Part II: Mobility, Stability, Flexibility: Rethinking What You Were Told About Touching Your Toes

Updated: May 15, 2018

We cannot talk about MOBILITY without discussing its sister STABLITY.

Want to start at the beginning? Part I - FIND OUT: The ONE Theme Missing From Most Programs.

Over the past 18 months, I have had the opportunity* to dive into these principles in my own life.

*"Opportunity" is the way I have chosen to look at it now instead of Phase 1. Why can’t I roll over in bed with my pelvis moving as a unit? Phase 2. Hunchback of NotreDoubleBreastfeeding

1. Too much mobility: I have much to say about my experience building a baby (babies) in the future. I will briefly touch base now but apologize for the oversimplification.

When I became pregnant, my body decided a. let’s have twins and b. let’s give them each their own placenta. Relaxin (a hormone secreted by placenta that heightens joint laxity) surged through my body rendering me unable to move/walk/roll without holding my hips together with my hands or a belt.

2. Too much stability: The first 6 months with our two little gems required me to sit all the time. I was very busy BUT from a seated position. Calves were tight. My back was angry. My pelvis was still a mess (relaxin still kicking around due to breastfeeding). On top of all that, I “knew” better positions for me to be in but, honestly, at 3am, I didn’t care. At all.

Goldilocks Principle (I just made that up so don’t quote it as a real thing in reference to joints):

Our bodies require a playful balance between mobility and stability for performance, day-to-day function and pain-free living. Too much mobility = playdoh. Too much stability = rock.

As previously established, the body is smart and it is designed for this playful balance. If we look at our major joints, our bodies are (almost) a perfect pattern of mobile/stable/mobile/stable joints. For example: ankles (mobile/multi-directional), knee (stable/hinge), hip (mobile/ball-and-socket).

Why is mobility (and its relationship with stability) important?

It makes you jump higher!

Run faster! Dance better! (Stiffness limits groove. It's a fact.)

All that is great but I think the everyday benefit of mobility and stability training that resonates with people the most is its ability to create and maintain alignment which enables our communication pathways (cardiovascular and nervous systems) to optimally function.

Just kidding. Most people do not give a hoot about that.

People DO care about mobility’s ability to help the body feel good. Everyday, all-encompassing, unstuck, in-control.

How does mobility and stability increase/decrease pain?

1. Too much mobility often means muscles, tendons and ligaments try to "help out" by tightening or loosening and performing compensatory functions (i.e. doing jobs that aren't supposed to be theirs, further boxing out the muscles that are supposed to be working).

Example: When my pelvis (and all other joints) proved its responsiveness to relaxin, my hip adductors had to overcompensate causing incredible tightness, further pulling my pelvis out of position, turning off my hip abductors and causing pain in my back.

B. Too much stability often means tissues are tight and this tightness pulls on joints.

Example: Eight years ago, I was asked by a client to work with her father. He was in the mid-60s and approved for knee surgery. His main disappointment was that his knee pain restricted him from playing hockey. Did we have knee damage? Sure – practically everyone over 60 has some degree of osteoarthritis. However, I was shocked by how quickly he was able to decrease his knee pain by working through his leg fascia and general hip mobility. Surgery cancelled. Hockey on. My initial intentions were to prep him for surgery by building strength and releasing tissue tightness but his diligence paid off more than I could have anticipated.

(Side note to the side note: Three years ago, I worked at a sports medicine clinic with a team of industry-leading orthopedic surgeons and an incredible lead researcher. Even though surgery is their “thing”, they would be the first to tell you surgery is the last resort and quite the opposite of an "easy fix" for pain relief.)

Mobility, Stability and You

Every body is structurally unique. Bone position or shape within a joint, various levels of ligament laxity, hormones. But before you exclaim, “See! I have bad knees! Nothing I can do about it”, I have good news:

Our daily movement habits, standing position, and how we train have the most significant impact on physical function and pain. Not genetics. Training and movement for the win!!!

Mobility vs Flexibility

You may have noticed I reference ROM (range of motion) without dropping the word “flexibility”. Good eye, Soldier.

Flexibility: the ability to reach an absolute range of motion statically

Example: Can you touch your toes?

I reference the sit-and-reach test because it is the most common assessment of baseline flexibility even though the test itself is fairly useless for predicting life expectancy (no - people who can touch their toes do not live longer), function (although a certain range of motion through the back of your body is required for daily life, it's not like this) or full body mobility. My other beef is that it is incorrectly interpreted because of how it is performed i.e. it is a more accurate measurement of lumbar spine flexion and mobility, and torso:leg length versus the commonly referenced hamstrings flexibility.

Mobility: the ability to perform movement through a certain range of motion

Top Recommendations:

1. Be aware of how your body is positioned throughout the day. Think about the millions of little messages you are communicating to your body.

2. Avoid staying in the same position for an extended amount of time. I know – that really couldn’t be more general but I truly mean it in its most simplest interpretation.

3. Visit a physiotherapist, strength and conditioning specialist or postural analyst to help identify any compensatory patterns.

4. Take the time to learn proper movement mechanics (and/or the best opposing movements) for all your exercises, activities, sports and positions (i.e. your commute, making dinner, making the dolla' bills).

5. Get friendly with foam rollers, tennis balls, tiger tails and self-massage. We will spend more time digging into the details another time but for now I will leave you with this.

Although myofascial release and massage dates back to Egyptian times, the research world of self-myofascial release is young and quickly evolving.

Current self-myofascial release recommendations:

A. Shorter, more frequent treatment bouts throughout the day seem to yield best results.

B. Honour your body. Higher intensity (using the densest foam roller or a golf ball instead of a tennis ball) does not equal higher results. Discomfort is expected (although not required) yet sharp, shooting, or aggressive pain will likely aggravate the issue you are trying to fix.

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Hi! I'm Jess - 

I am unbelievably impressed by the resilience and strength of the human body and spirit.

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