Flexibility and mobility have been areas of huge change in the fitness industry since the turn of the millennium. For years, to be a good person, you had to do your static stretches before and after training and probably before bed too if you wanted to be looking after your body properly.
Then came dynamic stretches because static stretches would mean that your muscles lost all their power just before you trained or competed and that just isn’t an option for anyone who takes their performance remotely seriously.
Following this, ‘flexibility’ was replaced with ‘mobility’, which was what really mattered. To get good at that you needed to get your masochist on and torture yourself with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, voodoo floss, barbell rolling or any other device that would inflict pain – the electric car buffer on quads and glutes being my personal favourite.
Now, in the crossfit community, there has been a strong resurgence of static stretches and yoga to unwind the intense heavy lifting that tightens up our bodies.
The results from these varied program styles seem to be very inconsistent; some people stretch their tight hamstrings for years with no results, others transform their flexibility seemingly overnight. How can this be? What’s the real deal?
After years of frustrating research, including formal education at university, strength and conditioning courses, and of course the internet, the latest science is finally starting to provide explanations that add up with my personal experience with clients and my own body. I want to talk through three principles, which go a long way to explaining the why and then the how of flexibility/mobility/movement.
Principle number 1: The brain is what causes muscles to be “tight”; muscles are very rarely physically too short
How do we know this? Because under anaesthetic, most people can touch their knee to their nose, even if they complain of “tight hamstrings”. As soon as the brain lets the body fully relax, full passive range of motion opens up and even the tightest bodies can achieve ludicrous positions.
What does this mean on a practical level? We need to shift our focus away from trying to mechanically change our muscles through forcefully stretching them longer or smashing them into giving up new range of motion. Instead, we should be working on our nervous systems and teaching our brains to let us use full ranges of motion when we’re conscious rather than only when we’re knocked out.
Principle number 2: The reason why the mind tightens muscles is to stop you going into positions it doesn’t feel would be safe
This was a penny drop moment for me. There are a couple of main reasons your brain will feel unsafe moving into certain positions:
Previous or current injury – there’s a big distinction between the two.
For current injury, the reason is obvious, there’s damaged tissue that needs time to heal, so the body wants to avoid loading it, all good.
For previous injury, assuming the tissue has healed, we’re dealing with the ‘ghost’ of the injury – a relic in the nervous system telling us to continue to avoid an old site of injury when we don’t necessarily need to anymore. This is the mechanism by which compensation patterns build up (ever heard someone say the site of pain isn’t always the cause of the pain?).
Lack of strength, control or experience in the position (gymnast lingo ‘spending time in the position’)
Lack of strength and control are pretty much the same thing, the body isn’t convinced that you can “own” the position so to avoid finding out the hard way and hurting you, it stops you going there by shutting down the movement – think partial squat depth or being unable to fully flex the shoulders. Your poor, scared body is just trying to protect you by putting the brakes on.
Principle number 3: The overwhelming majority of muscle contractions are subconscious/reflexive
This is a tough one to get your head around, especially if you’ve gone through a bodybuilding phase like most males who were teenage once.
Think about ‘functional’ movements: walking, squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling. While performing these actions, you might feel specific muscles burn as they start to fatigue, but you are not mentally contracting each and every one of the muscles involved in such complex movements (the quads, glutes and hamstrings comprise 9 muscles alone – I don’t know about you, but I struggle thinking about 2 things at the same time).
This flies in the face of the bodybuilding approach where you try to mentally contract the single muscle you’re isolating to maximise its pump, but if you’re into crossfit I don’t need to tell you why that’s not the best way to get moving better.
OK, so why does THIS matter? It means that to communicate movement to the brain, we need to stop trying to mentally contract individual muscles (think rotator cuff work). Instead we should focus on the movement: the body is incredibly good at detecting position, so just get it into the right shape and it will take care of the rest.
It does this through recognizing relative bone movements (e.g. knee bend/flexion), using amazing sensors in joints (you may have heard of proprioception) and stretch receptors in the muscles themselves. When it senses these changes in angle, the body will automatically contract the appropriate muscles to control the movement. This is why we don’t fall over when we step on uneven ground and why you can (sometimes) catch a clean or snatch even if the bar path isn’t perfect.
So how we apply this knowledge to our mobility or flexibility training?
The truth behind how to improve your movement, what works and what doesn’t
The prevoius three principles go a long way to understanding the confusing areas of flexibility, mobility and movement.
With this in mind, how do we take steps towards addressing our movement restrictions/muscle tightness?
The aim of the game is to convince the brain that the new range of motion is safe to move into. We need to speak to the brain in the language it prefers to best communicate the message ‘hey, don’t be scared, you can let me go here, trust me’. The way we do this is by focusing on the movement, not the muscle. More specifically, the bone movement(s).
To revisit principle 3 from the last article, muscles react to changes in joint angle, i.e. what the joint is feeling. This means they detect the change in angle more so than the specific angle it is currently in. Therefore, we need to be creating these emotional sounding joint feelings in our mobility work – the joint angle needs to change dynamically rather than being held in static positions. Static holds are a single word whispered to the brain, whereas dynamic movements into and out of end range are full sentences shouted right in its ear…kind of. You pick which strategy will get the message across faster.
