Mobility and flexibility are the two most neglected fitness qualities.
Even though Ive yet to find someone who would argue that obtaining optimal mobility isnt desirable, I hardly ever see people actually training to improve their mobility. Why is this?
Well, there are two main reasons:
1) Mobility/flexibility training isnt fun or immediately satisfying. If you want to get bigger and stronger, lifting heavy weights will always be more satisfying. Alternatively, if you want to lose fat, getting your sweat on and jacking up your heart rate will make you sense effectiveness.
But being led by what you feel to be effective is the number one reason for poor program design, imbalances and neglecting whats really important, such as joint health and longevity.
2) Typical flexibility training doesnt work. Yea, thats right. Most stretching protocols are useless. So many of the trainees who were dedicated enough to try mobility/flexibility work usually stop doing it after their arduous efforts result in lackluster progress.
This unfortunate outcome is a result of a crappy stretching protocol and in no way suggests that mobility/flexibility is not a trainable fitness quality.
Luckily, these two roadblocks are easily overcome with some awareness, dedication and knowledge.
Learn From My Mistakes
When I started training, mobility was the furthest thing from my mind. I was insecure about my size and strength and my sole focus was to get bigger and stronger.
This meant going to the gym and lifting heavy. The thought of sitting in a yoga pose while being surrounded by a bunch of meatheads and iron plates was far too emasculating for me to consider.
But looking back, this neglect is the one thing I regret most about my early years of training. Unfortunately, it look me a few debilitating injuries and a decrease in performance to open my eyes. Dont let injuries be your wake up call. Learn from my mistakes.
1) Mobility is your active ability to take a joint through a range of motion (ROM). Flexibility, on the other hand, can be defined as ones passive ROM. For example, while lying on your back, your hamstring flexibility could be measured by how far your partner can push your leg back.
Mobility and flexibility are related but not always highly correlated. Therefore it is important to train both.
2) Inflammatory foods cause stiffness. Ingesting any food that you are allergic or sensitive to can trigger an inflammatory response. Youll know what your personal foods to avoid are when you experience symptoms from eating them (bloating, diarrhea, mentally foggy, etc.). Certainly, avoid these foods.
But everyone can decrease inflammation in their body from hacking out sugar, processed foods, gluten and anything overly toxic or acidic.
3) Eating anti-inflammatory foods can decrease systemic inflammation and thus tightness. These include: fatty fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and omega 3 oils.
4) Hydration is key. Your muscles are over 70% water and the their health and flexibility is seriously compromised from dehydration. Drink at least half of your bodyweight in ounces of pure water daily.
5) Avoid faulty training/movements. Yea, thats correct. You shouldnt play on the new shiny machine that your public gym just got in. Any exercise that artificially cuts off normal anatomical ROM, puts your stabilizers to sleep, and trains the body in a fragmented way sucks. Only train your body the way it was designed to move.
6) Your emotional state can override even the best mobility techniques. If you suffer from anxiety, fear, or are simply very rigid in your way of thinking, you can create stiffness throughout your body. Breathing techniques, meditation and/or talk therapy are the only way I know how to rectify these issues.
7) Heavily scarred or ropey tissue doesnt stretch well. This is where soft tissue work comes in. Hiring a good masseuse, ART practitioner or another soft tissue specialist can do a world of good. But if you want to save the cash, the proper use of a foam roller and lacrosse ball can help alleviate a great deal of tissue tension/adhesions as well. Here is a video demonstrating a killer foam roller sequence:
8. Flexibility without stability is unnatural and even dangerous. Your nervous system recognizes this rule and fires up a reflex to prevent your body from going into a position that it cannot control.
This makes regular relaxed stretching ineffective. And even if you beat down the stretch reflex through extensive stretching sessions, you may do more harm then good. Entering into a ROM that you cannot stabilize can result in an injury.
9) You must become stronger at the end range of motion. This goes directly with rule #8. Full range strength training is the best training method for this. But strength training exercises arent always practical for each joints full ROM.
This is where isometric stretching comes in. Heres my favorite way to perform isometric stretches:
Get into the stretched position. Then contract the targeted muscle at about 75% max contraction. Note: the muscle will contract but no movement will occur. Hold this contraction for 6 seconds.
Release the contraction and without delay increase the stretch. Repeat this sequence until no more ROM can be gained. Then, at the most stretched range, contract the muscle for fifteen seconds. Repeat this entire process three times per stretch.
These contractions help to develop strength in the joints extreme ranges, thus allow the nervous system to allow true gains in flexibility.
Isometric stretching should be performed three to four times per week, immediately following your strength training.
10) You need to be able to actively move through these new ranges of motion. Your newly acquired ROM wont do you much good if it is only accessible when your friend shoves your leg around.
Instead, to utilize your new ROM, youll need to activate the antagonist while relaxing the agonist. This quality is best achieved through dynamic flexibility training.
My favorite way to do dynamic work is to actively move the limb through a pendulum-like motion. A total of 12 reps per stretch should be performed. Be sure to increase the amplitude of movement on each rep.
Perform your dynamic flexibility work three to four times per week prior to your workout (as part of your warm up).
Dont neglect mobility like I once did. You now have a simple protocol that will increase performance, joint health and training longevity. Stay loose, stay healthy, and stay strong!
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