You can touch your toes, you can sit in pigeon pose, you’ve worked on stretching for years, you may be very flexible… but do you have adequate mobility? My guess is that you have quite a few immobile joints that you’re completely unaware of and have a false idea of how flexible you actually are.
Let’s start with a basic definition of both flexibility and mobility.
According to dictionary.com, flexibility is the ability to be bent, usually without breaking (I’ll get to the irony of this statement later on). To apply this definition to muscles, it essentially means that a muscle is flexible if it will stretch without tearing - the further that muscle stretches without tearing, the more flexible that muscle is.
Mobility is the amount a joint can move before it meets a barrier or restriction (from the joint capsule, muscles, ligaments, etc.). Um, what?? Our bones alone, without any of the other soft tissue or connective tissue surrounding them, would move in pretty much any and all directions without restriction. BUT to make us functional beings who aren’t piles of bones on the ground, we have ligaments, tendons, capsules, fascia, muscles etc, that hold us together. (Please download our ebook on ther3finery.com if you want to get more into human anatomy!) With the aforementioned being said, joints in a living being are built with a certain amount of motion that they are capable of moving through, which is only limited by our soft tissue and connective tissue, which is there to keep us together.
What frequently happens with joint mobility is very “move it or lose it”... If your joints are not being moved to their maximum potential (where it meets that restriction), the restrictions around the joint become greater and greater, therefore making your actual joint mobility lesser and lesser. Let me use a visual example… a frequently used hiking trail is often clear of vegetation and overgrowth of that vegetation. That trail is used to it’s restrictions, so it maintains it’s full width. Hiking trails that are rarely used often end up covered in vegetation - sometimes with that vegetation completely closing down that trail and making it impassable. Our joints are the same way - even if you didn’t try it, you could likely have done a split as an infant or toddler. You used your joints to their fullest motion capacity. If you kept doing splits throughout your life, you kept those joints functioning with their fullest motion capacity and you can likely still do splits, to a certain degree. You used your hiking trail frequently and didn’t allow for overgrowth. Unfortunately, we rarely push our joints to their limits and just accept their new limits as how far we can move and never push those boundaries. We have overgrown trails and no hedge trimmers in sight.
Let’s tie flexibility back into this. You can stretch a muscle without it tearing and that may look impressive, but you may be stretching those muscles over immobile joints. For example, you can touch your toes, but are your hip joints moving at their maximum range? Or are you achieving that task by stealing movement from somewhere else? Are your hamstrings even flexible? Or is your spine moving more than it should for you to accomplish that task because your lack of hip mobility is not allowing for the movement you wish to do? Likely, your hip mobility is lacking, so in order to touch your toes, you are recruiting more movement from more and more joints in order to be able to touch your toes. When you bend forward, you move so far from your hips, and then take note of how your spine looks. It should be neutral and in line with your pelvis, not completely rounded over. If your spine is rounded over and you cannot maintain a neutral spine, you likely have a lack of mobility in your hips and pelvis.
The next is not a common movement for the general public, but it’s an important example in the crossfit and lifting community. A snatch, or any overhead shoulder motion, requires a LOT of shoulder mobility. In order to perform a snatch correctly, you need full shoulder flexion - arms completely overhead and close to your ears, not shrugging your shoulders, not extending excessively anywhere in your spine. Most people do not have this amount of mobility in their shoulder and scapulothoracic joints. Often people think “I can snatch, I have the flexibility to get there.” When in reality, it’s more like “I think I can snatch because what I’m doing vaguely resembles a snatch, but I’m really cheating and stealing mobility from a number of other joints because my shoulders don’t have the mobility that they really need to get into a full snatch”. This is where that irony comes in… flexibility is the ability to bend without breaking, and while the breaking isn’t overtly obvious, every time you force joints to do things they don’t have the mobility for, you’re slowly “breaking” them over time.
I’m not telling you to stop working on your flexibility. I AM telling you to work on improving your joint mobility so that you are able to move at your maximum physical motion capacity and therefore maximize your flexibility as well. How? Aside from recommending that you come to The R3finery to work on functional range conditioning, I recommend that you really focus in on how and what you’re moving. If you’re working on shoulder flexion (arm overhead), and you notice that you get to a certain point with your arm, but then extend your upper back, you’ve now skipped over working on shoulder flexion and are working on spine extension. What you can do in this scenario is stabilize every other joint in your body - almost like you’re bracing for impact - then move your shoulder to where it doesn’t want to go anymore without compensating elsewhere, and work there. You don’t need weights or fancy equipment just some mind over matter and body control.
Working on improving joint mobility is challenging and it will likely take some time, but I cannot stress enough the importance of it. Moving with a series of compensatory movement patterns vs moving with healthy joints to their fullest capacity could be the difference between a painful or pain free life.
Love and light,
Alix Terpos PT, DPT