Mobility, the most under-rated aspect of fitness

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

I know that mobility does not sound as interesting as gaining muscle or losing fat, but believe me, this can be the difference between having a long successful career in a sport or not, or can give you more years of active life.


Designed to move:


Humans are designed to move. If you want to see what a natural movement looks like, look at a small child. We are born with full ranges of motion, and during our infant development stages, we start adding motor control and stability into the equation. Our first achievement is to support the weight of the head, and we eventually learn to roll, crawl, get in a squat position, walk, run, jump and much more. When we are young, we like to move, its simply the natural expression of any living organism. The movement is complete, free, and we move because we feel like it, because it is a natural human expression. We move freely without any anatomy books or personal trainers. But this process of self-discovery is completely interfered with once the child starts going to school. The continuous free movement is replaced by long hours sitting, passively listening to teachers (which by the way is the worst way to learn). In most cases, these long hours of sitting continue at home while watching TV or playing a video game. The years go by and we become even more sedentary, spending time sitting at work or in the car. Our muscles become tighter limiting our range of motion, and without realising it, our modern lifestyle has gradually stolen from us one of our fundamental rights, the right to movement.



Main causes of mobility restrictions

All our muscles, tendons, nerves, bones and organs are wrapped around in a sheet of connective tissue called fascia. This provides an interconnection between all the components of the human body and is responsible for supporting, resting and moving the body. When the fascia gets tight, mobility is compromised. The main causes are as follows:

  • Lack of Movement: The fascia is designed to move. Our ancestors continually performed activities like running, throwing, squatting, lunging and much more, which actively lengthened the fascia and helped deliver fluid through the body. The fascia needs movement in order to bind to water. This is necessary to maintain the moist, gel like texture needed for free movement. If there is no movement collagen fibres become closer to each other and the flexibility of the fascia decreases.

  • Stress: Stress creates muscle tension, it's the body's natural way of protecting itself from injury and pain. But when the stress levels remain chronic, and we spend most of the day sitting down, the fascia ends up adapting to this sitting position. This is the reason most of the population experiences tight hip flexors and a rounded forward posture.

  • Repetitive motions & dysfunctional Movement patterns: Both these place excessive strain on certain areas, which the body responds to by producing more collagen which sticks together and tightens the fascia in that region. This creates trigger points and adhesions which limit the range of motion at our joints.



Compensations

When your brain detects a physical restriction, it creates an alternative movement, even though movement quality is sacrificed. This is called compensation, and it was an essential survival mechanism. For example, It allowed us to keep moving away from danger despite having fractured a foot or hip. The problem however, comes when these compensations become part of our normal movement.


A mobility restriction will create a compensation where normal movement patterns are disrupted. Dysfunctional movement repeated over time will result in chronic pain or injury. Let's look at a common example: Many people spend more than 10 hours sitting a day. Among other problems, this can result in tight hip flexors. This tends to rotate and pull your pelvis forward. In order to regain centre of balance, the body has no other option than arching the lower back and shifting the head forward. Now, this restriction puts the glutes in a compromised position where it can not effectively activate and the body has to find other muscles to do the job. When for example you bend down to pick up a heavy object, the lower back will have to take over instead of the glutes, and over time, this will result in lower back pain. You can do all the massages you want in that area and take painkillers, but you will not fix the problem unless you improve movement patters, and in this case this begins by addressing hip flexor mobility, the underlying cause of the dysfunction.


It´s important to note that different joints in our body serve different functions. While all joints require some mobility and stability, if we analyze the key joints of our body from the head to the feet, we see that the main function of the joints is different and is alternating. Some are designed to perform a stabilisation role which others are designed for mobility.


The Mobility Stability Model

If a joint does not do its main job well, the impact will be noticed in the next joint (up and/or down). For example, if you have poor mobility in the hip or thoracic back, your lower back will compensate to achieve the desired movement. But pain will eventually appear if we keep using the lumbar back in a way that it is not designed, and the only solution is to regain the mobility in the surrounding joints. .




The problem we face today.



Exercise has become a big business, Never has more money been spent on gym memberships or exercise professionals than now, but we are at the time in history where the largest number of people are suffering from chronic pain and musculoskeletal conditions. The reason for this is simple, conventional gyms and training approaches have come up with one sized fits all approaches to allow people to train despite of their mobility restrictions and imbalances. These facilities have equipment which allows you to be in comfortable position, generally sitting or lying down, and isolate one muscle at the time without the need to express full range of motion, or use the stabilisers to maintain balance and alignment. This simply does not reflect the real world or any sport. When you pick up your baby or place your suitcase in the elevated compartments of the plane you don't have anything to lean against. Your stabilisers should perform this function, but by leaving them out during training you are just increasing the chances of injury during real life situations. Our modern lifestyles of long hours sitting, combined with time in the gym performing isolated movements creates a vicious cycle or restrictions and compensations which ultimately lead to pain.



How to improve Mobility

Myofascial Releases: Some might argue that our ancestors didn’t do myofascial releases and had full ranges of motion and good movement patterns. But un-natural causes requires un-natural remedies. Our ancestors didn’t spend 8 hours a day on a desk with high levels of stress. Once there are adhesions present, the best way to get rid of them is through myofascial releases. This consists of deep continued pressure applied to the trigger points or adhesions. This breaks up the tight fascia restoring the natural length. Although a skilled therapist can help us with the myofascial releases, there is a lot we can do ourselves. My favourite tools for this are a lacrosse ball and a Theracane..

Note: Stretching is not the solution. Although stretching has become very popular recently, it is not the best way to improve mobility. Think of the adhesions or trigger points as a knot on a rubber band. Stretching pulls the rubber from both ends, which further tightens the knot. This can even increase imbalances. Adhesions or trigger points need be tackled with myofascial releases.


Lifestyle Changes: As mentioned earlier, lack of movement and high amounts of stress are one of the main causes of chronic tightness. Myofascial release will make no difference if wee keep engaging in dysfunctional behaviours. Its essential that we learn to manage our stress levels through the day and engage in moderate physical activity regularly.


Improve posture and Movement: Good biomechanics will distribute tension evenly through the body. No excessive strain will be placed on certain areas, allowing the myofascial releases to actually stay. If we keep moving dysfunctionally (or doing conventional exercises in a gym), it doesn't matter how much you release, the tightness will keep coming back in the same areas. Myofacial techniques are actually a short term solution, the end goal is to move better which will prevent the body from getting tight. However, on the path towards improving movement and posture, myofascial releases are necessary to allow the body to create the right activations and get into certain ranges.


For more detailed information or to have a posture and movement analysis, contact us at info@functionalperformancerlab.co.za



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