So you want to get mobile. You have dreams of dropping into a deep squat with ease, of being the person that can fold forward into a pancake position. Or maybe your goals are a little less lofty. Maybe you just want to be able to bend down and not feel like things are going to pop.
Mobility is big right now. Mobility classes (which are different than yoga classes), are popping up all over the country. The ability to move with control appeals to people; so does the ability to do cool, acrobatic skills, most of which require a relatively high degree of mobility. Attaining a high degree of mobility requires practice, work, and learning how to be in positions. We’ll take a look at these concepts below.
How Far Can You Flex?
The easiest way to begin accessing new ranges of motion in a joint is to isolate and move each joint. Isolating a joint means to consciously move one area without moving others.
The available degrees of motion in all three planes are considered a joint’s degrees of freedom (DOF).1 If you have a lot of motion available at your joint, but don’t have the strength to control the motion, you might feel like you don’t have much strength, or lack stability. On the other hand, if you don’t have very much movement available at a joint, you have low DOFs at that specific joint. This might make the joint feel like it’s so stable that it’s rigid.
If you are working on mobility, maximizing the DOFs at each joint with control will give you more movement options, and theoretically enable you to move in a more coordinated way.2
Let’s say you are warming up your ankles before your workout. You perform ankle circles on your back while chatting with the person next to you. Your ankle circles are actually more like knee circles, as your entire lower leg is moving in a circular direction and your toes are making weird furling movements. Are you actually warming up your ankles? Not really. You definitely aren’t isolating the joint or increasing your awareness of how the joint moves.
Now imagine you are lying on your back, focused on your foot. Can you move foot up and down without moving the lower leg? Can you keep the toes quiet and feel the movement at the ankle? Now, can you move the foot in and out, still without using the toes or the lower leg? Now try connecting the dots, making an ankle circle. Keep everything else quiet, isolating the movement at the ankle. This will be different than the ankle circle described above.
Maximizing controlled DOFs allows you to self-organize better when strange things happen, like when you have to climb a fence to access the trail on the other side. Or, for the less adventurous readers, when there is an ill-placed puddle and you really don’t want to get your new shoes wet). If your joints work well independently, they will work better together.3
Isolated joint warm ups also allow you to see where your sticky points are. They bring attention to differences between the two sides of the body. When performed regularly, isolated joint warm ups lead to increased range of motion and higher degrees of joint control.
Stretching and Your Nervous System
There are two branches of the nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. These two branches work together to create a balance between being alert and ready to take on the world, and resting on the couch, surfing the web. When there is anything potentially threatening that might cause harm to the organism (you), the sympathetic nervous system dials things up and muscles become tense.4
Imagine someone is creeping up behind you and places his hands forcefully on your back. How would you respond? I bet just the thought of it makes your muscles stiffen. Your sympathetic nervous system would be on high alert to determine whether you should fight or flee. Now imagine you are sitting in a hot tub after a 90-minute massage. How would your muscles feel? Probably pretty relaxed. With no immediate threat lurking, your parasympathetic nervous system would be telling you it’s okay to remain calm and restful.
If I asked you to stand up and touch your toes, would it be easier after you were startled, or after you got out of the hot tub?
For some of us, the mere thought of bending forward to touch our toes causes an internal cringe as we anticipate the discomfort. We tend to live in a more sympathetic state. We are constantly going; sitting still is painful. We might have to commute in heavy traffic for work, or have a job that feeds into this state of always being “on.” We favor workouts that are high intensity, and struggle with slowing things down.
When we hang out in a stretch for a long period of time, unlike our bendier counterparts, things don’t really feel comfortable. Most people, when they come into a stretch, the first thing that happens is the nervous system (hopefully) begins to relax and say, “this position is okay. Nothing bad is happening, so I can be here for a little while.” For people like me, the nervous system starts sending alarm bells, making relaxation difficult. Instead, we are left with the overwhelming urge to fidget, along with cramping in weird places as we try to “melt into the stretch.”
