Mobility: Are You Just Renting?

Mobility work is a hot item in both the fitness and rehab industries, and for good reason. In my personal experience rehabbing military personnel, I believe mobility impairments contribute greatly to much of the overuse injuries I encounter in my clinic. By mobility, I mean an individual’s ability to move the body through a range of motion adequately and safely. We all have some level of mobility; unfortunately, some of us (me included) are more limited than others.

I first heard mobility compared to real estate on the “Doc and Jock Podcast”, so I cannot take credit for it. Where they got it from, I do not know. But I do know I love the analogy (or simile? metaphor?). Briefly, working on mobility (whether we are talking about muscular flexibility, joint range of motion, or both) is like real estate which can be rented, owned, and built upon. Let’s expand on it some more.

Renting It: This is by far the most common form of mobility work I see in the rehab and fitness realms. This is simply working on the flexibility or range of motion restriction through whatever means possible: stretching, manual therapy, soft tissue release, smashing, rolling, flossing, etc. Usually hammering away at an impaired area will result in noticeable improvements, though only temporary. Unfortunately, our old habits and the other 23 hours in the day tend to bring us back to our baseline restrictions. For example, let’s look at hamstring flexibility. I can easily take a patient with “tight” hamstrings through a foam rolling and stretch sequence and make drastic changes in just a few minutes; however, it’s for nothing when they return to their desk and sit in a shortened-hamstring position for eight hours. Ever see someone religiously work on ankle mobility with nothing to show for it six months later? These examples are those “renting” mobility: they have it temporarily but they can’t keep it.

Owning It: We as practitioners, coaches, and athletes have made a lot of headway in “owning” mobility. To own it, you must reinforce the temporary gains seen with “renting” by strengthening (stabilizing) the newly obtained range of motion IMMEDIATELY afterward. Two points to clarify with the last sentence:

First, “strengthening the newly obtained range of motion” does NOT mean strengthening whatever muscle group you just obliterated with soft tissue work. It’s oftentimes strengthening the opposing muscle groups. Using the hamstring example, strengthening the hamstring after performing mobility work may likely “tighten” them again. Reinforcing improved hamstring mobility consists of core stability and hip flexion with the knee in extension (think supine straight leg raises). Picking the right exercise and proper intensity are key. The exercise needs to move the joint/muscle of interest to its end range, and the intensity (body weight or external resistance) should be enough to fully engage the joint and surrounding musculature while allowing the body to express full range of motion.

Second, “immediately afterward” means exactly that. Stabilizing the movement an hour after performing mobility work is too late. Fortunately, reinforcing the range of motion only takes one to two sets of eight to twelve repetitions using moderate intensity. Below are some easy yet effective mobility-stability combinations I implement with my patients:

Limited Hamstring Flexibility

Mobility: Hamstring Foam Rolling followed by Supine Hamstring Strap Stretching

Stability: Dead Bug and/or Core Activated SLR

Restricted Pec Complex (Rounded Shoulders)

Mobility: Pec Myofascial Release followed by TRX Pec Stretch

Stability: TRX T’s and/or Face Pulls

Rounded Thoracic Spine (Mid/Upper Back)

Mobility: Thoracic Foam Rolling followed by Foam Roller Thoracic Extensions

Stability: Prone Rows and/or Prone Thoracic Extensions

Building On It: After “owning” the new mobility, we can then “build” on it. This is like buying the land then building a house on that piece of land. This is accomplished through use of higher level functional movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses once the desired range of motion is readily available. By doing so, we maximize the mobility work and truly encompass it into our workouts. It hammers home the hard work and makes the “juice worth the squeeze,” if you will. Below are some commonly seen mobility restrictions and potential “building” movements:

Restricted Ankle Dorsiflexion --> Front Squat

Restricted Overhead Movement --> Press

Limited Thoracic Extension --> Overhead Squat

“Tight” Hamstrings -> Deadlift

Using this mentality/methodology is not always necessary as patients and athletes will: 1) respond differently to mobility work, and 2) have different goals. Some individuals respond very well performing just mobility work and see improvements simply by using such techniques. Other individuals do not desire to perform different squat and press variations as it is not important to their rehab goal (shockingly, not everyone works with a barbell!). Just like everything else in rehab and fitness, mobility work should be individualized and tailored to the person.

Take Home Point: If you, an athlete, or a patient are struggling making long-term mobility improvements despite dedicated time and effort attacking the limitation, think about reinforcing it with stabilizing/strengthening exercises. To maximize the improvements, use the newly gained motion by incorporating functional exercises that challenge the movement.

Thanks for reading!


Bonus Material: Owning Your Spirituality

Individuals renting spirituality is just as frequently seen as those only renting their mobility. Oftentimes, people get spiritual highs when walking through the church doors on Sunday, but it is not reinforced or strengthened through other means, resulting in only a temporary sense of spiritual fullness. Similar to mobility, spirituality can be owned and built upon with some additional “work”. This can be achieved through engaging in church activities (volunteering, mission trips, etc.), volunteering elsewhere, tithing/offerings, our daily interactions with other people, or simply through our thoughts. If you are having difficulty maintaining a strong spiritual faith, then you are likely just “renting” it and need to “own” it and “build” on it through other means.

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