This is an all too popular question that doesn’t get answered as well as it should in the fitness industry. The reason the answer doesn’t suffice is because it’s the wrong question! I Googled the definition of flexibility and the first response was:
the quality of bending easily without breaking.
Is that really what we are looking for in our fitness, to improve the quality of our bending ability so we don’t break? Sure, it’s a good idea not to break, but I argue that good, even great, flexibility doesn’t carry much weight when it comes to movement quality. When we focus on a particular body part’s flexibility, we are losing sight of the forest by paying too much attention on the trees. The word that we want to start discussing is mobility.
OK Google, define mobility.
the ability to move or be moved freely and easily.
Now that seems more applicable in life than bending without breaking. When I define mobility to my clients (or anyone that listens), I like to say it’s how well our body parts play together. Now when I go to a wall, put my toes on the wall, keep my heel on the floor, and lean into it – I can say I feel a stretch and am improving flexibility in my calf muscles. And, in theory, this should improve my Achilles ability to bend without breaking, no? We took an individual muscle group and separated it from its friends to improve its ability in isolation. Well, in real-life situations, this muscle and tendon need to play well with their friends in order for you to move freely and easily in any given activity. Without this movement quality and efficiency, you are setting yourself up for more than a break – but a total isolated muscle group meltdown!
It seems to make sense that what feels tight needs to be stretched, but we need to remember that where the smoke is, is not always where there is fire! Many times the pain/tightness/discomfort experienced is a result of another part that has given up its role. Michael Boyle and Gray Cook have discussed this in the joint-by-joint approach:
Foot – Stable
Ankle – Mobile
Knee – Stable
Hip – Mobile
Lumbar Spine – Stable
Thoracic Spine – Mobile
Scapula – Stable
Gleno-humeral – Mobile
This simple, yet effective, breakdown shows the primary role of each joint from toe to shoulder. So, when you feel a tightness in the ankle along with the muscles and tendons surrounding this joint, it is most likely because you have either lost stability in the foot or knee – and the ankle is taking a beating for it! So, you need a movement drill/exercise that will address knee stability, ankle mobility, and foot stability (along with hip mobility and lumbar stability) all at the same time. Impossible you may say?
Watch this video and then watch it again! Compare that to the silly little back-of-your-lower-leg stretch you perform each time before you have “leg day.” Not only is that stretch included in this movement, but it’s also done together with its friends to perform for you a beautiful movement symphony. Don’t believe me? Try it and don’t let your foot leave the ground as you move around it! It’s amazing what natural movement provides and how mother nature helps us correct our many physical problems.
One more example of flexibility and mobility; bending to not break vs body parts playing well together. Stretching the shoulders always seems like a good idea before benching, or any other upper body exercise … but what exactly are we doing? Again, we take a body part that has so many connections (neck, chest, rib cage, shoulder blade, and many more) and make it do something all by itself; improving its non-breaking qualities in isolation. What if, instead of stretching to only improve flexibility, there was an exercise (or two) that would improve flexibility while promoting natural mobility?
This tripod exercise, for me, is heavily influenced by MovNat and its founder, Erwan Le Corre. In the video, its done on a 2×4, which is a more advanced version, but if you watch the shoulder complex and how it interacts with not only the upper body, but the lower body, as well, you will see mother nature offering another lesson on movement. And guess what all you core workout people? Mother nature won’t let you do any movement without challenging your abdominal stability (more on stability in another blog)!
Plus, because I am a rolling-kind-of-guy, you will see ample opportunities to mobilize your shoulders and other body parts in this video …
The ultimate goal of fitness and exercise is to create a body that is not only effective, but efficient, in any and all activites; I don’t care if it is climbing up a flight of stairs, picking up a small child, getting in and out of your car, lifting an object off of the ground, or bench pressing. Your body deserves the highest quality movement possible no matter when, or where you are (its not all about scheduled workout times in the gym) and mobility is the beginning of such quality. If you are questioning where your mobility lines up, please read: FMS 101, Part 1 and FMS 101, Part 2. Remember, you aren’t necessarily going to gain mobility by being flexible, but you will find flexibility by being mobile! Now get moving!
And now, just because she is so cute – are you more mobile (and stable) than a seven-year old?