There are ways to mitigate the inability to relax into stretching, through props and only going to the place where you feel comfortable, not beyond. This lets your nervous system find a middle ground, where the stiffness can ease up a little bit. Research suggests activities such as restorative yoga with props reduce sympathetic nervous system activity; one of the potential side effects would be more flexibility.5
I teach yoga semi-regularly to US Navy officers. The majority fall into the “stiffer” category, and I have learned that optimizing their experience means to move thoughtfully, with breath, into a pose, stay there for three or four breaths, and move on. Staying in postures longer decreases their relaxation effect, and results in facial contortions that aren’t indicative of mindfulness.
Strength and Stretching
Maybe one of the reasons you can’t get into a particular stretch has less to do with the muscles actually being wound tight, and more to do with a lack of strength. Muscle are strongest when the joint is flexed in its mid-range.6 Unless you strengthen the muscles near end range, they won’t be able to actively hold the position.
Try this: grab a dowel. Hold onto it behind your back, with your palms facing outwards. Exhale, and let your ribs drop down. Keep the ribs in this position as you begin to actively pull your hands away from each other. Your arms will begin to straighten. Keep this action of the hands pulling away from each other as you lift the dowel away from the body. Don’t let the ribs change position, and keep the wrists straight, not bending in or out. Make sure your shoulders don’t roll forward- remember, you’re pulling the hands away from each other. Relax, and let the arms lower back down. Do this ten times. What are you experiencing?
I am going to assume you are feeling your triceps. Probably quite a lot. This position also stretches the biceps, but the feeling of the triceps work likely overpowers any sensation of “stretch.” You are strengthening your triceps by moving in an out of an end range position. In this example, end range is actually the position where the muscle is the shortest (the triceps contract to extend the arm. If the arm is never fully straightened, the triceps won’t ever be contracting at the shortest part of the muscle).
You can also try bending your right knee behind you, as though you were doing a quad stretch. But don’t grab your foot, just use muscular effort to keep it there. The hamstrings flex the knee, but we don’t often let the knee fully bend without giving it a bit of assistance with our hand; as a result, we never actually work the hamstring in its shortest range of motion.
Working the eccentric portion of a movement is another way to use strength throughout a muscle’s range of motion. The eccentric part of a movement happens when you resist gravity. For instance, when you perform a bodyweight squat, slow down the descent, letting the lowering portion take two times as long as it takes to come up. The work feels like it increases.
This is similar to what happens when you go trail running for the first time in eons. Unless you are superhuman, your quads will feel sore. This isn’t from running up steep hills, but from running down those steep hills. Your quadriceps are resisting gravity with every step so you don’t end up on your face. In both cases, you are controlling a fall.
Emphasizing the eccentric portion of the movement is way to gain control throughout the range of motion available to you at the joint. It coincides with increases both in strength and flexibility, and can be an effective way to increase mobility without actually “stretching.”7,8
Another way to work on strength and improve flexibility at the same time is to perform isometric contractions. You experience a temporary increase in strength and improvements in range of motion directly following a strong isometric action.9 That sounds super confusing, so let’s apply this to an actual exercise. Let’s say you want to work on your hamstring strength and get more flexible. Lie down on your back near a doorway. Place your right leg in the doorway, at a position where you begin to feel a stretch. The left leg can either be long or bent. Exhale, let your ribs soften down and make sure you feel the mid back against the floor (we are isolating the hamstring, not the pelvis or low back). Press your right heel firmly into the doorway for 20-30 seconds. You should feel work in your right hamstring. Now, lift the right heel away from the wall. This should happen fairly easily. You magically “increased” your range of motion.
The Stretching Part of Stretching
I mentioned earlier that hanging out in a position lets the nervous system know the position is okay. I am going to address this from a naturally stiff person’s point of view. I will talk about the bendy person in a later post.
