Isn’t he dreamy? Why does my back hurt?

In my last article, I touched on why mobility training is king and flexibility is really just an aspect of mobility.

I neglected to write about the importance of mobility as a measure of quality of life though.

Everyone notices that the older we get the slower we move, the more stiff we look/feel and the more challenging every day life activities become — hip fractures quickly become one of our biggest fears.

Mobility is perhaps the single biggest factor to keep our independence as we age.

Need to bend down to pick something up? You need mobility. Want to grab something off the top shelf in your kitchen? You need mobility.

Look no further than at someone like Jack Lalanne who at 96 years of age, moved like he was 20-30 years younger and maintained his independent lifestyle right up until his death.

Don’t you want that life for yourself at that age?

I know that’s my prime motivator for my mobility work, the idea of not being able to take care of myself later in life scares the crap out of me.

Well then, maybe it’s time you gave this mobility thing some serious thought.

What I want to do with the rest of this post is give you a rundown of the numerous methods I typically use to help others change their levels of mobility and maybe touch on some key mobility points of interest.

The Tools:

I) Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)

Often referred to as foam rolling, or soft-tissue release. This is a process of restoring tissue quality and I use a quick 5-10 minute session before most of my training sessions to loosen the tissues up, and stimulate the nervous system at the same time — massage increases neural efficiency for your subsequent workloads.

I also use this before static stretching at other times of day, more specifically before bed. I can also use it for recovery purposes, post-workout.

Massage (see below) has a ton of benefits, too numerous to really get into here.

I would do a quick and light one-over with a foam roller, then take a more intense tool like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and work over any areas you’ve noticed are particularly tender for more targeted work.

Mike Robertson has a great basics of foam rolling free ebook here.

II) Massage

Like above, Massage is a little more targeted generally though that can depend on the modality.

This differs from massage above in that you’ll be relying on someone else’s expertise to execute it.

Keep in mind that getting a professional massage can be far more beneficial in extreme cases, so if you have very painful trigger points, and can afford to do so you may want to opt for a professional massage technique.

This can include graston techniqueActive Release Technique (A.R.T.), Rolfing, manual tissue manipulation (via physiotherapist generally) or many other styles and practices of massage technique.

A.R.T. and Graston come highly recommended from me for dedicated and highly effective soft-tissue treatments.

You can get a friend or loved one to apply pressure to areas that feel painful/tight, but it won’t be the same as someone experienced with their hands.

Note: If you are headed to a massage therapist I would make sure they are an RMT, or Registered Massage Therapist (AKA Licensed Massage Therapist [LMT] in the U.S. which has lower requirements overall).

III) Passive Static Stretching

This is essentially the traditional static stretching method, using another limb or a secure object to hold a limb in a stretch for typically 10-30 seconds, though some may advocate for more, in my experience there is little evidence to suggest this is necessary.

I like to vary the tempo of stretches, like I vary the tempo of exercises I use with clients and it is especially useful to tie in stretching with the breath instead of watching a clock.

This is a technique I learned from Chris and Ann Frederick of the ‘Stretch To Win‘ clinic, who refer to varied tempos within a stretching protocol as ‘Wave Stretching.’

They use 4 different waves:

  • Very Slow = Three Slow Breaths (whereas one complete breath should last about 10 seconds)
  • Slow = Two Slow Breaths (whereas one complete breath should last about 10 seconds)
  • Fast = One Fast Breath — synonymous with dynamic stretching (one complete breath only lasts a couple of seconds)
  • Very Fast = Synonymous with ‘Ballistic Stretching’ – See Below

The first two are most appropriate with static forms of stretching, though the third one can be also be used.

Where most people execute this incorrectly, is by not actively contracting the opposing muscle group.

For instance if you are stretching your hamstrings, you should try to actively tighten your hip flexors to get the best stretch gains.

Via observation I have noticed that if you do nothing to inhibit the nervous system via massage or the PNF strategy below, then holding a static stretch for 2-3 minutes will appear to permit slightly more range of motion, but I believe this to be a matter of your nervous system relaxing.

I do not believe that approach is applicable if you do massage or use a PNF modality because it leads to more of a capsular like stretch which is to say you stretch more your ligaments than your muscles via this method, and your muscles account for 70% of your flexibility capability not the ligaments.

It’s also been my experience that shorter bouts of passive stretching done properly, more regularly, will yield better results than longer duration stretches done less frequently, so what time you have to improve your mobility will definitely need to be taken into account before you decide on any one method.

