance.
Train hard, stay safe.
Decreases chance of injury- This should be a given and is by far the most important. Any restrictions to a freely moving joint pose a possible risk of injury. There are some exceptions such as a basketball player having tight ankles to prevent constant sprains from changing directions, but overall a free joint is a happy joint.
Keeps joints healthy- When doing mobility exercises, the joint being targeted is commonly referred to as being “warmed up.” What is actually happening is that blood is being moved to the surrounding tissues and synovial fluid (fluid in our joints which helps them glide) is shuttled into the working joint. For example, fire hydrants or hip circles are aiming to warm up the hips. Blood is then transported to the muscles working to move the leg (hip flexors, glutes, external rotators) and synovial fluid hydrates the hip joint in preparation for exercise.
Become stronger- If our movement is restricted in a squat and we can only go down to just above parallel, how strong would the squat be through its full range of motion if we are not able to train the bottom fourth of the movement? Not very strong at all. This logic can be applied to every exercise as well. If our mobility is limiting a full range of motion, then we cannot strengthen all parts of the movement.
Time efficient- Like I said earlier, mobility exercises are quick, easy, and effective by design. A full upper body or lower body routine can be completed in 5-10 minutes making it optimal as a warm-up or cool down. Full body routines can be implemented on non-training days as well and should take no more than 15-20 minutes either.
All you need is you- In addition to being time efficient; mobility exercises are also very portable. Many can be down with just body weight movements, and the most you would ever need are some bands and a light bar or dumbbells. There really is no excuse to not stay on top of mobility work.
7 Stability and Mobility Exercises You Should Do Before Every Workout
Stability and mobility exercises seem to be having a moment—and it’s about time. Moving your joints through their full ranges of motion isn’t just important for athletes or the superfit. Mobility and stability exercises can help keep your joints healthy, reduce your risk of injury, and keep your body moving pain-free. (Related: What Is Mobility: The Mobility Myths You Need to Know About)
And while many fitness studios now offer entire classes dedicated to improving mobility and stability, you should ideally be thinking about both during every workout. But what exactly *are* mobility and stability?
Boiled down to the basics, mobility helps our bodies function optimally. It benefits our everyday movements, helps correct our muscular imbalances, betters our posture, helps prevent injuries (especially overuse injuries), allows us to move more efficiently, and gives us a better range of motion during our workouts. So really, it does a lot. Essentially, mobility is ongoing, preventative maintenance for your entire body. Many associate foam rolling with mobility, and foam rolling definitely does benefit mobility by decreasing inflammation and adhesions within our muscles and connective tissue. But it’s really only a portion of what you should be doing on the reg.
As for stability? While stability and balance seem pretty synonymous, balance has more to do with proprioception—the ability to sense where your body is in space—while stability is more about being grounded and strong during movement (it’s a big deal for runners, BTW). Some great examples of stability exercises include unilateral movements, like single-leg Russian deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, walking lunges, and single-leg hip thrusts.
To stay mobile and stable, add these stability and mobility exercises from fitness instructor Alicia Archer, the bendy yogi behind @kinkysweat and Kohl’s wellness ambassador, to your next warm-up routine. They’ll help maintain and increase your hip, shoulder, and spine mobility, and boost your overall flexibility and strength over time. (BTW, here’s the difference between mobility and flexibility.)
Whether you’re lifting, running, cycling, rock climbing, or performing an elaborate interpretative dance to a Cardi B song of your choice: As long as your body is in motion, you’re doing something right. But a lot more goes in to that than summoning the will to get off your couch and into a pair of sneakers. Below the surface, your joints, tendons, and muscle tissues all work together to make you move. If you fail to take care of those components, pain and poor ranges of motion will prevent you from doing all that moving around much longer.
This is where mobility—which is not a synonym for stretching—comes into play. “Mobility is a combination of flexibility, which measures what your joints and muscles allow, and extensibility, which is the ability of your muscles and connective tissues to lengthen and shorten,” says ACE-certified personal trainer Pete McCall, author of the upcoming book Smarter Workouts. “It’s the way that a joint or tendon moves within its range of motion.” It can also be the difference between hitting a personal best and limping through a workout—or, worse, getting sidelined by injury.
