This article is part of the Rehband “Carry Yourself” series, a complete guide to improving your upper body strength, mobility posture and movement.
There are three basic principles that will be very helpful to you in order to re-frame how you think about mobility. These will assist your training and help to give you knowledge that will contribute towards lowering the likelihood of injury during your workouts and performances.
PRINCIPLE 1: THE BRAIN CAUSES MUSCLES TO BE “TIGHT” – MUSCLES ARE 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 are conscious rather than only when we’re knocked out.
PRINCIPLE 2: THE MIND TIGHTENS MUSCLES TO STOP YOU GOING INTO UNSAFE POSITIONS
This is a penny drop moment for many. There are a couple of main reasons your brain will feel unsafe moving into certain positions: Previous or current injury – there is a big distinction between the two. For current injury, the reason is obvious, there is damaged tissue that needs time to heal, so the body wants to avoid loading it.
For previous injury, assuming the tissue has healed, we are 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 do not 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 is not 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 3: THE MAJORITY OF MUSCLE CONTRACTIONS ARE SUBCONSCIOUS/REFLEXIVE
This is a tough one to get your head around, especially if you have gone through a bodybuilding phase. 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 nine muscles alone – many struggle when thinking about two 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 are into CrossFit® you already know that this isn’t 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.
The brain 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 do not fall over when we step on uneven ground and why you can, sometimes catch a clean or snatch even if the bar path is not perfect.
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).
For example, wearing compression arm sleeves or elbow sleeves can help to improve the proprioceptive abilities of your body as they help to provide feedback as you move. This works for exercises such as dips, pull ups or bench presses.
To revisit principle 3, 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 would not have a movement restriction/mobility issue and probably would not 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 could not 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 is not as dangerous as it previously thought.
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 are not 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 are learning yet another way that does not work.
The brain realizes “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 are 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.
Improve your movement – task focus
Passive movements, with a lot of variance, what is 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 are we not thinking about the joint we are 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.
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. This is why using markers to aim for during drills is a smart move.
By adding a focused element of coordination 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.”
This is often referred to 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.