When I began practicing yoga thirteen years ago, the sensation of stretching was extremely uncomfortable. There are two things that have helped me significantly over the years:
- Focus on which joints are involved in the action, and isolate those joints. For instance, when I do a pancake stretch, I do not feel my hamstrings or my calves. I feel my abs. A lot. This is because I focus on flexing at the hip while keeping my legs strong. A pancake stretch is simply seated hip flexion with the legs wide. Once I am settled into the position, I breathe, inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of six, for 30-60 seconds. Breathing calms the nervous system and overrides the part of your brain that says, “no! I don’t want to be here!”
- Get into a position near the point of stretch and do something there. If you are working on hip extension (pure hip extension, not lumbar extension), get into a tall half-kneeling position with your right leg back. See if you can set yourself up so you feel strong with a sense of the beginning of a stretch in your right hip. As you exhale, raise your arm overhead. Inhale, lower the arm down. Perform 6-8 repetitions and switch sides.
Before you throw basic stretching out as a useless activity, it is worth noting a research review found static stretching temporarily increases range of motion.10 What this means is that if you stretch and then promptly sit in a chair for four hours, your flexibility improvements won’t have a long-term effect. However, if you use your newly acquired range of motion, the effects of stretching might be longer lasting.
For instance, before I squat, I dynamically and statically stretch my calves to improve my ankle dorsiflexion. I then use that range of motion when I squat. Over time, this has led to less of a stretch sensation in my calves. They are becoming less tight, partially because of repeated exposure to the stretch, and partially because I have strengthened the muscles that support my ankle by using the range of motion.
The Systematic Mobility Program
The ability to move in and out of positions is predicated on an interplay between your nervous system and your physiology. Like other facets of training, mobility training should be done in a systematic, progressive way. If your goal it to increase range of motion in a specific area, ask yourself what you plan on using the motion to do. Program your mobility work to enhance that activity.
Below is an example of how you could program a 4-week mobility skill set into your workout. The flexibility skill is the long sit position, though the principles could be applied to anything. For all of the mobility work, breathe in through your nose and out through either your nose or mouth. Let the exhale be longer than the inhale. Go slowly, and find the natural rhythm of the breath.
Weeks 1 and 3
Day 1 (do just on week 1)
Perform your normal workout. At the end of your workout, come into a long sitting position and take a picture (or have someone take a picture). This will serve as a baseline.
Warm Up: Add standing straight leg raises, isolating the movement at the hip joint, and ankle circles. Be sure to go slowly and move at hip and ankle, respectively. Breathe throughout movement, using the exhale to raise the leg during standing hip flexion. Perform five each side.
Cool Down: Lie on your back with your legs straight up a wall. Make sure you are far enough way that your pelvis doesn’t roll when you place your leg on the wall. Exhale, press the heels into the wall; inhale, relax. Perform 10. On the last one, keep your legs up the wall and relax for 30-60 seconds.
Warm Up: Lie on your back with your knees bent. As you exhale, pick up your right foot and place your hands behind your right thigh. Your back should feel long, and your ribs should be relaxed. Make sure your hips haven’t shifted and your pelvis remains level. Begin moving just at the right ankle. You might flex and reach the heel, or move the foot in an out. Take about 60 seconds to explore movement at the ankle joint. Switch sides.
After you have finished performing the movement at the ankle, exhale and pick your right foot up again, taking your hands behind your right thigh. On your next exhale, extend the right knee, reaching your right heel towards the ceiling. Inhale, relax it down. There should be no movement at the hip joint. Perform 10 slow repetitions and switch sides.
Cool Down: Sit on something that’s lower than your knees, but high enough that your pelvis doesn’t roll backwards. Your knees will be bent and your feet flat on the floor. Staying centered in your pelvis, exhale, and slide your heels forward so your legs begin to get long in front of you. Make sure your toes point towards the ceiling and your feet are close to parallel with each other. Inhale, slide back to starting position. Perform 10. Hold on the last one with your legs extended for 30-60 seconds.