Active or passive movement
So we know we need to move dynamically into and out of the position we want to improve, we have two choices on how to do so: actively or passively.
Actively – we use our own strength and control to get into the right position – if we could do this, we wouldn’t have a movement restriction/mobility issue and probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Passively – we somehow get our bones into the right position using assistance, either another human being or some sort of tool/prop/momentum. The assistance can put us into ranges we couldn’t achieve actively.
Using passive movement we are able to bypass the brain’s panic buttons by gently encouraging movement into new range (NOT forcing it). This is because we are not using the paranoid and tense primary muscles surrounding the joint, which would put the brakes on as soon as they realised what was going on. As a result, we can get the joint to feel new positions that it would otherwise never experience – giving the brain lots of information to prove that the new position isn’t as dangerous as it previously thought. A video illustration:
#flexionfriday a great drill to get into those tight shoulders adapted from the #gandalf by James @imfitlondon Keep the top arm's elbow locked out throughout, then reach for the floor starting at the same side's toes then working forwards and across until you're in line with the opposite toes and at the base of the box/wall. Keep the ribs down and tucked for bonus points! #overhead #crossfit #flexibility #shoulders #rangeofmotion #functional #movement #hacks #fmh #mobility #wod #flexion
In this video, we’re working on the left shoulder, which is fixed on the box. We’re moving the body around the shoulder, rather than actively flexing the shoulder. As a result we show the joint what flexion feels like without actually flexing the shoulder overhead. This avoids the blocking feeling that would shut down the movement before achieving full range of motion.
Cool, so we know that passive movement is a sneaky way of expressing our joint feelings to our beloved brains. What else can we do to convince it that the new position is safe? As ever, we can learn a lot from babies and kids. The younger years are by far the most rapid learning phase of motor skills (and pretty much everything else), why?
Because kids aren’t scared to make mistakes. When learning to stand and walk, they fall over. A lot. In lots of different ways. Each time they do, like Thomas Edison, they’re learning yet another way that doesn’t work.
The brain realises “when I lean over to the left too much, I fall over. Next time I’ll try contracting muscles on the other side of the body to correct it and see how that goes”, but in far more dimensions than we could consciously comprehend.
Adding movement variations into training
We can use the same idea in our training by adding variation into our movements. Instead of squatting with a perfect set up each time, play with foot position, twist them out, twist them in, go wide stance, narrow stance, one foot further forward than the other – every time you do, you’re teaching your body how to get in and out of a squat-like movement with more extreme “errors” than you’re likely to ever face in a regular squat. This gives our brain confidence that it can handle almost any squat and by comparison our regular squat will feel super comfortable. In the video above, this manifests by varying the position of the floor touch both left to right and near to far, altering the shoulder flexion slightly each time as compared to a regular overhead press for example.
Improve your Movement – Task focus
Passive movements, with a lot of variance, what’s next? Task focus. Another way of ensuring the movement slides under the radar and avoids getting shut down is to take our attention away from the joint we are working on. By driving the movement with a different part of the body, we aren’t thinking about the joint we’re working on, increasing the chances of keeping those muscle contractions reactive and not conscious/pre-emptive.
We want to avoid predicting the movement as if we do, the brain will tense the muscle up prematurely, preventing us from feeling end range. A sly way of doing this is to give another limb something else to concentrate on – the floor touches in the video above. By concentrating on moving our hand, we let our subconscious deal with the joint feelings we just happen to be creating in the working shoulder, learning which muscles need to be fired automatically, rather than having to think about it first. This is far more useful than getting the muscles to work only when we think about them – imagine trying to consciously contract shoulder stabilisers when performing a heavy snatch – not likely.
When focusing on a task, you can supercharge its effectiveness by being very accurate. For example, being very precise with the floor touches in the constantly-referenced-in-this-article video. This is why I’ll use some sort of markers to aim for in a lot of my exercises.
By adding a focused element of co-ordination we are teaching the muscles fine motor control (skill) in the new range of motion. The reason this works is that to produce small accurate movements, the brain needs to fire just the right number of muscle fibres, and by building experience of how many muscle fibres are required, it sends a signal to the brain ‘we need to use this position well, so get comfortable here’.
My educators, Faster Global refer to this as a ‘neural notch’ – essentially a specific length of muscle where it is accustomed to contracting from so will happily default to. This is why yogis are incredibly flexible in the hamstrings but usually have poor vertical jumps, and why basketball players are the opposite. They have developed a lot of skill (and a big neural notch) at different muscle lengths so are very proficient at using one but not the other.
So to wrap it all up, in summary:
- Get your bones into the right positions passively
- Add variety to the movement so the brain learns to correct errors faster
- Focus on another limb to ensure the muscle reacts to rather than pre-empts the movement – a basic task is an easy way to do so
- Be accurate with the task focus; precision makes the new range stick better
- Watch the video
Here are more useful Mobility articles: