If you wanted to learn to speak French, you wouldn’t take lessons in mathematics to accomplish it. The fastest way to learn a language is to start practicing speaking with that language.
How you improve your flexibility, range of motion, and mobility, are no different.
And yet, you might still be doing things to improve your mobility that aren’t actually creating the changes you’re seeking.
In this article, you’ll learn why some of the common methods people use to increase their mobility aren’t actually working to increase their mobility.
How To Improve Your Mobility
Will foam rollers improve my mobility?
Foam rollers and massage devices are myth number one about mobility training.
A driving factor for your mobility is your nervous system. Your brain, spinal cord, and nerves, are deciding how ‘safe’ it is for you to go into a range of motion. If they don’t deem it safe, you won’t enter that range.
Your nervous system is figuring out if it’s safe by paying attention to a variety of factors it’s receiving from your internal and external environments.
Your nervous system learns it’s safe to enter when you have shown your nervous system that you can control the position you’re trying to get into. To do this, you must include movement near your end ranges of your current mobility. Passive inputs like a foam roller do not do this.
You can see this process of teaching the nervous system that it is safe to enter into new ranges of motion when you watch someone rehab from a major injury or accident. At some point in the rehab, the therapist starts asking the patient to actively participate in learning to flex, extend, and rotate their joint, instead of the therapist doing all of the work to move their limb for them.
You don’t have to have been in a major accident to have the same science apply to you. Regaining lost tissue function, range, control, or strength requires your active participation.
But what about when a therapist uses massage as part of their treatment plan for me?
When a well-trained manual therapist applies pressure into your tissues, they are applying intentional force into a specific layer of tissue, while taking up skin slack in order to get through to the layer they are trying to effect.
And if they are really an excellent therapist, they’ll follow that treatment up with some kind of movement activity to incorporate your nervous system so that it learn’s more about how to use the tissues they just treated.
A foam roller just won’t do that.
What stretches will make me more flexible?
Passive stretching is myth number two about mobility training.
The common belief is that you use stretching to “loosen up” the tissue that is tight, aberrant, or “knotted up”. But there is a significant problem with seeing your tissues as things that are ‘tight’ that need ‘loosening’, ‘releasing’, or ‘unknotting’.
Your body is always keeping track of how “tight” or “loose” your tissues are. And each tissue is at its current length-tension relationship for a reason.
Here are three common reasons for ‘tight’ feeling muscles:
1. Joints must have adequate mobility and stability in order to operate effectively.
Too much mobility can become an area of opportunity. So can too much stability. Vice versa, as well. When you don’t have enough of what you need, your body will accommodate by using other joints and tissues to make-up for what’s lacking at the joint in question.
If your nervous system knows you don’t have stability at a joint where there should be stability, it will create stability using other tissues in your body, even if that means making one bit of soft tissue extra ‘tight’ feeling to do so.
2. When you don’t move your joints – and their associated tissues – through their full range of motion regularly, you stop having full access to the function of those joints and tissues.
Think of a big dinner plate and a button on a shirt. Your joints could be able to rotate and move through a range of motion with a circumference comparable to the dinner plate, or they could move through a range with a circumference of the button. The deciding factor for which circumference you have is how much you currently move your joints through their range of motion.
Dinner plate now, dinner plate later. Button now, button later.
3. High sympathetic drive can also influence how ‘tight’ you feel in your muscles. Sympathetic drive refers to your nervous system’s two branches called the sympathetic, or ‘fight or flight’, and the parasympathetic, or ‘rest and digest’.
When you’re chronically ramped into the sympathetic nervous system, one of the trickle down effects is that your muscles will hold more tension in them. And so you stretch, to try to ‘release’ that tight feeling. But you’re always stretching that same tissue and it’s always feeling ‘tight’ again.
Passive stretching is not teaching your nervous system and tissues anything about how to control a different length or tension. And without that, they’re not likely to make long-term change towards greater mobility.
Foam rolling and passive stretching might be a pleasurable thing for you. This article is not to dissuade you from doing something pleasurable, but rather is to help you get a better sense of how things work.
There’s nothing I like less than spending time on things that aren’t very productive. And if you can learn to do more productive things during your ‘mobility time’, you’ll get more out of that time and you’ll make more progress.
We’ve now covered two of the four most common mobility myths. Click HERE to read Part Two, where I’ll cover the next two myths – yoga and “the genetic lottery”.