Our mobility is hampered by the nature of today’s deskbound jobs, which limit the range of positions that our bodies have reason to assume. “If you are stationary all day and then do a stationary exercise like running or indoor cycling or lifting, you’re not addressing the issue of mobility, because you’re not using your full range of motion,” says McCall. “Try to play basketball or tennis, and you’ll realize you can’t move laterally.”
Little mobility limitations can turn into big problems, especially when people elect to try powering through, instead of addressing the issue promptly. “If something hurts, you’ll try to improve in a reactive way, which is like tamping down a fire,” says Kelly Starrett, DPT, a co-founder of MobilityWOD. The goal, instead, is to prevent the fire before it happens. “Working with a mechanical problem in your shoulder is like driving a Ferrari with the parking brake on,” he explains, in case you prefer automotive metaphors to fire-adjacent ones. “It’s still a Ferrari, but it’s not performing as it should.”
Fortunately, you don’t need to overhaul your entire workout regimen to develop mobility, which is good, because stuffing additional things into your allotted hour of gym time isn’t always feasible. (Be honest: When was the last time you spent 10 minutes stretching and another 10 minutes warming up before you sat down to bench-press?) Try these simple exercises while watching TV, at the office, or as accessories to your current lifting program. After all, your ability to move is only getting more important. “As you get older, it’s less about how much weight you can lift, and more about how mobile you are,” McCall says. “Because if you can’t move, what’s the point?”
Push-up with rotation
How: Do a push-up. At the top, rotate into a side plank, with one hand planted on the floor and the other raised to the ceiling. Perform five on each side.
When: Before attempting a heavy bench press.
Why: “It enhances shoulder rotation and fires up your spinal stabilizers—two things that will improve your bench press,” says McCall.
Lateral lunge and reach
How: With your feet together, step out to your right into a side lunge, and reach your left hand across your body to touch your right foot. Do 10, alternating sides each time.
When: Before a heavy deadlift, or as an accessory exercise on leg day.
Mobility is key to maintaining independence, especially as people age — and for seniors, the loss of mobility has profound social, psychological, and physical consequences. If joints and muscles aren’t properly maintained, basic movements may cause pain or even injury. But the cascade of negative effects that comes with immobility can often be prevented or limited by physical activity and exercise.
5 Exercises to Help Maintain Proper Muscle and Joint Function
Here are five exercises to help prevent immobility – especially in seniors – and help maintain proper muscle and joint function in the body:
Upper Body Clam Shell
This exercise promotes scapular retraction and will help increase shoulder flexibility and stability, as well as give your back, chest, and arms a small workout.
- Start sitting on your chair in an upright position with your feet flat on the floor (you can also do this exercise standing up).
- Form a goalpost with your arms (90 degree angle with the upper arms parallel to the floor).
- Bring your forearms together in front of your face.
- Return your arms to starting position (squeezing your shoulder blades together).
To make this exercise slightly more challenging, you can hold weights or small items in your hands.
Also known as chair squats, semi-sits are a safe way to build strength. The bending and stretching of your knees will strengthen your knee muscles and allow more oxygen and blood to flow around the joints, helping to keep them supple and strong.
- Stand in front of a chair with your feet hip-width apart.
- Engage your core abdominal muscles.
- Slowly lower your body to the chair and bend your knees like you’re going to sit.
- Touch the chair seat lightly, then return to a standing position.
Make sure to keep your chest and head up and don’t let your knees go past your toes. Push up through your heels.
Seated Abdominal Press
Seated abdominal exercises allow you to strengthen your core. Maintaining your core strength is key to maintaining stability, and thus, your overall mobility.
- Start by sitting on your chair in an upright position with your feet flat on the floor
- Place your hands on your knees with elbows locked
- Press your palms into your knees, engaging the core
- Hold 3-5 seconds
This is another great core exercise you can do anywhere.
- Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor
- Place one hand behind your head and the other arm outstretched to one side
- Lean over to the side as if reaching toward the floor
- Contract your oblique abdominal muscles and return to the starting position
Don’t allow your chest to fall forward and try to keep both feet flat on the floor.
Low-back Rotation Stretch
Your spine is your control center and a source of strength for many activities, and the lower lumbar region of the spine is the powerhouse of all movement. The benefits of stretching your lower back on a regular basis include improving your range of motion, reducing back pain, and increasing the flexibility of tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Stretching exercises that focus on the lower back help to relieve tension and morning stiffness.