I think it is most effective to include various pieces of each, depending on your situation.

If you are hypermobile or highly flexible already, this is the type of mobility training to generally avoid.

IV) Active Static Stretching

This is similar to passive stretching in that it is held for 10-30 seconds statically.

The difference is that with active stretching you are using the strength of opposing muscle groups to get a stretch on the muscle group you want to stretch, which in turn can provide strength to the tissues that are responsible for maintaining the balance between strength and flexibility.

However, in good passive stretching scenarios, it is always ideal to contract the opposite muscle group too, as mentioned above.

Active stretching takes that principle to a new level.

For instance if you are trying to stretch your hamstring lying on your back with this method, you will have to contract the front of the hip (hip flexors) hard in order to feel much of a stretch.

As the strength of the opposing muscle group improves, the greater the stretch you will be able to get, but you’ll also achieve better balance in terms of mobility because the limitation will be on the mechanical advantage of the contracting muscle group.

Generally this means it is very hard to ‘over-stretch’ with this type of static stretching, and this would be the alternative for people who are hypermobile or have too much flexibility at certain joints.

This style of stretching can also be done at various tempos/durations, statically can be held up to 30 seconds but can also be used in more brief holds in tough/challenging positions like those commonly found in Active Isolated Stretching (AIS).

V) Mobilizations – Dynamic Stretching

One of my favourites, and perhaps one of the most useful — especially when used in combination with SMR or Massage — is typically done at various tempos too as I mention above.

I add my own ‘waves’ or undulating approach to these types of stretches, with faster movements progressing towards ‘ballistic stretching’ (mentioned below) to slower mobilizations (i.e. hold the ‘stretched’ position for one or two additional breathes) that emphasize stability development over flexibility.

Remember this is a key differentiation between flexibility and mobility.

Mobilizations are a more deliberate form of active static stretching that often feature a ‘release’ phase, whereby the joint is eased out of the stretch but muscles are still often under ‘contraction’ and a ‘stretch’ phase where the body is put in a more mobility challenging position that will induce a strong stretch and simultaneously a strong co-contraction of opposing muscle groups.

These tend to be ideal for people who have too much flexibility because they rely on the ‘strength’ of muscle surrounding the area(s) being mobilized, consequently improving stability while minimizing further increases in flexibility.

Essentially these work to enhance movement on a much more ‘global’ or ‘holistic’ level, or in my terminology ‘mobility.’

Mobilizations essentially put your body through challenging partial or complete movements.

I still like to use them by tying them into the breath, inhaling during the relaxation phase and exhaling during the exertion phase (though not exclusively), but as indicated above will add additional breaths depending on the needs of the individual.

The overhead squat is a good example of total mobility and is an excellent mobilization drill for warm-ups.

Basically a mobilization (or ‘mob’ for short) is when you put your body into active positions that need your musculature to actively support but also create a stretch on a particular area of the body.

Often once you are in a challenging position based on what you want mobilize you will then add additional movement to this, like the deep-squat to thoracic extension/rotation drill – this guy’s technique could use some refining but you should get the idea and I’ll work on some video in the meantime.

VI) Ballistic Stretching

A very quick type of stretching that puts the muscle into a deep quick stretch like swinging or jumping.

Most people tend not to think of this as ‘stretching’ but the myotatic stretch reflex and the nervous system play a large role in mobility development, so we need to consider it in our mobility training.

It is possible for instance for people to be very passively flexible and mobile, while being incapable of the same flexibility when the speed is changed, because the nervous system prevents you from reaching the optimal level of mobility under that context.

The tempo of your mobility training, therefore matters, significantly and lacking adequate ballistic mobility for your chosen physical activity can and will put you at risk for things like muscle strains and tears.

This is also right along the lines of explosive power training, which is a major component of neuromuscular system development and I also feel is very important for maintaining quality of life into our later years.

You need ballistic mobility to execute explosive power.

The problem is that many of us, as we age, do less, when we should in fact probably be doing more.

Don’t stop jumping, swinging, kicking, throwing and challenging this system as you age.

VII) Agility Training

Most would leave this one out, but I feel as though agility is really mobility on a bigger and faster scale.

Agility training applies ballistic stretching and flexibility to more practical situations like navigating stairs or a crowded street.

Just doing ballistic stretching, would be a little like just lifting weights and not having any activity in life to apply it to.

