Mobility: What is it and what inhibits it?

Movement always comes first. Good movement will allow you to retain your mobility and is one of your greatest allies in the fight against chronic pain and performance dysfunction. You can do all the mobility work you want, but if your movement remains biomechanically unsound, the stiffness, pain, and bad posture will only return again. And oftentimes, it returns worse than before.

However, should you find yourself unable to move your arms and/or legs very far without moving your spine around, that is probably an indicator that you need to work on your mobility.

Having mobility means having the freedom to express independence of movement in order to accomplish work. Humans are built to move, and movement should never cause harm to your own body. But our bodies are also under constant stress, if only via gravity. Whenever you go for a walk, sit in a chair, or lift heavy weights, your body will adapt to the stress of the activity, and that adaptation will be as intense as the activity. And while many of these activities may make you stronger from a certain perspective, they will also make you stiffer and limit your range-of-motion (ROM).

Having tight tissues and less-than-optimal ROM means less power due to the shorter distance you can safely travel. And if you force that ROM, you risk tearing your tissues to bits. Imagine a competitive swimmer, or any sports player whose sport demands that they take their arm overhead repeatedly, and at high-intensity. Now imagine that athlete, in a rested and non-stressful environment, can only raise either arm to a 45 degree angle over their head. So half way between straight out in front of them, and straight over their head. And if they try to move it higher with a neutral spine, it creates pain in the shoulder. Now, this individual could bend their spine, lean back and make their arm appear to be straight up and down relative to the ground, but that relationship needs to be relative to their body and shoulder. Ordinarily, this individual will be told that he/she has tight shoulders and needs to stretch more. Coincidentally, this may be the same advice the individual has been given for several years, and they are still having the same issue. This is common. We have this idea that static stretching is all one can do to improve flexibility. And if this method does not work for a particular person, then that person just has genes that have pre-determined they will be a tight human being. All this sort of thinking does is demonstrate a lack of understanding about the things that actually create and inhibit human mobility. Using genetics as an answer is nothing but a convenient EXCUSE.

So when this competitive individual participates in sport, a few things happen: goal orientation and stress/stress hormones. This individual is focused on achieving their goals in competition in order to win, or help the team win. At the same time, the stress of the physical activity and of the competition itself stimulates the release of adrenaline, as well as other stress hormones. Adrenaline helps your body to increase certain attributes, such as strength and endurance, while blocking out the sensation of pain.

Tunnel-vision and short-term pain immunity. With these two things, it becomes easier for the athlete to explode through their already limited shoulder ROM without feeling anything. He/she has chosen to sacrifice a part of their body in order to achieve a goal. But what really happens to the shoulder, or any body part, when it is forced to repeatedly move farther than it normally can without stress. This depends on what is causing the lack of mobility. This is where most of the chronic pain and dysfunction of the athlete comes from. Why is a part of my body tight? And more importantly, what can I do to fix it so I do not have to worry about present chronic pain any longer, or about developing chronic pain later on? This is where we need to understand a few different factors that inhibit mobility. There are four major factors that we are going to focus on in this post. These four are relatively easy to understand, and once you are armed with this knowledge, you can proceed to work on your mobility in a significantly more effective way than just hanging out at end-range with no real intention or results.

One of the rules of mobility is to prove that what you are doing is actually working towards your goal. You need to be able to see with your naked eye (NOT with a laser goniometer or other device used to measure joint angle) that your body can move farther than it previously could without sacrificing good body mechanics.

#1. Neural tension.

The spine comes first. Always. It is a hard and fast rule to prioritize and optimize spinal position before, during, and after all movements ( Will you always be able to perform with a perfectly neutral spine? No. But you need to learn to, and be able to, brace your spine into the best position possible for your activity, whether that is picking up a pillow or a 400lb weight. Basically, you need to understand that trying to move around with a disorganized spine is something that your brain does not like. Especially if you are under a load, but even if it is only your body weight, your brain will stiffen up your tissues around your spine to help stabilize it and prevent disk herniation. The first thing to do to maximize your mobility is to go through the bracing sequence: Squeeze your butt, squeeze your belly. Then, with your belly still squeezed, unclench your butt. That is it. That sequence establishes a braced and neutral spine, which will release a lot of neural tension that may have been present.

#2. Joint Mobility.

Joint mobility refers to two things: Joint capsule mobility, and joint position. Your joint capsule is a fibrous membrane that surrounds your synovial joints (Joints that are not directly joined and have a cavity filled with synovial fluid. This includes your ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders and others). When this fibrous sac surrounding the joint is not moved either frequently, or through full ROM, it stiffens up just like most of your other tissues. Stiffness in the joint capsule, which limits how far your bones can move around, contributes a massive amount to total mobility.

In addition, if surrounding tissues are tight, a joint can be pulled tight in a particular direction. This can mean that the two joint surfaces have been pulled together to squeeze out synovial fluid, and the surfaces will grind together against the socket or adjacent bone. Which hurts. A lot.

#3. Sliding Surfaces.

Sliding surfaces in my experience is a factor that is extremely easy to fix for most, is quite easy to understand, and also can have a tremendous impact on your ability to move. The concept of sliding surfaces means that your skin, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels, and bones should all be only loosely attached to each other. Their should be some loose fascia holding everything together, but these structures should all be able to slide and glide around each other smoothly. But if connective tissue builds up and adheres these structures together, it can become more like Velcro, with large amounts of friction, and irritation. Nerve endings can become inflammed, blood vessels can be placed under excess pressure resulting in varicose veins, and lymph vessels can become swollen. This can occur in basically any part of the body which does not move often enough.

#4. Muscle Dynamics

Sometimes a muscle simply has adapted to a shortened position and does indeed need to get stretched out. Alternatively, the brain/nervous system can literally lock down on certain tissues and prevent them from extending passed a certain length. An idea about why this happens is that the brain has been led to believe (probably due to lack of movement) that it will be dangerous to move beyond a certain range. It has become scary, unexplored territory. This is where PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, or contract-relax as we will call it, comes into play. This is when you take a body part to its current end-range, tense the muscles around the area to stimulate the nervous system for a few seconds, inhale, exhale, relax everything and allow the body part to move farther. If the nervous system really was inhibiting the movement, tensing your tissues at end-range will essentially be telling the brain that it is alright to do work at that range- nothing is going to be injured- and that it can relax.

Why should you have a mobile body? A body that can move through full ranges of motion effortlessly? Because it allows you to have strength. To have speed. To have endurance. It can help you to prevent just about any type of chronic pain humans can develop ( Having mobility means you can get to the ground and stand back up. By yourself. Increased athleticism, pain management, and independence of movement. That is why you should want a mobile body.

In my next blog, we will begin exploring the different tools I use to clean up poor mobility and enhance human performance. As well as show some easy methods of using each one to help your body right away.