- Start by sitting on your chair in an upright position with your feet flat on the floor
- Twist your upper body so your shoulders rotate to your left side (use the chair or your leg for support if you need to get a deeper stretch)
- Hold for 20-30 seconds
- Return to starting position
- Repeat on the right side
Loss of mobility is a real problem, but it’s often preventable and treatable. There are many opportunities to move throughout the day and you can even practice many upper- and lower-body mobility exercises from a chair.
Join a local exercise class, take daily walks, or find something that works for you and make it a habit. I want you to live your healthiest life possible. Take steps now to make sure you can take the steps you need in the years ahead.
When was the last time you worked on your mobility? It’s been a while, we’re sure. Nevertheless, there’s never been a better time than right now to work on your stretching and mobility. In fact, you should give it the same adoration as your post-workout protein shake. Do all this, even for a few weeks, and you’ll be able to press more, pull more, move better, lift safer and much more. You could even live longer, but there’s more on that later.
“If you think about a cold elastic band, put enough strain on it and it’s going to snap,” explains PT Jason Patmore, founder of JDP Fitness, on why you need to be adding some mobility to your gym workout. Patmore says when men work their muscles, they contract and get shorter in a process called adaptive shortening. Stretching the muscle will help lengthen it, preventing tightness and increasing your recovery time.
“When you’re doing mobility work you’re actually making the muscle more pliable, allowing it to withstand more strain,” says Patmore. Put simply, if the muscle can handle a greater load without harming itself, it will be able to lift more long-term.
The Types of Stretching
Dynamic stretching consists of movements with a progressive range of motion each time. If you’re warming up for a football match, you might do 10 leg-swings at waist height followed by 10 at chest-height. A kick-boxer or Taekwondo fighter might end up doing them at head-height after this. “The muscles gradually lengthen over a series of movements,” says Patmore. “You’re essentially prepping the weapon to fire.”
Dynamics mimic the exercise you’re about to do, so they get a lot of use within sport. You can adapt this in the gym by doing your first set of each exercise with JUST the bar, or the lightest weight you can find. This will keep the muscles nice and toasty, preventing muscular injury without having to grab a yoga-mat.
Static stretching is “exactly what it says on the tin,” according to Patmore: a stretch that is held for up to 15 seconds at the point of getting tight. When you release a stretch after a short break, return to the next ‘set’, stretching slightly further than you would otherwise have.
Just make sure it’s not done before your PB. The journal Medical Science in Sports and Exercise says static stretching before vigorous exercise slightly decreases power and performance, thought to be due to the relaxed, more compliant muscle being unable to recruit as much power as the tense type. But a dedicated post-workout stretching routine decreases your recovery time by combating the build-up of lactic acid.
Deep Tissue Massage
Short of an on-hand sports masseuse to get those kinks out, the DOMS-afflicted must turn to self-massage for salvation. Foam rollers are a great way of targeting lower-body and back afflictions and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Kelly Starrett, author of natural movement bible Becoming a Supple Leopard, recommends the Rumble Roller as its punishing knobbles are able to iron out your creases with maximum efficiency. Flat foam rollers will help if you can’t handle the half-inch bumps on the Rumble, while a lacrosse ball squeezed into the offending area will target specific problem areas to leave you hitting the gym feeling fresh as a daisy.
Below are six static stretches to get cracking on your newfound supple strength. Hold each one for 15 seconds and do each one twice on either side. Who said flexibility was for females?
While standing, lift one arm above your head and bend at the elbow to reach down behind your neck. Use your free hand to push that raised arm further down behind your head. Repeat with the opposite arm.
Bring one arm up across your body. Hook your other arms underneath and pull the straight arm towards you at the elbow. Repeat with the opposite arm.
Whilst standing, bend your leg behind you and pull your foot into your backside.
Hip Flexor Stretch
From your knees, place one foot forward in front of you. Keeping your back upright and foot planted, lean forward through your hips to stretch the front of your rear leg. Repeat with the opposite side.
Single-leg Hamstring Stretch
From your knees, place one foot forward in front of you. Keeping your back upright and foot planted, lean forward through your hips to stretch the front of your rear leg. Repeat with the opposite side.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Lift one ankle up and rest it across the opposite knee. Reach underneath the lower leg and pull up towards your chest. Repeat with the opposite leg.
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4 Mobility Essentials to Buy Right Now
Men’s Health Resistance Bands – Set of 3 Men’s Health argos.co.uk £29.99 King Athletic Foam Roller for Muscles Exercise and Myofascial Massage King Athletic amazon.co.uk £11.97 Lacrosse Massage Ball for Mobility and Stretching fine-toned amazon.co.uk £5.97 Muscle Massage Gun,Hand Held Deep Tissue Muscle Massager LPYSFW amazon.co.uk £189.99
Mobility Training 101: How To Stay Flexible, Warm Up Before Your Workout, and Soothe Sore Muscles
Myth: Getting strong and building bigger muscles reduces flexibility
There’s a common misconception that strength training reduces flexibility, making people “muscle-bound.” In fact, this is not necessarily true; it can happen, but that depends primarily on how you train.
The key is to train with a full range of motion. When you squat, your butt should almost touch your heels at the bottom of the movement, and you should be standing up straight at the top. When you do a pushup, your nose should touch the floor — or better yet, your hands should be elevated on blocks so your nose can go slightly below the level of your hands to touch the floor. And so on.
The other thing that can make people become muscle-bound is anabolic steroid usage. Steroids can impair the development of connective tissue; even though many steroids actually increase collagen synthesis, they also change the structure of collagen in the body. Combined with rapid increases in strength which outpace the growth of connective tissue, steroid users suffer a markedly high rate of tendon injuries.
This phenomenon has contributed to the misconception that building muscle necessarily entails losing flexibility. In fact, it isn’t something you should worry about if you’re not on steroids, and if you train with a full range of motion.
Myth: Stretching makes your muscles, tendons, and ligaments longer and/or more elastic
There are three ways in which stretching could potentially make you more flexible.
First, it could make your body tissues — muscles, tendons, and ligaments — more elastic, so that they’re physically capable of stretching to a greater degree.
Second, it could make those same tissues longer, so that they have a greater range of motion without actually needing to stretch.
Third, it could simply reduce the amount of pain you feel when you stretch. In other words, a neurological rather than a structural change.
Most people think stretching works primarily by mechanism number one– increasing elasticity. Many also think that number two, tissue lengthening, plays a role. Studies say differently.
Tissue lengthening does not happen to any significant degree as a result of stretching. In fact, this isn’t even really possible in theory, since the endpoints of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are fixed; for them to get longer, the entire anatomy of the body part in question would have to change.
Increases in elasticity do happen, but not the way people think. Although rubber bands are a popular analogy, muscles don’t actually work like rubber bands at all. In fact, they’re viscoelastic.
As Weppler and Magnusson put it: “like solid materials, they demonstrate elasticity by resuming their original length once tensile force is removed. Yet, like liquids, they also behave viscously because their response to tensile force is rate and time-dependent.”
Furthermore, all increases in muscular viscoelasticity are temporary, at least as far as studies have been able to observe. Viscoelasticity returns to baseline after anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on the duration and intensity of the stretching. And for what it’s worth, it seems to be the viscosity, rather than elasticity, that increases.
In fact, what we know as improvement in flexibility is mostly the result of improvements in neural stretch tolerance. Your nervous system learns to both relax your muscles better as they stretch, as well as to be less sensitive to pain caused by stretching. As a result, you become neurologically capable of doing what your body was physically capable of doing all along.
Unlike the increase in viscoelasticity, this improvement in neural stretch tolerance is semi-permanent. Like memorizing words or learning to ride a bike, it can last for months or years. And while it fades with time if not practiced, it takes relatively little effort to maintain — or to rebuild your stretch tolerance if it does fade.
Since flexibility is mostly neural, you can also see that the pain you feel from a deep stretch doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re damaging anything in your body; it could be — and often is — nothing more than an overreaction by your nervous system. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.
Myth: The more flexible you are, the better
Now that you know that flexibility is just an improvement in neural stretch tolerance rather than a physical increase in the flexibility of your body, perhaps you can see why there could be such a thing as too much flexibility.
Simply put: your muscles have a “flexibility safety margin,” in as much as you start to feel pain before you’ve stretched them as far as they can possibly stretch. When you get more flexible, you reduce that safety margin.
The more flexible you are, the more easily you can overstretch, inflicting not just pain but actual damage on yourself. In fact, many injuries are caused by too much (not too little) flexibility.
Therefore, your goal should be to have enough flexibility to do everything you need to do in life by a comfortable margin. You should be able to stretch a few inches beyond what it takes to tie your shoes, bend over and lift a box, put on and take off clothing, etc.