Moving efficiently and effectively is the goal, so agility should be trained as a movement skill and I’m inclined to lump it into mobility development (though also energy system development and neuromuscular development to a certain degree)

This especially applies to people who are not involved in any various types of athletics.

On it’s own at the gym it can include basic footwork drills, change of direction drills, locomotion drills like crawling or navigating obstacles, agility ladders, hurdles, cones, etc…

VIII) PNF Stretching

Is the utilization of a physical therapy modality that tricks the nervous system into getting a better stretch through a muscular contraction of the agonist muscle or the antagonist muscle (It’s complicated…).

PNF stretching is only part of the PNF training modality.

It is a highly effective training modality — not just a stretching tool, though the wiki would make you think otherwise — but as a stretching tool, I would typically use it on a client, so not necessarily something I recommend many clients do on their own time, though if you take the time to understand the basics of mobility above, this is more of an advanced concept to execute on your own.

Quite simply put though, an isometric (not moving) contraction of the opposite muscle group or the same muscle group you are trying to stretch for about 4-7 seconds — though this time varies depending on who you talk to, I personally favour a shorter duration and a sub-maximal contraction — which will then lead to a greater stretch when you relax that flexed muscle and sink back into an isometric stretch.

Ultimately we’re playing tricks on your nervous system, sending a neural signal to relax the desired muscle or most cases muscle group. The relaxation is brought on by a manipulation of your stretch reflex.

PNF offers a way to relax the nervous system to allow you to achieve a deeper fascial stretch on a muscle.

Massages techniques relax your nervous system in a similar way, which is why I refer to this as a more advanced technique, the pairing of massage with the other types of mobility training can be used quite successfully in my experience without additional PNF.

The training modality follows diagonal and spiral patterns to facilitate improved motor function like the chop and lift pattern, which can also contribute greatly to improved mobility and neuromuscular system development.

IX) Relaxation Strategies

These can include progressive relaxation, guided meditation, visualization practices, in some cases medication and many other pseudo-therapies.

Anything that helps you relax, can help you achieve a deeper more impactful stretch, and help improve fascial elasticity, which makes up roughly 70% of your mobility capabilities.

It has been my experience that relaxation practices can help you achieve a deeper stretch after their completion and may be a useful tool for enhancing your mobility.

X) Yoga and/or Pilates 

They both have their merits, typically people associate this type of training with improved core stability, stabilizing muscle control and improved flexibility.

They also tell you myths like, ‘it will make your muscles longer and leaner looking’ or ‘it will make your core strong.’

Trunk (Core) strength and Trunk (Core) muscular endurance are two separate issues, these both tend to address the later.

They also have a tendency to try to loosen up the lumbar spine, which I strongly believe should be more rigid and stable in the majority of people.

Remember that there is a such a thing as being too mobile or ‘hypermobile’ if you consider these practices as useful for your needs.

Mostly I think I dislike anything cult like in appearance, and the often preachy dogma of high level practitioners, whom I feel overlook what should be a holistic approach to health and fitness.

Anyways, I don’t want to list everything I like or dislike about these modalities though.

It’s sad really because these disciplines both have much to offer the fitness world, when applied appropriately, and I have met many practitioners in these fields whom I regard as being quite knowledgeable about more appropriate mobility methods (i.e. where you want the body to have range of motion and where you don’t — rather than the trend found in these practices to try and mobilize every joint in the body).

However, they are really just training tools and this is not a bad thing necessarily, just don’t let it cloud you from the nine or so other things listed above which are more specific in nature or let the practice of these disciplines let you neglect other important areas for development (like neuromuscular and energy system development).

Perhaps not as specific as some of the modalities above (though they can be), they are both typically a combination of active and passive stretching.

There is also plenty of research supporting yoga as a relaxation methodology (see IX) and Joseph Pilates (the founder of Pilates) was part of the physiotherapy movement in the early 20th century so some of those principles are still valid as prehab and rehab type modalities.

I encourage everyone to try everything a little bit, a holistic approach seems to work best, when mobility work is done at various tempos it yields optimal results. I do however, firmly believe that longer stretches (greater than 30 seconds) are not particularly necessary, though I know of at least one practitioner (the founder of microstretching) that would disagree with me. It a cost-to-benefit-ratio for me, stretching past 30 seconds yields minimal results over and above 30 seconds and really, who has the time to hold every stretch for 2-5 minutes??  

Further (Non-Scientific) Reading on Mobility Training: