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Stop “Stretching”! Do Mobility Work Instead.

The words “flexibility” and “mobility” are generally used synonymously to mean the available range of motion at a given joint, or in a given movement pattern, such as a squat.  I will use “mobility” here to be consistent.  The term “stretching” has commonly been used to describe attempts to improve mobility.  This can mislead.  “Mobility work” offers more  specific techniques to help you increase range of motion in your joints.

Related: 4 Simple Shoulder Mobility Movements

“Stretching” as a term was popularized by the book of the same name by Bob Anderson published in 1980.  The 30th Anniversary Edition didn’t bother to define “stretching,” but states clearly the common misconception of “stretching”: that the benefit comes from stretching muscles (30th Ed. pg. 12.  2010).  Yes, muscles stretch when you ask them to.  However, stretching muscles will not result increased range of motion or do much to prevent injury.  We are complex systems of muscle, nerves, blood vessels, and many types of connective tissues, all of which are involved in setting your ranges of motion.

What increases range of motion and prevents injury is work that targets all of the elements of restriction at a given joint.  These are: joint capsules, fascia, connective tissue growth between layers, subconscious restriction, and (yes) muscle length.  “Mobility work” is a more comprehensive term for efforts to identify and target the relevant elements at a given joint or in a given movement pattern, like a squat.

“Mobility work” means “distracting,” or re-aligning, and assisting joints to loosen connective tissues that have become overly restrictive.  There is no muscle in the joint itself to “stretch,” so if you’re thinking about “stretching” you won’t address this factor that may be limiting your mobility.  Impact or overuse may cause a joint to become misaligned.  No amount of muscle stretching will re-align the joint properly.  You need to use rubber bands, positioning, traction, and other methods to create space in the joint to allow it to return to its proper location.

“Mobility work” is a more comprehensive term for efforts to identify and target the relevant elements at a given joint or in a given movement pattern, like a squat.

“Mobility work” also means working to restore the ability of layers of tissue to slide past one another.  We are made of multiple layers of tissues – muscle, blood vessels, nerves, and lots and lots of fascia and other protective and connective tissues.  These layers are supposed to slide across one another as our movement requires them to.  Once a layer pinches or binds another, it cannot move optimally, so the body starts looking for a work-around, known as “compensation.”  If you’ve ever worn clothing that pinched or bound when you tried to move a certain way, like pants when you attempt to squat, you’ve experienced an external version of this phenomenon.  Connective tissues will sometimes grow between the layers, often in response to an injury.  Other causes include poor hydration and lack of use. These keep the layers from sliding across one another, preventing them from moving the way they need to.

It is true that tight muscles can also limit range of motion.  However, rather than simply “stretch” them, which puts the muscle under more stress, use some simple techniques to get the muscle to relax.  Compression is widely recognized to cause the compressed muscle to relax.  I’m not talking about the kind of compression you get from Under Armour.  I’m talking about pressing your body weight onto a ball that is pressing on the tight muscle.  Or using a kettlebell to push on it.  Lots of pressure, plus actively contracting the muscle, then consciously trying to relax it, will create greater improvements in less time than stretching.

Another important piece of your available range of motion is the subconscious.  The subconscious mind receives information about where you’re moving and compares it to where you’ve been recently.  It does not allow you to move into ranges of motion you haven’t visited in a long time to protect you from injury.  This is a major factor limiting your range of motion, and requires you to gradually increase range of motion, rather than blasting into new levels.

Related: 4 Best Hip Openers to Improve Your Mobility

So the next time you think about “stretching,” consider really checking in with how you feel, what ranges of motion you intend to use, test to see how they are, and then do specific mobility work to address the actual issue(s) you identify.  You’ll get better results in less time, and have more body awareness to boot.

Contact me if you have any questions, or would like to learn more about how to improve your mobility!

John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer

john@crossfitslipstream.com