Repeat day 2
Repeat day 3
Weeks 2 and 4
Warm Up: Stand on a step so the step supports the balls of your feet, your heels are off the step, your foot is flat, and you have something to hold on to (I use the cable machine). Get the sense that the weight is even across the balls of your feet and your feet are close to parallel. As you exhale, keeping the weight even across the balls of the feet, let the heels lower down below the plane of the step. Inhale, return to the starting position. Perform 10.
Sit down on a bench with your feet flat, your hips square, and your pelvis level. As you exhale, reach your right heel out. Your toes will point towards the ceiling. Once the leg is straight, see if you can lift the straight right leg off the ground without changing the position of your pelvis or rotating your hips away from square. Inhale, lower down and return to center. Perform 10 and switch sides.
Cool Down: Place both legs straight up the wall. Make sure you are in a position where your back stays long; your pelvis shouldn’t excessively rotate. Pretend like your feet are standing on the ceiling. Keep them parallel with each other. Breathe. Stay there for 60 seconds.
Warm Up: Stand on the edge of a step so your left leg is dangling off the step. As you exhale, lift the straight left leg up. Inhale, lower down. Be sure the toes point towards the ceiling when you lift the leg up. Perform 10 repetitions and switch sides.
Stand on your right leg (hold on to something as necessary). Keep your hips square as you bend your left leg and lift your left foot off of the ground. Perform ankle circles with your left leg, keeping the left knee quiet and not rotating in the torso. Do 10 repetitions and switch sides.
Cool Down: Sit on something low so your knees are higher than your hips, but your pelvis doesn’t roll. A blanket or small step work well. Keep your left knee bent and extend your right leg out. Wrap your arms around the left leg as a way to keep the shoulders square. Make sure your pelvis still feels even. As you exhale, press the right heel into the ground. Inhale, relax. Perform 10 repetitions and hold for 30-60 seconds on the last one. Switch sides.
Repeat day 1
Repeat day 2
Warm Up: Lie on your back with your knees bent. Extend the right leg up in the air. Holding on to the right thigh only if needed, point the foot and flex the foot. Perform 10 repetitions. Switch sides.
Remain on your back. Pick the right foot up and take your hands behind your right thigh. Extend the left leg all of the way out. If you feel your pelvis excessively tipping, keep the left knee bent and the foot on the floor. As you exhale, extend the right knee, reaching the right heel towards the ceiling. Inhale, bend the knee. Perform 10 repetitions and switch sides.
Cool Down: Sit on something that allows your pelvis to remain level. Extend both legs out so they are straight out in front of you. Inhale, point the feet. Exhale, flex the feet. Perform 10 repetitions. On the last one, keep the feet flexed, the heels reaching towards the wall in front of you as you breathe.
At the end of your workout on week 4, day 5, re-test your long sitting position. Have someone take a picture and compare it to the picture from week 1, day 1. Was there any improvement?
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2. Bosch, F., (2015). Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach. 2010 Publishers: Netherlands.
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4. Umphred, Darcy Ann, Rolando T. Lazaro, Margaret Roller, and Gordon Burton, eds. Neurological Rehabilitation. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.
5. Corey, Sarah M., Elissa Epel, Michael Schembri, Sarah B. Pawlowsky, Roger J. Cole, Maria Rosario G. Araneta, Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, and Alka M. Kanaya. “Effect of restorative yoga vs. stretching on diurnal cortisol dynamics and psychosocial outcomes in individuals with the metabolic syndrome: The PRYSMS randomized controlled trial.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 49 (2014): 260-271.
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8. O’Sullivan, Kieran, Sean McAuliffe, and Neasa DeBurca. “The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review.” British Journal of Sports Medicine (2012).
9. Kay, Anthony D., Jade Husbands-Beasley, and Anthony J. Blazevich. “Effects of Contract-Relax, Static Stretching, and Isometric Contractions on Muscle-Tendon Mechanics.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 47, no. 10 (2015): 2181-2190.
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