Having far more flexibility than you need for any practical life purpose might be fun, or meaningful to you as a way of purposefully challenging yourself, but it isn’t actually healthy. If anything, it raises your chance of injury.
Myth: Stretch before your workout to reduce injury risk
Studies almost always fail to find that stretching before a workout reduces injury risk during the workout, and some studies even find that stretching can increase the risk of injury in subsequent physical activity.
There is at least some evidence that an active warmup before a workout can reduce the risk of a strain, but this seems to have more to do with warming up the body — literally warming it up so that the soft tissues get softer and looser — than with flexibility.
Myth: Stretching makes you stronger
Studies consistently find that stretching muscles before a workout does not make them stronger, and often even makes them weaker. There is at least some theoretical support for the idea that stretching muscles after a workout may help them get stronger over time, but this has never been directly demonstrated in research.
There is one catch regarding strength. Since most muscles are organized into agonist-antagonist pairs which act in opposition to each other, you can effectively strengthen a muscle by using stretching to weaken the opposing muscle. For instance, by stretching your hamstrings, you can temporarily make yourself stronger at quadriceps-dominant exercises. However, this isn’t actually directly strengthening the quads.
In fact, muscle stiffness can increase force production. With regards to strength and athletic performance, there seems to be an optimal amount of flexibility for any given exercise; you don’t want to be less flexible, but you also don’t want to be more flexible.
By extension, there’s an optimal amount of flexibility in each muscle group for a given sport or sports position. To quote the linked study, “typically, specific flexibility patterns are associated with specific sports and even positions within sports.”
So again, more flexibility isn’t better from a strength standpoint either. In fact, you often want to build more flexibility in the muscles you don’t use as much — the ones opposed to the muscles that you want to be strong.
With all of that said, let’s look at some of the exercises you can do to improve mobility — stretching, massaging, and strength-mobility exercises.
I’m joined in this by my friend Tim Liu, who helped me take the photos for this article and appears in many of them himself. I’m the guy in the all-black outfit; Tim’s the guy in the blue shirt.
Muscle, strength, endurance, fat loss; those are the most common terms we associate fitness with. But there’s an important component to fitness that isn’t openly discussed as much. It’s called mobility. Trainers underemphasize the importance of it, and athletes far too often drop it down on the priority list. But mobility is an indication on how well and efficiently we move and even helps us ward off injuries. To answer some of the questions we get on mobility, we tapped into New York City-based physical therapist and trainer, Joe Vega, M.S.P.T., C.S.C.S.
Q1: What is the difference between mobility and flexibility? Which one is more important and why?
“A person with great mobility is able to perform functional movement patterns with no restrictions in the range of motion (ROM) of those movements. A flexible person may or may not have the core strength, balance, or coordination to perform the same functional movements as the person with great mobility. There are a host of possible muscle imbalances that cause this, but these problems can be fixed with a combination of what I call the three S’s—soft-tissue work (foam roll), stretch, and strengthen. It’s important to recognize that flexibility is a component of mobility, but extreme flexibility usually isn’t necessary to perform functional movements.”
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Q2: What areas are really important to keep mobile/flexible?
“Start with the common areas that are affected by bad posture such as the neck, mid back, lower back, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calf muscles. All of these areas should receive the three S’s, and it’s recommended that you do all three of the steps in order. A failure to follow all three steps will lead to decreased mobility which will in turn negatively affect your squat, deadlift, and other Olympic lifts.”
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Q3: What are some good total-body mobility exercises?
“It’s important to address all areas of mobility, but three must-do exercises would be overhead squats, the prayer stretch (elbows on a bench from your knees, let the chest sink down), and knee-to-elbow bird dogs. Don’t forget to foam roll, that might be the most important component of all.”
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Q4: What size foam roller is best for loosening up the back muscles?
“The go-to foam roller of choice to prep the back muscles would have to be the Trigger Point Grid or Grid Mini. The larger grid allows the user to prep the larger back muscles, while the mini is great for hitting those hard to reach areas, like the shoulder blades. The larger grid is the perfect weight (just over one pound), and small enough (a mere 13 inches) to pack into a travel bag so you can foam roll on the go.”
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Q5: What is the best way to crack my back safely?
“High-thrust spinal mobilizations are usually reserved for chiropractors. However, with enough pressure as you foam roll stiff areas such as the mid back it’s not uncommon to hear some relieving snap, crackle, and pops.”
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