If you wanted to strength train, you wouldn’t use jogging as your primary form of achieving that. Because you know that’s not how ‘building muscular size or strength’ works.
And yet, you might still be doing things to ‘improve your mobility’ that aren’t actually creating the changes you’re seeking. There is so much misunderstanding around ‘getting more mobile’, ‘increasing usable mobility’, and ‘getting rid of aches and pains’…
And so in this article, I wanted to share knowledge with you so that you can dial in what you’re doing to get yourself better results with your mobility goals.
One thing before we dive in…if you like doing one of the things I list below, and you want to keep doing them, that’s a-ok. It’s your life to choose what you do with it, I’m simply presenting a few pieces of science so that you can be more informed about how these methods do and do not work.
Four Mobility Myths
Myth 1. Your tissue will become more mobile by using a foam roller or lacrosse ball on it.
A driving factor for your mobility, or, ‘the range of motion in your joints that you have access to’, is your nervous system. It is always adjusting based on the input it’s receiving from your internal and external environments.
In order to expand your mobility, you must show your nervous system that it is safe to enter that range of motion. This is done by applying intentional directional force inputs into the tissues to assist them in alterations.
It would be nice if you could simply lay on a foam roller and have your nervous system understand that you now have the ability to safely enter new ranges of motion in your joints, but it doesn’t work that way. Remember, there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ when it comes to biology. (hat tip Tim Ferriss)
Michael Ranfone said it beautifully, “If your mobility work doesn’t cost you something, it doesn’t give you something either.”
You can see this clearly when you watch someone rehab from a major injury or accident. At some point in the rehab, the therapist starts requiring the patient to actively participate in learning to flex, extend, and rotate, their joint again instead of the therapist doing all of the work to move their limb for them.
The patient is required to start contracting specific muscles again in order to regain control of the joint or area that was injured. If you watch the patient, you see them working very intensely on making their joint move, on flexing their tissues with as much force as they can muster, even if it only creates a few degrees of joint movement that day.
You don’t have to have been in a major accident to have the same science apply to you. Regaining lost tissue function, range, control, or strength requires your active participation.
The inputs applied to your body to make a change to your range of motion have to change the structure of the tissues themselves and change the neural control of that joint and those tissues.
When a well-trained manual therapist applies pressure into your tissues, they are applying intentional force into a specific layer of tissue, while taking up skin slack in order to get through to the layer they are trying to effect. And if they are really an excellent therapist, they’ll following that treatment up with some kind of drill to incorporate your nervous system to learn more about how to use the tissues they just treated. A foam roller just won’t do that.
All of this is not to say that foam rollers are useless. They (and all other self-massage implements) do have a palliative effect, in that they feel good even if they do not address the root cause of what’s going on when used as a stand alone treatment.
This ‘feel good’ palliative effect might support a decrease in sympathetic drive if used in a way that the body feels safe and then the parasympathetic system can do its thing. Meaning: if it hurts a lot to foam roll, you’re not getting the decrease in sympathetic drive, in fact, you’re likely getting an increase in it.
One interesting thing that foam rollers might do is open up a sort of “neurological window”. Your nervous system is always paying attention, and laying on a self-massage implement might be drawing more of your nervous system’s attention to that area of your body, which might make the area more receptive to movements or drills you do immediately following the foam rolling.
However, those movements or drills would have to be specific and intentional muscular contractions that teach the nervous system something specific about the joint you’re attending to and your control of it, not something random or overly-complex for where your nervous system control is at this time.
Myth 2. Stretching harder will make it stretchier.
Think about why you stretch…the common belief is that you use stretching to “loosen up” the tissue that is tight, aberrant, or “knotted up”. But there is a significant problem with seeing your tissues as things that are ‘tight’ that need ‘loosening’, ‘releasing’, or ‘unknotting’.
Your body is always keeping track of how “tight” or “loose” your tissues are. (We’ll save for another day the discussion on why the terms ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ are inadequate.) And each tissue is at its current length-tension relationship for a reason. And that reason is not “because it hates you and wants you to suffer.”
One possible reason for a ‘tight’ feeling muscle…if your nervous system knows you don’t have stability at a joint where there should be stability, it will create stability using other tissues in your body, even if that means making one bit of soft tissue extra ‘tight’ feeling to do so.
Another possible reason for ‘tight’ feeling muscles…when you don’t move your joints – and their associated tissues – through their full range of motion regularly, you stop having full access to the function of those joints and tissues.
And, you can’t ignore the fact that high sympathetic drive can also influence how ‘tight’ you feel in your muscles.
And so you stretch, to try to ‘release’ that tight feeling. And if figure that if you’re feeling something, you’re probably doing something. So you stretch more. And on that cycle goes.
But doing something for the sake of feeling like you did something is akin to making your bed instead of writing your term paper/doing your taxes/handling your hard life stuff. You feel like you did something, but your feeling of doing something isn’t related to doing the thing you need to do.
‘Feeling it’ does not equate to ‘doing something effective’.
In addition, humans have done a bang-up job of turning fitness into a thing that must be experienced with great intensity, obliterating all of the shades of grey that reside between the ends of the spectrum between “not exerting any force” and “exerting all of the force”.
To assume that anything less than “intense” is useless, is to miss the point entirely.
Passive stretching does serve a few purposes though…
It fits into neural control training protocols, which is something I rely on routinely to help a client expand, control, and strengthen their range of motion and movement capability.
Passive stretching also serves the purpose of getting you to move more and connect to your breath throughout your day. Think of the last time you got out of the car after a long trip, you probably folded over to touch your toes (or your knees) and you took a few deep breaths. Or think back to that last meeting you were in…you might have stood up afterwards and stretched your arms behind your back as you took a few deep breaths.
The reality that any kind of movement during your day could assist you in reconnecting to your breath and could serve as a reminder to move your body more means it doesn’t deserve to be fully vilified.
It simply needs to fit in its correct place in the spectrum of ‘stuff that supports you feeling good and moving well.’
We’ve now covered two of the four most common mobility myths. Click HERE to read Part Two, where I’ll cover the next two myths – yoga and “the genetic lottery”.
Want to understand, once and for all, how to start feeling good and moving well?
My e-book, The Movement Manifesto, will help you get started on the right foot.