In my last article, I touched on why mobility is king and flexibility is really just an aspect of mobility. I neglected to write about the importance of mobility as a measure of quality of life though.
Everyone notices that the older we get the slower we move, the more stiff we look/feel and the more challenging every day life activities become — hip fractures quickly become one of our biggest fears. Mobility is perhaps the single biggest factor — next to explosive power generation, but you need mobility for that! — to keep our independence as we age.
Need to bend down to pick something up? You need mobility. Want to grab something off the top shelf in your kitchen? You need mobility.
Look no further than at someone like Jack Lalanne who at 96 years of age, moved like he was 20-30 years younger and maintained his independent lifestyle right up until his death.
Don’t you want that life for yourself at that age?
I know that’s my prime motivator for my mobility work, the idea of not being able to take care of myself later in life scares the crap out of me.
Well then, maybe it’s time you gave this mobility thing some serious thought. What I want to do with the rest of this post is give you a run down of the numerous methods I typically use to help others change their levels of mobility and maybe touch on some key mobility points of interest.
I) Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)
Often referred to as foam rolling, or soft-tissue release. This is a process of restoring tissue quality and I use a quick 5-10 minute session before most of my training sessions to loosen the tissues up, and stimulate the nervous system at the same time — massage increases neural efficiency for your subsequent workloads.
I also use this before static stretching at other times of day, more specifically before bed. I can also use it for recovery purposes, post-workout.
Massage (see below) has a ton of benefits, too numerous to really get into here.
I would do a quick and light one-over with a foam roller, then take a more intense tool like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and work over any areas you’ve noticed are particularly tender for more targeted work.Mike Robertson has a great basics of foam rolling free ebook here.II)
Like above, Massage is a little more targeted generally though that can depend on the modality.
You could even get a friend or loved one to apply pressure to areas that feel painful/tight.
Note: If you are headed to a massage therapist I would make sure they are an RMT, or Registered Massage Therapist (I’m not sure what the equivalency is in the U.S. but there is one).
III) Passive Stretching
This is essentially the traditional static stretching method, using another limb or a secure object to hold a limb in a stretch for typically 10-30 seconds, though some may advocate for more, in my experience there is little evidence to suggest this is necessary.
IV) Active Stretching
This is similar to passive stretching in that it is held for 10-30 seconds statically. The difference is that with active stretching you are using the strength of opposing muscle groups to get a stretch on the muscle group you want to stretch. This can be done at various tempos/durations, statically can be held up to 30 seconds but can also be used in more brief holds in tough/challenging positions like those commonly found in Active Isolated Stretching (AIS).
One of my favourites, and perhaps one of the most useful — especially when used in combination with SMR or Massage — typically done at various tempos too. You put your body into active positions that need your musculature to support but also create a stretch on a particular area of the body (like a lunge or deep squat) and then typically add additional movement to this, like the deep-squat to thoracic extension/rotation drill — this guy’s technique could use some refining but you should get the idea and I’ll work on some video in the meantime).
VI) Ballistic Stretching
A very quick type of stretching that puts the muscle into a deep quick stretch like swinging or jumping. This is right along the lines of explosive power training, which I also feel is very important for maintaining quality of life into our later years. You need ballistic mobility to execute explosive power.
The problem is that many of us, as we age, do less, when we should in fact probably be doing more.
VII) Agility Training
Most would leave this one out, but I feel as though agility is really mobility on a bigger and faster scale. Agility training applies ballistic stretching and flexibility to more practical situations like navigating stairs or a crowded street. Just doing ballistic stretching, would be a little like just lifting weights and not having any activity in life to apply it to.
Moving efficiently and effectively is the goal, so agility should be trained as a movement skill. This especially applies to people who are not involved in any various types of athletics. On it’s own at the gym it can include basic footwork drills, agility ladders, hurdles, cones, etc…
VIII) PNF Stretching
Is the utilization of a physical therapy modality that tricks the nervous system into getting a better stretch through a muscular contraction of the agonist muscle or the antagonist muscle. (It’s complicated…) PNF stretching is only part of the PNF training modality.
It is a highly effective training modality — not just a stretching tool, though the wiki would make you think otherwise — but as a stretching tool, I would typically use it on a client, so not necessarily something I recommend many clients do on their own time.
Quite simply put though, an isometric (not moving) contraction of the opposite muscle group or the same muscle group you are trying to stretch for about 4-7 seconds — though this time varies depending on who you talk to, I personally favour a shorter duration and a sub-maximal contraction — which will then lead to a greater stretch when you relax that flexed muscle and sink back into an isometric stretch.
Ultimately we’re playing tricks on your nervous system, sending a neural signal to relax the desired muscle or most cases muscle group. The relaxation is brought on by a manipulation of your stretch reflex.
The training modality follows diagonal and spiral patterns to facilitate improved motor function like the chop and lift pattern, which can also contribute greatly to improved mobility.
Anything that helps you relax, can help you achieve a deeper more impactful stretch, and help improve fascial elasticity, which makes up roughly 70% of your mobility capabilities.
X) Yoga and/or Pilates
They both have their merits, typically people associate this type of training with improved core stability, stabilizing muscle control and improved flexibility.
They also tell you myths like, ‘it will make your muscles longer and leaner looking’ or ‘it will make your core strong.’
Trunk (Core) strength and Trunk (Core) muscular endurance are two separate issues, these both tend to address the later.
They also have a tendency to try to loosen up the lumbar spine, which I strongly believe should be more rigid and stable in the majority of people.
Mostly I think I dislike anything cult like in appearance, and the often preachy dogma of high level practitioners, whom I feel overlook what should be a holistic approach to health and fitness.
Anyways, I don’t want to list everything I like or dislike about these modalities though. It’s sad really because these disciplines both have much to offer the fitness world, when applied appropriately.
However, they are really just training tools and this is not a bad thing necessarily, just don’t let it cloud you from the 7 things listed above which are more specific in nature or let the practice of these disciplines let you neglect other important areas for development (like strength or speed or power).
Perhaps not as specific as some of the modalities above (though they can be), they are both typically a combination of active and passive stretching. There is also plenty of research supporting yoga as a relaxation methodology (see vii) and Joseph Pilates (the founder of Pilates) was part of the physiotherapy movement in the early 20th century so some of those principles are still valid as prehab and rehab type modalities.
I encourage everyone to try everything a little bit, a holistic approach seems to work best, when mobility work is done at various tempos it yields optimal results. I do however, firmly believe that longer stretches (greater than 30 seconds) are not particularly necessary, though I know of at least one practitioner (the founder of microstretching) that would disagree with me. It a cost-to-benefit-ratio for me, stretching past 30 seconds yields minimal results over and above 30 seconds and really, who has the time to hold every stretch for 2-5 minutes??
Further (Non-Scientific) Reading on Mobility Training: