By Brenda O'Hara, CPT
It's easy to get confused on the difference between flexibility and mobility. According to Dr Jaritt, chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist, “Flexibility is defined as the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to lengthen passively through a range of motion. Mobility is the ability to move a join actively through a range of motion. Mobility encompasses the joint, joint capsule, muscles crossing the joint, and the nervous system.” Lack of mobility can be due to a number of things such as age gender, activity level.
Why is mobility important?
According to the article “How to Test Mobility” by AllTerrainHuman.com, “Mobility is the base of everything we do. Without mobility, you can’t have stability. Without mobility and stability, you can’t move well. If you can’t move well, strength and endurance are difficult to train.” Understanding your body's mobility is one of the first things you should learn to determine. Being able to know where you lack mobility will help you decide some areas you need to focus on, as well as what areas need more strength.
The major areas of mobility that addressed are hip, ankle, and shoulders/upper back. For now we are going to take a look specifically at ankle and hip mobility.
Hip mobility is important for many reasons; One being prevention of back injury. If you have poor hip mobility, you tend to lose the ability of your hips to help you bend and lift, so the body compensates and then you end up using your back to lift things. Hip mobility, in particular, primarily effects squatting and hip hinging (this includes deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and good mornings); two movements commonly used in most exercise programs. A prime example I often see is an athlete bending forward on their squat, or letting their knees cave in towards their mid line. Anyone squatting with their chest dropped forward can easily pull or strain muscles their back. Knees collapsing inward also sets up someone for risk of injury in their knees. This could be an issue of strength or mobility, but many times is a combination of both. So, how can you test your hip mobility?
According to AllTerrainHuman, the best steps to test hip mobility are as follows:
Lie on your back and...
- Put your feet together with your toes pulled back towards your body
- Using a towel or band, wrap it around the foot of the leg you are testing
- Using the band, slowly pull that foot as high as you can. Keep both the leg you are moving and the down leg straight. Keep the down leg and your back on the floor (don’t arch). If either come off, stop the movement at that point.
- Getting the up leg to 90 degrees is ideal hip mobility. Test both sides
Once you complete the test on both sides, you need to decide if your mobility is or isn't ideal. If one side is more mobile than the other? Why? Lacking hip mobility, or just mobility in general can be attributed to a number things such as age, gender, and activity level. Someone sitting in a desk chair at a computer all day is likely to be less mobile than an active person who is on their feet throughout the day. Sitting, according to Physical Therapist Dr. Brian Schwabe, “forces our TFL and hip flexor muscles to shorten and overwork. As a result of sitting and working out in a stiff, dysfunctional pattern, we end up finding ways to compensate. We are unable to recruit our glute muscles properly and rely on our knees and low back for stability. All of this happens due to stiffness of the hips.” We also know, in general, men typically tend to be a bit less mobile than women.
How can we improve hip mobility? I recommended doing the exercises in this video on a DAILY basis, perhaps twice a day if you have time. These few simple exercises won't take you long and ultimately can improve your performance, as well as reduce your risk of injury. Even if you aren't lacking any hip mobility now, that may not be the case for you later in life. These exercises are great for everyone to do. Depending on your mobility, or lack of, can determine how frequently you perform these.
Ankle mobility will also play a huge role in squatting, lunging, and many plyometric exercises, also commonly used movements in exercise programs. It's imperative these movements are done correctly, otherwise you are at risk for injury. Limited mobility is linked to higher risk of ankle sprains and decreased power output, which can greatly hinder an athlete's performance. Mobility of the ankle also plays a role in rehabilitating knee injuries. According to functional movement specialist Gray Cook, “The ankle is a key component in rehabilitating knee problems—because it is often one of the causative factors of knee stability problems in the first place. Valgus collapse and pronation can be results of limited ankle dorsiflexion mobility. And yet the individual with the limited ankle persists in participating in activities, like squatting, lunging and running, that do require functional ankle mobility.”
Use the following steps by AllTerrainHuman.com to test your ankle mobility.
If you find you're lacking in this specific area on one side or the other, follow the steps in the video below to help increase and improve your mobility.
Start in half kneeling with test leg as the lead leg. Position a target (pole, wall) 3 inches away from the toes of your lead foot
- Keep the heel down and ensure that your foot isn’t inverted or everted (rolling in or out).
- Drive the knee over the middle of the foot and try to touch the target. If you lose the foot position, stop the movement.
- Touching the wall or getting the knee 3 inches (or more) past the toe is ideal ankle mobility. Test both sides.
Again, like the hip mobility assessment, once you complete the test on both sides you need to decide if your mobility is ideal. Is one side worse or less mobile than the other? If you're noticing the need to improve your ankle mobility, check out the following video and perform these exercises on a daily basis.